Balloons have lifted houses in Up, given us nightmares thanks to a clown called Pennywise, and aided flight in Mary Poppins Returns. Now they are being turned into wearable garments. No, we’re not talking novelty crowns or even bubble backpacks, but an entire outfit made from inflated rubber.
Central Saint Martins in London has had many notable fashioner designer alumni since it was established 30 years ago, including Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Sarah Burton, Riccardo Tisci, and Zac Posen. Each year the final runway presentation is a “who to watch” guide, and 2019 is no different. Norwegian designer Fredrik Tjærandsen’s innovative BA graduate press show lit fashion Instagram on fire. The designer told i-D that before the show he had around 1000 followers — at the time of writing this the number is just over 90,000 and growing.
As the models walked the runaway in the balloon creations, Mica Levi’s haunting score from the 2013 sci-fi film Under the Skin accompanied them, only adding to the out-of-this-world atmosphere. This isn’t a case of keeping a person encased in a rubber ball in a couture recreation of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Bubble Boy; the garments have two states. The model steps out with the dress inflated — which has up to three hours' worth of oxygen inside it — and can control the deflation process, transforming the bubble into a gown.
It is reminiscent of how some kitsch sci-fi movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s envisioned the future. Except there are fewer aliens, metallic bodysuits, and flying cars than predicted.
In the past balloons have been used in fashion as a novelty factor, such as this 1960s Kayser crepe pantie tights image. Sticking balloons to a dress is nowhere near as mind-blowing as Tjærandsen’s technique that stretches (no pun intended) this material to new heights. Instead, this image reads like a very lazy version of the party-store Project Runway challenge.
Conceptually, this particular shape has also influenced designers with bubble-style silhouettes popping up across a variety of decades. In 1958, a "Fashionations" event at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles saw costume designer Irene showcasing a lace and tulle creation with a balloon effect (which you can see below). Bubble-skirt prom dresses had a big moment in the 1980s, which have recently seen a resurgence, including a hot pink number courtesy of the Alexander McQueen fall 2019 collection — but a puffball frock and an actual balloon dress are very different undertakings.
Learning how to manipulate the material into not only a bubble but something a person can wear, walk, and breathe while wearing is an incredible undertaking. Talking to Vogue, Tjærandsen discusses the technical aspects: “It was a craft that I had to teach myself. I’ve really tried to push the material to the limits in terms of the draping and the stretching.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Some of the test runs popped with him inside, but he wanted to make sure it would be safe for the models who would eventually be wearing these creations.
Living in a bubble seems like a good way to protect oneself from the barrage of anxiety-causing global issues, but rather than a form of escape, Tjærandsen's inspiration came from childhood memories: “I wanted to recreate the fogginess and the ‘mist’ of the memories themselves. The inflated bubbles are about being able to wear an unclear memory. When the bubble emerges onto the catwalk, it’s the dream. The deflation of the bubble visualizes the moment when we realize we have a consciousness.”
The blurred lines between dreams and memory is a subject that all forms of art have long been preoccupied with, so it is no wonder that Tjærandsen has captured the imagination of so many.
Fashion and technology go hand in hand as innovative techniques continue to take clothes to the next level. 3-D printing has impacted many industries, but in costume design it was used to create some of Ruth E. Carter's Academy Award-winning Black Panther costumes. Meanwhile, AI recently helped showcase a recent Rag & Bone collection.
Expanding on the concept of what clothes can do with a runway show like Tjærandsen’s is another form of fashion and technology merging. It is no wonder that he won the highest honor at this presentation, receiving the L'Oreal Professional Young Talent Award. Game of Thrones costume designer Michele Clapton commented on Tjærandsen’s Instagram, saying, “Fabulous” Most brilliant looks I’ve seen in years!” There are a number of Westeros characters who could’ve benefited from a balloon dress even if it wouldn’t have protected them from swords and flames.
Balloon fashion was also on display at the Westminster MA Menswear show. Graduates from this institution include former Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey and current Coach creative director Stuart Vevers. Designer San Kim’s work looks to Freud for inspiration, linking the deflation of the garment with psychosexual development.
2019 has seen an explosion of color and bold fabrics, including Japanese designer Tomo Koizumi landing a double Game of Thrones endorsement in the form of Gwendoline Christie walking the runway and Sophie Turner wearing an explosion of tulle in a Jonas Brothers video. Koizumi is new to the design scene, but this collection went viral, and one of these frocks is now on display at the Met's Costume Institute as part of the “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibition. The performative nature of Fredrik Tjærandsen’s balloon dresses would have fit in well with this year’s Met Gala theme.
Transformation is a big part of fashion and technology. The balloon dress combines the two, injecting much-needed whimsy and wonder into 2019. Of course, it is far from a practical ensemble, but let's not burst this bubble of imagination and instead celebrate Tjærandsen’s achievement.
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