While our fashion choices will, of course, not be the prevailing memory of the pandemic, as a fashion editor, I have found it fascinating to watch the market shifts and changes in shopping behaviours that have occurred over this period. The centres of gravity that usually dictate our wardrobes—the office, weddings, Friday-night drinks, dinners out—have been pulled out from underneath us, raising the question why do we wear what we wear? As I browsed my wardrobe with this question in mind, I realised that dresses were the one item that best encapsulated the joy of dressing that I have been missing during lockdown. I spotted my year 11 prom dress, a floaty wrap number that brought back memories of sun-drenched beaches and the first item of clothing I ever made myself: an LBD.
As we teeter on the edge of a new normal, I wanted to look forward to the year ahead and pinpoint the dress brands and trends that offer both beauty and utility, even in the midst of a world that has been turned upside down. While lockdown was undoubtedly a struggle for many small fashion brands, the sudden growth of online shopping has also allowed for a new wave of innovative dress brands, such as O Pioneers, to enter the market. These grassroots companies have connected with consumers directly on social media platforms, and the result is a distinctive dress design that keeps the customer front and centre. Plus, the fact that many of these brands produce on a smaller scale means they aren't afraid to experiment or take risks, something that is often harder for big brands to do.
"Over the last year, our customers' habits have changed dramatically, shifting towards a more conscious approach to buying which prioritises investing in seasonless luxury pieces that can be worn again and again," explains Libby Page, senior market editor at Net-a-Porter. "More than ever before, our customers are moving away from such trend-driven items and are showing increased interest in supporting small brands and initiatives which are charitable."
Perhaps without the guarantee of making new memories via the usual events, 2021 will be the year that we start taking the opportunity to don our favourite dresses, wherever and whenever the mood takes us. "Not that long ago, a dress was daily wear, but over the years, clothing styles and lifestyles have changed, and the dress became more of an 'occasion' item of clothing to be 'saved for best,'" says Tania Hindmarch, co-founder of cult dress brand O Pioneers. "But there is something so practical and appealing about a dress in our busy, modern lives—one item of clothing that you pop on and you’re good to go."
For dress lovers, this abrupt distancing from the pieces we love has given us an opportunity to pinpoint exactly what makes for a winning purchase. "Dress styles have certainly evolved to reflect the times," says Serena Hood, ex–Vogue editor and co-founder of online shopping platform Collagerie. "In lockdown last year, we saw a surge in knitwear options and a nod to sportswear, all to meet the more casual nature of our day-to-day, but with designers taking an optimistic approach to the spring/summer collections, I believe we will see a return to 'high glamour.'"
So it's time to look into our fashion crystal ball and predict the dress brands and trends that will dominate 2021. We might not know what the future has in store for us, but we will always have the mood-boosting powers of a perfect dress, even if it is just to wear on the sofa while rewatching Bridgerton.
Call it nostalgia, call it the Little Women effect, all I know is that the prairie dress has become the unexpected success story of the last 12 months, and its popularity is only set to accelerate in 2021. O Pioneers is a brand that has dedicated itself to the archival appeal of the prairie silhouette, and despite only setting up shop in autumn 2019, it has already garnered plenty of attention within the industry thanks to its playful and escapist designs.
"We both love vintage, particularly feminine frocks that hark back to another era when people would dress up on a daily basis. We love things that are old and individual and that were made to last", explains Clara Francis and Tania Hindmarch, the brand's co-founders. "Both of us had been designing and making our own clothes for many years as we were unable to find the types of dresses we liked and we would often get requests from friends to make things for them. Our whole philosophy is dressing for fun—injecting a sense of playfulness and to an extent, theatricality, into what we wear."
It was O Pioneers' sense of practical theatricality and its entrepreneurial spirit that inspired me to choose them as my spotlight brand. Their latest collection is dotted with ruffled-collar-and-puffed-sleeved midi dresses that come in fresh, spring-inspired ditzy florals. I predict that the playfulness at the heart of these designs is something we all need this year. Watch this space.
O Pioneers Clara Dress Willow Blue and Rust Floral (£395)
O Pioneers Claudette Long Black & White Floral (£370)
O Pioneers Prudence Dress Navy Star (£410)
When it comes to dress trends, a restrained palette has prevailed in recent seasons, and while we expect to see more dramatic designs come into play for 2021, the calming aesthetic of earthen-toned fabrics is going nowhere. The key difference is that this is no longer just beige-on-beige, rather it's a more eclectic array of rust oranges, soft creams, chocolatey browns and warm terracottas. We might not be able to travel this summer, but this is a colour trend that is sure to transport you to the sun-baked squares of southern Italy.
