FASHION IS looking beyond the pandemic. No, the fall 2021 season didn’t mean the return of thronged, star-studded shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris. Most of the collections were presented virtually via carefully edited films or streamed video in which models strode down runways in empty venues. But if crowds were absent, so, too, were pajama-inspired separates, cashmere hoodies, “elevated” sweatsuits or any other signs of the slovenly, WFH aesthetic so many of us have adopted over the past year. Instead, brands are pushing optimistic wares for our much-anticipated return to society.

Some, like Dries Van Noten, Prada and Paco Rabanne, proposed party-ready sequins. Others, like Chanel and Proenza Schouler, aimed to mitigate the sure-to-be-jarring transition to life beyond the living room with dresses chic enough for dining out but comfy enough for couch-based cocooning. And many, including Coach, Louis Vuitton and London’s Molly Goddard, suggested repenting for our months of sweatsuit sins in one fell swoop by piling on every single type of garment we didn’t wear in lockdown—from frilled tulle dresses to sweater vests in giddy hues—all at the same time.

More explicitly escapist offerings included the dark fairy-tale fashions from

Christian Dior,

Simone Rocha and Patou, and the travel-inspired looks of Christian Louboutin, Balmain and Thom Browne. Some of the biggest buzz, however, surrounded the commitment to sustainability that American designer Gabriela Hearst showcased in her debut as the creative director of heritage French brand Chloé. Here, a collection of the must-know trends and moments from a peculiar—but worthwhile—digital fall 2021 fashion month.

Fully Loaded

This past year offered few occasions to get decked out, leaving fashion obsessives in a state of serious dressing withdrawal. The fall shows suggested a remedy: Make up for lost time by wearing every conceivable style, pattern and fabric at once, no matter how disparate. From left: Coach’s skirt-and-sweatpants proposition; Italian brand Etro’s spliced sweater and clashing cords; Louis Vuitton piles it on with an artisanal, beaded twist; British designer Molly Goddard combines her signature tulle dress with a geek-chic sweater vest.

High-Design Down

This past winter, marked by our unprecedented passion for outdoor socializing, cemented the puffer coat’s hero status. It makes sense, then, that many designers are elevating the cold-weather mainstay—once thought too practically technical to be fashionable—to new, stylish heights. From left: Miu Miu’s head-to-toe quilted sledding suit; a dramatic cape-like vest at Rick Owens; a Tod’s design with a ladylike, gently ruffled collar, a rare find in the marshmallow-coat market; a classic New-York-red version from New York brand of the moment Khaite.

Happily Ever After?

The season’s brooding fairy-tale fashions conjure a land far, far away—of the Brothers Grimm variety, but minus the oven-baked children. From left: Christian Dior’s innocent eyelet dress and combative lace-up boots; vividly regal volumes by recently revived French brand Patou; New York designer Ulla Johnson’s lavish Bavarian bodice; goth-princess puff-sleeves—in leather, of course—from London-based Simone Rocha.

See Ya, Sweatpants. Hi Ya, Sequins

Maybe designers sensed that we’re all sick of gray fleece and starved for sartorial celebration. Maybe they knew extreme shimmer would pop on our 13-inch laptop screens as we watched virtual shows. Either way, sequins spangled the fall collections to joyful effect. From left: Paco Rabanne evokes the Gilded Age with a shiny, leopard ensemble; a sparkling pink, puff-sleeve party dress from Carolina Herrera; green paillettes drip off a dress at Prada; relaxed, reflective, dancing separates in Belgian designer Dries Van Noten’s fall film.

Dressed-Up-Ish

Though fashion is beckoning, you might find yourself clinging to your comfy elastic waistbands. Aware of this, designers have forged forgiving knit dresses that are cozy enough for the sofa (if not technically elasticized), but glamorous enough for a day in town. From left: A languorous twin set by Altuzarra; Proenza Schouler’s sexy, slouchy halter; cozy and collected geometric knits at Jil Sander; double Cs and double sweaters at Chanel.

Surreal Deal

The ferocity with which reality bites has become abundantly clear this past year. Unsurprisingly, some designers dealt in whimsical surrealism instead. From left: trippy trompe l’oeil hardware at Schiaparelli; a wispy approximation of pants at Thebe Magugu; Loewe’s kaleidoscopic, dreamlike top with outsize embellishments.

MOMENTS WE LOVED

From a sustainability push to a Megan Thee Stallion cameo, these are the fashion-week flashes we’ll remember

Sustainability, But Make It Chloé

Sure, the small brands in your Instagram feed preach sustainability, but sustainability at scale tends to call for a major business overhaul. That’s why many big fashion houses remain tight-lipped about their eco-conscious efforts, or lack thereof. Gabriela Hearst’s first collection at Chloé, the French fashion house owned by Richemont, marks a shift. The Uruguayan-American designer (left) is making the company’s environmental footprint a top priority across the board, implementing rules like no new synthetic fibers. A highlight from the show was the vintage Edith bags, originally designed for the house by former creative director Phoebe Philo, which Ms. Hearst modernized with repurposed materials from the current collection (right). “New isn’t always better,” Ms. Hearst said in a statement.

Now Boarding—Maybe, We Hope

Dreaming of leaving on a jet plane? Designers fed long-suppressed globe-trotting fantasies via virtual presentations that incorporated hyper-luxurious (and thus, somewhat unfathomable) travel scenarios. From left: Balmain’s pilot-inspired fall collection, filmed inside the

Air France

hangars; a still from accessories brand Christian Louboutin’s flight-themed fall film; a model brandishes a suitcase in Thom Browne’s fantastical fall collection.

Happy Return

After going on hiatus in 2017, Hood by Air, the subversive, cult-favorite New York design collective led by Shayne Oliver, made its comeback this season with a futuristic, all-black collection photographed entirely on supermodel Naomi Campbell.

Les Bags Bébé

We concluded tiny bags couldn’t get any tinier after French brand Jacquemeus debuted its comically teensy Chiquito Mini Tote back in 2019. Turns out we were a bit small-minded. For fall, both Hermès (left) and Chanel (right) unveiled minuscule lipstick bags-cum-necklaces that delivered big on the chic factor. What’s more fabulous than stepping out with nothing but some lip color—or, more realistically, spritzable hand sanitizer.

Fame and Fashion

With most shows staged digitally, the fall 2021 season mostly lacked front rows—and the celebrities and It girls who traditionally fill them. However, Coach creatively integrated stars into its presentation via what the brand called “Coach TV,” a compilation of music videos and sitcom parodies featuring such famous faces as Megan Thee Stallion (left), J.Lo (right) and Michael B. Jordan.

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