After last year’s failed Hot Vax Summer that slumped into Sad Girl Autumn, there’s a sense of optimism for spring 2022. It’s finally the time when we can all swap out our well-worn sweatpants for sexier clothes. The runways certainly were optimistic as they were filled with revealing outfits that looked more at home during the early ’00s, a time when words like quarantine and lockdown didn’t exist in the public lexicon.
But unlike the looks that dominated the start of the new millennium, the current iteration isn’t simply just copy and paste. While you see Y2K’s sexy influences, 2022’s version is trickier to sum up in neat terms. “The antithesis to wearing sweatpants and loungewear at home is ‘going all out,’ and [it’s about] embracing a more sassy, risqué aesthetic that’s focused on self-expression, with a rebellious streak,” explains Sara Maggioni, head of womenswear at WGSN, a trend forecasting agency. Rather than settling for pure nostalgia, what’s desirable now is more inclusive, less defined by traditional attitudes toward body shapes, gender, and sex. Things are also, frankly, a little weird.
Look no further than the recent crop of editorials. i-D made social media waves with its recent cover featuring model Paloma Elsesser in a cropped sweater, raised to reveal a blurred breast paired with a teensy low-rise miniskirt. The pieces were custom made for the shoot by Miu Miu, highlighting a more expansive view of what sexy Y2K styles could look like: inclusive of body shapes. The look also reflected a conversation that was already happening on TikTok, which has been at the forefront of obsessing over aughts outfits along with its shortcomings. While Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie looked “so hot” in their low-rise jeans and backless tops, these pieces were originally created and revered for a certain slim, traditionally feminine body type. You either fit that mold in 2003 or you spent your entire adolescence trying to. In 2022, Gen Z is not accepting those rigid standards.
“Sexy and flesh-baring, put-together styles are seen across genders and across all body types. The concepts of inclusivity and body positivity have been growing in importance for the past few years, with Gen Z leading that conversation. There are different aesthetic standards and the spectrum is a lot wider with new role models,” Maggioni explains.
Having an inclusive range of women is a part of Kim Shui’s brand DNA. “We’ve had different sizes and heights since the beginning. It wasn’t deliberate, it was honestly just, ‘this girl is beautiful, she has a cool look, and she makes the specific pieces [she’s wearing] look great,’” Shui says. Her spring 2022 runway felt like a fresh update on 2003’s greatest hits between the bedazzled bodysuits (a nod to iconic Baby Phat) worn with chaps to going-out tops paired with low-slung pants. In Shui’s world, everyone is a hot girl living out her MTV TRL fantasy. To ensure that her size chart goes up to a 28, there is one caveat: Because it’s a small brand, you’ll have to pre-order pieces a season in advance.
For Dimitra Petsa, designing for a range of beautiful, cool women has made her namesake brand, Di Petsa, one to watch. In a process that took six months to perfect, Petsa’s dresses, corsets, and skirts appear as if the wearer had thrown themselves headfirst into a body of water, emerging drenched. Her pieces masterfully highlight every last curve of the female frame, leaving little to the imagination, which has attracted a wide range of celebrity fans, from Gigi Hadid and Megan Fox to Lizzo.
Inspired by the ways society regulates women’s bodily fluids — think breastfeeding in public and societal standards on wearing deodorant — Petsa explained, “I felt all this oppression and censorship in this need for dryness — pretending we’re not wet, that we don’t come from water,” to W Magazine of her creative process. It’s not just body positive, but sex positive, forcing a viewer to acknowledge not just the female form, but also the ways in which liquids inform sensuality.
“We are seeing many across the Gen Z cohort embracing sassier styles as a sign of empowerment, owning their body and sexuality. For young women, it’s about flipping the male gaze on its head, and for young men, it’s about embracing their true selves, even if it goes against societal norms,” says Maggioni about the wave of sex positive design.
Perhaps this idea is best seen in Paris-based Ludovic de Saint Sernin’s work. Best known on social media for cheeky pieces like rhinestone-encrusted briefs and a knit miniskirt made to resemble a tiny towel, de Saint Sernin isn’t afraid to get X-rated on the runway. His last collection, which was sponsored by Pornhub, dares to ask what it means to touch and feel again. “I feel like we were in such a digital world for like a year-and-a-half that it was really critical for me to reconnect with physicality and sensuality, in a way that you could almost grab,” he told Vogue, in regard to his spring 2022 collection. The result was a mixed gender runway where male and female models alike wore similar shredded tanks with low-rise trousers. Provocative, without regard for the restrictive gender binary, the clothes speak to the desire to wear whatever appeals to you.
Exploring freedom in gender expression and creating sexy clothes is also important for New York City label Private Policy. Like de Saint Sernin, the brand opted to put male and female models in similar looking mesh pieces. “Genderless sexy is very liberating so maybe that is why people found it appealing,” says Siying Qi, the brand’s creative director. “The sexiness people see is from the confidence and natural attitude of the models.” To reinforce that message, the brand booked trans YouTube star Nikita Dragun to close the Spring/Summer 2022 show, clad in a thong and mesh dress made from upcycled plastic bottles, a styling choice she selected to showcase her body.
Designing for a confident, inclusive customer also factors in Sintra Martins’ work for her buzzy new label Saint Sintra. As one of the most talked about brands to debut at New York Fashion Week last September, Martins draws from unusual sources of inspiration for her version of sexy clothes. For her first collection, a clown acid trip served as the basis of her designs, while for spring 2022 she decided to veer into ’60s television, namely, Looney Tunes, The Pink Panther, and Star Trek. The trippy result was plenty of nipple-baring looks, tiny bra tops, sheer skirts, and feathery or embellished minidresses that drew comparisons to what a modern-day Josephine Baker would wear. While it had twinges of retro style and roaring ’20s flapper vibes, there was Y2K raver club energy, too, down to the thumping music and candy-colored set.
“Our customer is a boss and our audience is diverse. We would be remiss not to feature the designs in a way that is representative of our community. The end user of the product is ultimately the muse,” Martins says. If the customer is her muse, then she has a great group to choose from: her work has already attracted Gen Z fans like Olivia Rodrigo, Kim Petras, and Sydney Sweeney.
Candy colors and vibrant energy also infuse Chet Lo’s work. With an array of unusual inspirations ranging from durian and anime to (most recently for spring 2022) pool noodles and lifesavers, Lo’s signature spiky knitwear has become a cult hit. “I believe that sexiness is an ever-changing concept. In this day and age, it isn’t just about revealing certain parts of your body,” Lo explains. “It’s about the way you feel literally and that involves uniqueness, which is why I love these weird quirky ideas.” With fans like Willow and Doja Cat, it’s easy to see why Lo’s unique work appeals to those with a rebellious, distinctive sartorial streak. If you can make a top that references the world’s stinkiest fruit look hot, why wouldn’t you wear that? For a generation that’s based on self-expression and body positivity, weird-sexy is the ultimate realization of those attitudes.
It shouldn’t be surprising that sexy in 2022 can simultaneously be genderless, barely-there leather tops, wet-look see-through gowns, and dresses straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. The last three years have been chaotic, disruptive, and world-changing, so why can’t clothing be the same? If Y2K panic replaced ’90s minimalism, then today’s Y2K redux is replacing 2010s Girl Boss minimalism. Regardless of what you’re wearing to feel like your sexiest self, perhaps Martins puts it best, “At the end of the day, beyond design, beyond material, it’s confidence.” And perhaps that confidence in no matter what we wear is what we need to make a long delayed Hot Vax season into reality.