Why Buildings and Backdrops Are Fashion’s Next ‘It’ Trend

by Maura Brannigan

There’s something striking about fashion’s recent spate of campaigns, lookbooks and runway events, and it’s not simply that they were produced — assumedly with all proper precautions in place — in the throes of global health crisis. That something-striking isn’t even in reference to the clothes being shown, at least not explicitly. Because this season, what’s physically behind the clothes may count as much as the clothes themselves. The current pandemic has highlighted the long relationship between fashion and architecture (or sometimes, the lack there of).

Take Dior, which presented its Cruise 2021 collection, designed to be a tribute to Italian arts and crafts, at the sprawling Piazza del Duomo in Lecce, a historic city in the nation’s rustic Puglia region. Lanvin lensed its Spring 2021 range at Lyon’s Le Palais Idéal, a whimsical castle that a French postman spent 33 years building out of pebbles and stones. And then there was Jacquemus, which held its socially-distant Spring 2021 show with no true background at all, swapping towering architecture for a remote barley field.

Dior Couture Fall 2020. Photo: Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis Entertainment/Getty Images
Jacquemus Spring/Summer 2020. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Fashion has always been fixated on settings. How else can you explain Chanel’s no-expense-spared approach to transforming the Grand Palais into fantastical worlds each and every season? But with the world in a state of chaos, designers are turning to dreamier backdrops, including standout architecture, decor, and set design, to help tell their brand stories in new, immersive, and even calming ways.

To be sure, fashion designers have long sourced inspiration from their settings, and many of the field’s greats (like Pierre Cardin, Tom Ford and Virgil Abloh) once worked as architects before decamping to create clothes. Today, the two fields form something of a mutual appreciation society, with brands installing clothing in rich settings to create comprehensive vision boards.

“The clothes you wear are very much a part of what you project to be, and that's why a lot of fashion houses use architecture in their promotions because that's how you're going to see yourself,” says Joy Moyler, a high-end interior designer and fashion authority. “They want you to see how a beautiful dress is going to look when it's walking through the canyons of New York City or how the wind is going to gust that beautiful chiffon as you're walking along the Seine.”

Lanvin Pre-Spring 2021. Photo: Courtesy Lanvin

Moyler’s award-winning career has taken her through both Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani, where she spent more than 10 years spearheading store design and development, as well as taking on residential projects for celebrity clients who were “friends of the house.” In this more fashion-adjacent work, she learned just how effectively settings can create a sense of time and place — and how strong of a priority that storytelling is for the brands themselves.

“You may, of course, be wearing a gown while you're on a yacht somewhere, but you very well could be sitting on a park bench, too,” she adds. “Designers always want the clothing to be the focus and the architecture to be the backdrop. But the setting still makes a powerful statement compared to just showing a garment photographed against a white background.”

Spectacular backgrounds like Baroque city squares and golden wheat fields do more than simply show customers how their clothes can be worn. In an increasingly crowded retail field, brands are committed to crafting full-on lifestyles to set themselves apart, and they’re doing so through unique set design as much as clothing.

For London-based set designer Derek Hardie Martin, who has helped create major campaigns for brands like Net-a-Porter, MM6 Margiela, and Tommy Hilfiger, he works closely with clients to best captivate the attention of the market. Sometimes that means concocting a woodland fantasy for Richard Quinn; other times it’s building a sterile laboratory for MM6 Maison Margiela. Regardless of the particulars, they’re locales you’ll remember long after the presentation is over, largely thanks to social media.

“These beautiful and interesting places get far more visible attention through the use of Instagram than they had previously ever received,” says Martin. “People are inspired by influencers and aspire to be in a world. This is heightened at the moment, where travel restrictions are at play and the lure of mystical places seem even more distant.”

This is especially true here in the U.S., where, as COVID-19 cases continue to climb, American travelers just aren’t welcome in the many countries reopening to tourism. At press time, a U.S. passport can get travelers into just 28 countries, with many of these locations requiring a standard 14-day quarantine. Yet a healthy dose of escapism isn’t the only benefit of shooting collections against such iconic backdrops.

Chanel Cruise 2021. Photo: Courtesy Chanel

Moyler buckets the settings en vogue under a broader “Côte d'Azur aesthetic,” one that’s peaceful and languid, allergic to clutter, and rich with nature. If set designers are looking to create a lifestyle, the south of France fosters one that really can’t be beat — particularly right now. There’s a reason Jacquemus sells a Provençal sensibility in the same breath as seductive slip dresses and wicker mini-bags.

“I'm very much influenced by that feeling of lightness, the seaside, and cooking delicious foods without a lot of fluff, just going back to the simple life of clean cotton, white linens, and enjoying your family,” adds Moyler. “The world is so battered right now. Our minds and our hearts just need a sense of simplicity.”

Even if a brand’s campaign imagery isn’t so explicitly “Under the Tuscan Sun,” its set design may still offer us that same sense of escapist pleasure one gets while watching Diane Lane prepare a proper Bolognese. We can expect for this inclination to impact actual collections, too, by way of more approachable textiles, undemanding silhouettes and a flash of unsuspecting glamour.

We’ve already seen this in Dior’s crafty Cruise 2021 range, which incorporates crocheted bandanas and aprons, wildflower-patterned trousers and gauzy tulle fit for a romp in the neighborhood vineyard. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what these clothes, and the broader imagery that captures them, makes us want to do.

Stefania D'Alessandro/WireImage/Getty Images

“I imagine in the future, especially throughout and post-pandemic, we’ll move away from realism and transcend to a world of imagination,” says Martin, “removing people from their worries and immersing them in fantasy.”

That also extends to what Martin calls “futuristic digital worlds,” like those rendered by augmented reality or incorporating digital avatars, à la Lil Miquela. But right now, there’s something about sun-drenched stone facades and clear blue skies that really makes the heart sing — and we can’t fault designers for wanting to bottle that up however they see fit.

“I'm designing a kitchen in Portofino right now, so I'm thinking of the wonder of a big pot full of pasta and fresh tomatoes and basil, and a glass of wine or aperitif at the end of day,” says Moyler. “To relax and say, ‘We finished another wonderful day. We can look forward to a new day tomorrow.’”