Nothing says ‘exotic’ like the skin of an animal you don’t even recognise. There were fur and reptile hides aplenty in the autumn/winter 2011 collections, but many designers this season have been playing snake-charmer. Or is it the other way round?
Their fascination with this sinuous surface has something to do with its impeccable geometry. There are few other prints so repetitive and symmetrical, nor simultaneously so varied and detailed. Like the snake itself, it’s full of contradictory messages, and it makes any garment it appears on both rigidly uniform as well as downright naughty.
Snakeskin conceals within its coils a pull between high-class and downtown: snake has a reputation for seediness, but it comes at prices that only work in the most luxurious of markets. And Gucci played directly upon that antithesis, with peacock-green snakeskin pencil skirts rendered in a high-shine finish, played off against a fully matte and snuggly fur coat. Models walked the line between international woman of mystery, circa 1974, and inner city barmaid 2011. This is the power of snakeskin though, and it is evidenced in an impressive durability and mutability throughout recent evolutions of style. It straddles both hyper-cool and ultra-naff.
At Chloé, where snake print came on models in romantic and gauzy chiffon, there was that same direct contradiction between what we saw and what they wore. Snakeskin, we presume, is tough, urban and modern – just like Christopher Bailey’s attitude-drenched biker collection for Burberry’s spring/summer 2010 collection – but here it was on ballerina-esque numbers, swathing bodies gently, as opposed to enveloping them in its signature tight and cobra-like grip.
It speaks of the way we wear and desire luxury now. Status markers, such as exotic skins and luxe fabrics, are all very well, but they must not appear obvious. Anything less than indirect is conspicuous these days, and marks the wearer with a certain trashiness. But on the other hand, there's always an audience for irony - a trope much beloved of Miuccia Prada, who employed it once more for her autumn/winter 2011 collection. Over-sized and drop-shouldered coats came in sheeny black vinyl, apple green and natural coloured python with a fluffy Biggles-style collar. Each was cut like a 'zoot' suit, with heavily stylised, over-sized lapels, and given a modern twist with slightly curved and cropped tubular sleeves. The statement may be retro (that snakeskin signifies wealth and prowess) but the mode of declaration was re-vitalised – a new sort of luxury for an industry still discovering its footing after the financial tumble.
And how better to explore this than with subverted fashion archetypes: the bad girl; the romantic; the adventurer? They say snake venom spreads quick, and this is a trend that certainly will.
Harriet Walker is a fashion writer at The Independent. Her book Less is More: Minimalism in Fashion is out now, published by Merrell. Zoë Taylor has appeared in Le Gun, Bare Bones, Ambit and Dazed & Confused. She is currently working on her third graphic novella and an exhibition.