From Stella McCartney and Rejina Pyo to Chloe and Acne, there were countless designers that utilised earth tones in their spring/summer 2021 designs. Many of these pieces were a clear evolution from the shapeless minimalist silhouettes of 2020, but instead of smock-like A-lines, it was all about clever gathered fabric and cut-outs which created soft yet dramatic silhouettes that skim and hug the body. This is a gentler, more accessible brand of minimalism, and I have to say, it was long overdue.
Rejina Pyo Kit Button-Embellished Woven Midi Dress (£625)
COS Wrap Shirt Dress (£69)
H&M Long-Sleeved Dress (£30)
Daring cutouts, sultry mesh panels and curve-hugging fits, Nensi Dojaka is probably not a brand you would expect to thrive in a pandemic-ridden world, yet thanks to her many celebrity fans (Bella Hadid and Emma Corrin, to name a couple) and the sensual escapism that marks her designs, she has well and truly caught the industry's attention.
Graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2019, the London-based Albanian designer shot to fame after being chosen for Fashion East, an initiative that has launched many-a household name. The fact that she studied lingerie design at CSM is evident in her dress designs, which could not be further from the Laura Ashley-inspired pie crust collar crowd that dominate one end of the dress market. The ideas of 'sexy' dressing has not exactly been in vogue in recent years, however Nensi marks a new guard of designers who are reclaiming the term through a female gaze.
Her spring/summer 2021 collection does not deviate from her design DNA: Think LBDs held up by spaghetti-thin straps and thinly layered sheer fabrics that create delicate yet dramatic depth. Coming to a red carpet near you.
Nensi Dojaka Asymmetric Stretch-Woven and Silk Mini Dress (£880)
Nensi Dojaka Cut-Out Woven and Silk-Blend Mini Dress (£1100)
Nensi Dojaka Asymmetric Woven Maxi Dress (£1150)
"Tove was born out of a desire to create a timeless wardrobe of sustainable pieces that are beautifully made", says Tove's co-founder Camille Perry. "We noticed that a shift was emerging within the luxury market where retail prices were becoming higher, whilst often the quality and design were not proportionate to this rise."
It's fairly likely that you'll have seen Tove's Ceres dress on the feeds of Instagram's best-dressed, but it might surprise you to know that the brand was only conceived in 2019 by Perry and Holly Wright, former colleagues with 15 years of experience working in buying and design. With its flattering bow-tie fastening and sunny colour range, this dress somehow manages to feel fresh without conforming to the many prevailing trends present in other collections this season.
"This is our key dress for the summer season", Perry says. "Within our own collection, it is available in ivory and black, and is perfect for warm summer days in the city". We expect to see this dress out and about the moment April 12th arrives—just add cage sandals and oversized sunnies and you're ready to go.
Tove Ceres Gathered Organic Cotton-Poplin Midi Dress (£425)
Tove Ceres Gathered Organic Cotton-Poplin Midi Dress (£425)
Do you remember when you made those snow flakes out of cutout, folded-up paper at school? Well, this is very much the mood of the creative cutout dress trend this year. Forget plunging necklines and low backs, this is all about unexpected flashes of flesh: Think round cutouts encircling the waistlines of Victoria Beckham's maxi dresses, arrow-like triangles intersecting the hips of Aje's mini-clad models and the unusual collar-meets-exposed-décolletage designs of Gabriela Hearst.
The trend comes in the same vein of Nensi Dojaka's female-directed, subtle sensuality, and we expect it to be a popular style amongst 2021 wedding-goers. For a clean-lined '90s iteration, you should check out Jacquemus' cream-coloured cutouts, but we have to say that VB has won us over with her flashes of pale yellow and deep navy.
Aje Mimosa Open-Back Linen-Blend Dress (£485)
Christopher Esber Cutout Gathered Stretch-Faille Maxi Dress (£585)
Victoria Beckham Keyhole-Cutout Crepe Midi Dress (£1490)
For this year's dress report we wanted to add a new category that celebrated the enduring appeal of a designer whose pieces have survived the decades. Pleats Please is a collection first created by Issey Miyake in 1993 and was marked by its innovative use of fabric. Made out single pieces of polyester, the clothes were created three sizes larger than the finished garment, but they were then heat-pressed to create permanent pleats that moulded to the body. The effect was dramatic architectural silhouettes that not only looked spectacular, but were also practical due to the fact that they didn't need to be ironed and were machine washable.
Fast forward almost 30 years and the collection is still going strong, and its careful balance of simplicity, drama and practicality could not feel more current. The spring/summer 2021 collection is packed full of paintbox brights and graphic prints that compliment the sculptural fits of the finely pleated dresses. If this isn't proof that truly original and exemplary design has ageless appeal, then I don't know what is.
