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SS21 Trends: New York – Playing it safe, moving it on

Sandra Halliday
21 September 2020

The current fashion month may see the industry trying to get back to normal, but it’s clear from what’s appearing on the runways… sorry, in the lookbooks (runways are only virtual this time and the lookbook is the favoured approach), that "normal" is a long way off.

Take New York, for instance. The first of the big four fashion weeks, it came at a time when the US is still feeling the full effects of the pandemic and was clearly never going to be the giant event it usually is.

And that was reflected in what high-end labels were touting as their big ideas for SS21. There’s little that’s new — after all, this is hardly the time for designers to be coming up with radical trend shifts of the kind that influencers usually love and that eventually filter through to the rest of us on the high street.

But that’s not to say that developments we’re seeing for the season aren’t radical in their own way. They’re big news simply because they reflect such huge changes in the way we live and also because we still don’t know just what this will mean for the fashion industry longer term.

So, what will SS21 be all about as far as New York labels are concerned? In some ways it’s a continuation of the "season that never was", SS20. In others it’s a clear and unmistakable affirmation that designers think our dressing habits have shifted permanently.

There are plenty of looks just right for WFH, but even those that are more about getting out into the world are different. If we thought the 21st century so far had been all about casualisation, we didn’t realise how extreme that trend was going to become.

The new looks that really count are relaxed, casual, and comfortable. Yes, some labels tried to do bodycon or formal, maybe they’ve got a narrow cohort of customer who’ll still buy that stuff.

For the most part, designers recognised that really women want easy clothes, sometimes in the kinds of prints and colours that are designed to lift the mood in the uncertain world in which we’re living, but often in tones and patterns that are far from challenging.

Designers seem to be assuming that every bride is now expecting her wedding guests to dress down (as she herself may well do); that every face-to-face business meeting will require only a slight smartening up from the Zoom looks that dominated SS20; that partywear will be easy not restrictive; and that uncomplicated holiday clothing can be packed at a moment’s notice just in case you have to rush back from wherever you are to avoid quarantine.

Key looks, key items

Prairie dolls

SS21 Trends

Apiece Apart, Rodarte, Rosetta Getty, Apiece Apart, Rodarte

A country look that the late Laura Ashley wouldn’t have found unfamiliar dominates dresses and skirts. Think soft retro florals, broderie anglaise, the occasional hillbilly gingham and patchwork. Anna Sui (see main image) captured the look to perfection perfectly in a collection that’s betting heavily on women wanting SS21 to be dreamy, retro and feminine but not too buttoned-up. Looking beyond this one label, there was plenty of prairie-meets-country style elsewhere too. Both skirts and dresses come tiered, whether long or short. Smock dresses ignore the waist, while for those who like a bit more definition of the feminine form, you can also reference Laura Ashley and those faux-country looks that appealed so much in the early 70s. Here, the waist is defined but the skirt is full (never tight), with gathers, ruffles and tiny florals the key details.

The comfort pantsuit

Veronica Beard, Cinq a Sept. Rosetta Getty, Veronica Beard, Tom Ford, Tom Ford, Rosetta Getty

Forget the skirt suit, the pantsuit is about as formal as it gets. But the look is louche and easy. Cuts are slim but not skinny and any looseness never strays into ultra-volume — extreme width or extreme skinny is so last decade. In some cases, a pantsuit isn’t even a pantsuit but is more about a smart-ish jacket and more relaxed complementary-but-not-matching pants (maybe a hangover from the WFH Zoom effect where only the top half really matters). It could be a shorts suit too to give an even more casual edge to summer suits.

Relaxed retro glamour


Tom Ford, Naeem Khan, Tom Ford, Reem Acra, Naeem Khan

Another early 70s reference comes in the form of caftan dresses for after dark, maybe for relaxing on your yacht, definitely for the holiday season and perhaps festivals (if they’re allowed to happen next year). This is a luxe look that may have some of the hallmarks of the hippie era but is more Liz-Taylor-does-boho than true dressing down. It includes influences of Yuki Torimaru’s 1970s style and makes the most of luxe materials like fluid silks with starkly plain to place the emphasis securely on the silhouette in florals or animal print to pump up the retro edge.

The WFH effect

Pic 1 Veronica Beard, Rosetta Getty, Rodarte, Apiece Apart, Apiece Apart, Rodarte

Tom Ford, Naeem Khan, Rodarte, Apiece Apart, Alice & Olivia, Rosetta Getty, Alice & Olivia

SS20 turned into loungewear’s golden season, with elements of athleisure added in for good measure. And designers seems to be expecting their customers to want more of the same for SS21 too. Track pants, sweats, pyjamas are all top of next spring’s wishlist. Even woven pants come with cuffed or gathered ankles to up the casual quota. And the jumpsuit is there too, in stretch or comfort fabrics like soft denims, fluid silks and cool cottons. But importantly, while this is a WFH look, it can also be transformed into a ‘party like its… well, anytime but 2020’ look. Reimagine those track pants in fluid satins, add appliqué or embroidery to the sweats or encrust the jumpsuits with sequins and you’re there.


Apiece Apart, Apiece Apart, Alice & Olivia, Cinq a Sept

The simple shirtdress is a carryover from 2020 that allows women to ease back into dresses without going too formal. Cut wide or body-skimming, it has simplicity at its core and can look as businesslike or as dressed down as the wearer wants. A classic that can work as well for Zoom as for socially distanced meals out, collecting the kids from school, making a tentative step back into the office or just relaxing.

Colour Stories

Soft and easy

Cinq a Sept, Rosetta Getty, Rodarte, Reem Acra, Tadashi Shoji, Christian Siriano, Alice & Olivia, Cinq a Sept, Tom Ford

Soft blues, mint greens, pale lilacs, and neutral pales or tans continue SS20’s top colour themes into SS21. White runs all the way through too. This is colour dressing at its easiest  and least challenging.

Punchy and powerful

Tom Ford, Naeem Khan, Tom Ford, Tom Ford, Reem Acra, Alice & Olivia, Tom Ford, Veronica Beard, Christian Siriano, Christian Siriano

Looking for something to brighten up a dull spring day? Royal blues, sunshine yellows, zingy oranges and power pinks add statement colour to otherwise-simple and comfortable pieces. These colours also add a formal edge to simple pieces.

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