Reasons to be cheerful: the rise of feelgood fashion

Designer Mira Mikati wearing her Eyelet Smile Coat
Designer Mira Mikati wearing her Eyelet Smile Coat Credit: STYLEDUMONDE

In this age of global uncertainty, clothes have become a kind of panacea for a growing number of consumers. Designers are responding  to the political upheavals of the past year by injecting some much-needed humour into women’s wardrobes. Browns CEO Holli Rogers is already predicting that spring’s sartorial hit will be Rosie Assoulin’s smiley-face T-shirt. This cheery number, which reads "Thank you! Have a Nice Day!’" neatly sums up the jubilant mood of the coming season. 

Rosie Assoulin's smiley-face T-shirt is expected to be a big hit at Browns Fashion

The logic goes that turning up the dial on the fun, the colourful and the crazy is the sartorial equivalent of Michelle Obama’s "when they go low, we go high" mantra. We may not be able to control the chaos of world events, but we still rule our own style.

It’s no coincidence that a cartoonish aesthetic, of the sort you’d find if you rifled through an eccentric child’s dressing-up box, was in plentiful supply on the spring/summer 2017 runways. Alessandro Michele’s army of Gucci geeks displayed growing swagger in garish get-ups that ran from fuzzy crayon-coloured furs featuring zebras to tiered, tinsel-y coats that rivalled Grandma’s Christmas tree. 

It was a similar story at Dolce & Gabbana, where sumptuous eveningwear was loaded with pasta and pizza motifs, and drums became bags, while Marc Jacobs tore a page from a psychedelic colouring book, covering clothes with the childlike scrawl of the London illustrator Julie Verhoeven. Even ardent minimalists would have to admit that these playful looks have potent pick-me-up power. 

Anya Hindmarch's cuddly google-eyed Ghost backpack

For Anya Hindmarch – whose empire is built on feel-good fashion – all this frivolity is nothing new. "An ironic, lighter and more irreverent approach has always been my thing. People love beautiful objects and increasingly, they want to show their character – that’s the point of fashion," she says. "Customers today are more confident with their style. There aren’t so many rules. It’s about putting a sticker on a beautiful handbag and not being too precious about it."  

What’s surprising is who is consuming this cartoonish style. Though there’s no real rhyme or reason, says Hindmarch, often it’s older clients who are investing in the maddest pieces – like her cuddly, googly-eyed Ghost backpack that has also been spotted on Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner. 

Colour, pattern and texture combine in spring's new feel-good mood Credit:  Francesco Gili

The same is true of the customer for the Lebanese designer Mira Mikati’s emoji-embellished styles. Though her fans run from twenty to fiftysomethings, at a recent London pop-up one of Mikati’s most ardent buyers was an 87-year-old. "She tells me that whenever she wears my clothes people stop her on the street. They smile. They start conversations. She literally makes friends through what she wears."

Mikati began her career as a buyer, co-founding the upscale Beirut boutique Plum, before launching her own line some four seasons ago – largely out of frustration at the sameness of the mainstream collections. "I wanted to create something fun and colourful but easy to wear – that you can add to jeans and a white T-shirt, but that’s also a conversation point."

Celine's dinosaur jewellery

Her clothes, worn by Beyoncé and Rihanna, are certainly that: pink parrot-appliquéd trench coats, scribble-print hooded tops and dresses clad with a family of monsters who spell out her Peter Pan ethos in scrawled speech bubbles that read "Never Grow Up’" The antithesis of normcore, these designs take their cue from her children’s toy trunk and the Japanese pop art of Takashi Murakami – who returned the compliment by donning one of her patched bombers.

Mikati is clearly onto something. According to Roberta Benteler, who founded online fashion emporium Avenue 32 in 2011, it’s the cartoon aesthetic that’s really piquing women’s desire right now.

"Anything that looks like a child’s drawing or a toy sells incredibly well," she says. "Brands like Mira Mikati, Vivetta and Les Petits Joueurs inspire the impulse to buy because they’re so eye-catching. You have to have it now because there’s a sense you won’t find it anywhere else." 

Leandra Medine outside Jason Wu , September 2016 in New York City Credit: Christian Vierig/Getty

The exponential rise of street-style stars and the social-media machine that now propels the fashion industry also plays a part in the popularity of these playful looks.

"Designers are creating for the online world and customer," continues Benteler, who cites the Middle Eastern consumer as a big investor in these niche eccentric designs. "People find escapism in fashion and more than ever they need something to cheer them up. These are clothes that stand out on Instagram, and for designers that translates into sales." 

Loewe's Elephant minibag in sunshine yellow Credit: Francesco Gili

In practical terms, in an effort to beat the warp speed of high-street copying, designers are differentiating themselves with increasingly intricate and artisanal styles that are harder to mimic. Just because these pieces have a childlike sensibility doesn’t mean they’re not beautifully crafted.

"My aim is create a handbag that you can keep as a design piece," explains the accessories designer Paula Cademartori. One of her most successful designs – the Petite Faye bag, which comes in a whole rainbow of configurations – takes more than 32 hours to create at her Italian studio. "Even if the styles are colourful and speak loudly, they’re still sophisticated," says Cademartori, whose brand was recently snapped up by the luxury goods group OTB. It can pay to be playful. 

Leandra Medine's MR by Man Repeller pink loafers, billed as 'The alternative to bare feet' (exclusively at Net-a-Porter) Credit: Emily Malan

One man with a unique insight into the feel-good phenomenon is Marco de Vincenzo, who combines his longstanding role as leather goods head designer at Fendi with creating his own collection. "When we first created the Fendi monster accessories for bags we were simply playing around," he says of the charms that still loom large some three years on. "The most successful designs are created without pressure, through play." 

His own-line debut bag features an animalistic paw. ‘It’s about creating something new and different for women to discover,’ he explains. "You buy something because you love it, not because you need it. Fashion is like a game – it has to excite." 

Marco de Vincenzo's paw bag

When it comes to distilling this childlike abandon into your wardrobe, take cues from super style blogger Leandra Medine, who balances madcap pieces, such as her first collection of colourful footwear under her MR By Man Repeller label, with plainer, simpler ones. "It’s all about wearing your clothes with joy, and having fun, but not looking ridiculous," says Cademartori. "You don’t want to look like an actual cartoon." 

It’s advice that chimes with  that of Anya Hindmarch. "I love the idea of wearing a super-simple Comme des Garçons jacket and a white shirt with a really fun bag to mess it all up a bit." It’s a failsafe formula for dressing your way to happiness.