Pleats Please Issey Miyake Collage Panelled Pleated Woven Midi Dress (£645)
Pleats Please Issey Miyake Leaf Striped Sleeveless Woven Midi Dress (£430)
Pleats Please Issey Miyake Pleated Woven Midi Dress (£440)
Launched in 2015, Rixo is the vintage-inspired dress brand that went from lesser-known label to global success within a matter of seasons, and this year it has become one of the latest brands to take on the world of bridal. Even within the last 5 years, the wedding dress market has changed beyond recognition. When I got married 6 years ago there were very few affordable styles for the fashion-loving bride, but now there are countless options to be found. Rixo's bridal line feels like a marker for this new era of bridal design, where one size certainly doesn't fit all and style and affordability needn't be mutually exclusive.
"When we started to think about our own bridal collection we were so inspired by the fact that no bride or wedding is ever the same, now more than ever. We designed RIXO Bridal with individualism at its core, traditional gowns that are beautiful in their simplicity juxtaposed with more contemporary tailoring that can be easily updated from day to night – and even worn again in the future", explains co-founder Orlagh McCloskey.
"We have been blown away by the response, so many people have been waiting such a long time to get married, we can literally feel the excitement in the air! After a year and a half in the making, launching the collection was a huge moment for us and positive feedback is something we will never take for granted."
Rixo Jazi Satin Back Silk Crepe (£895)
Rixo Lara Ivory Sequin (£395)
Rixo Ciara Broderie Anglaise (£525)
It's rare to find truly stand-out, original dress design on the high street—the sort that is usually reserved for high-end brands—yet, London-based brand Ghospell had continually blown me away over the last year with its smart approach to prints and silhouettes. Spotted on some of Instagram's most prominent influencers, even if you don't recognise the brand's name you will undoubtedly be familiar with their trending dresses.
Personal favourites include the Intermission open-back dress, with its wave-like psychedelic print and dramatic puffed sleeves. I have also admired the clever smocked detailing of the brand's Second Act midi, which will convert even the most floral print-averse among us.
Ghospell Second Act Smocked Midi Dress (£85)
Ghospell Opening Line Midi Dress (£85)
Ghospell Intermission Open Back Midi Dress (£92)
If I had to pick one trending dress fabric for S/S 21, it would have to be denim. No longer contained to the traditional jeans format, this hard-wearing fabric has manifested in everything from shirts and shorts to jackets and, of course, dresses. Packing a certain retro-inspired, '70s vibe, it was a trend that quietly wove itself through the runway collections of designers such as Celine and Alexander McQueen.
"My love for denim dresses started back in 2009 thanks to Stella McCartney's S/S 10 collection. The British designer had created a button-down summer dress in a light-wash jean fabric and a skirt in the same finish and waist-nipping fit," explains Who What Wear's editor in chief, Hannah Almassi. "Designers can't resist the allure of this humble blue fabric—it instantly brings modernity and ease to more elevated creations. And when it comes to producing comfortable, easy-to-throw-on dresses for spring and summer, a denim option is second to none."
Whether you opt for a dramatic, calf-grazing style à la McQueen or stick to the more classic shirtdress iterations, this is certain to be a dress trend that will stand the test of time. Me? I'll be throwing on & Other Stories' statement-collar mini with cowboy boots and a knotted neckerchief for full-on Western-inspired styling.
Gucci Belted Appliquéd Denim Dress (£870)
& Other Stories Statement Collar Denim Mini Dress (£75)
Co Belted Cotton-Blend Denim Dress (£540)
Despite the doom and gloom of news headlines, I believe that the high street has become increasingly smart with their design offering in recent seasons, and one way that they have done this is through clever collaborations. Case in point, this year John Lewis & Partners has joined forces with Nigerian-born Yvonne Modupe Telford whose brand was born out of a fashion blog back in 2017.
The collection launches on-site 19th April, and you can expect plenty of feel-good colourways, flattering-throw on silhouettes and clever references of Telford's Nigerian roots via bright-coloured prints inspired by traditional wax fabrics. On her website, Telford references her desire to create clothing that 'make women feel great about themselves. Clothes that would encourage women to take up their space and also be everyday wearable clothes that spoke for women even before they spoke for themselves.' Sign us up.
Kemi Telford Limited Edition Eyitayo Pink Free Dress (£200)
Kemi Telford Limited Edition Navy Blue Check Free Dress (£200)
Kemi Telford Sand Floral Kate Dress (£170)
This article originally appeared on Who What Wear
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