Fashion from the Inside-Out

Expanding our sense of style

I recently had lunch with Sarah Somers, the founder of Deseda, a Chicago-based brand that partners with Italian silk specialists and international artists to source limited edition hand rolled and stitched silk scarves. Deseda scarves are available online, but Sarah explained that the primary driver of silk scarf sales is touch, which can’t be reproduced by digital technology. Sarah is no Luddite—cutting-edge digital printing is what allows her to create the vivid and intricate prints her brand is known for. Her signature combination of high technology with artisanal craftsmanship allows old and new world values to coevolve. But there simply is no digital configuration of a ritual she’s seen unfurl in her shop and at her trunk shows time and again in the winding of cool soft silk around shoppers’ hair and throat and shoulders. The allure of rich colors draws the eye and invites the touch and drape. The feel of the fabric on the skin explains the luxurious price point, and closes the sale.

You could explain the growing popularity of Deseda, which has been featured in Vogue and worn by celebrities, in a few ways: there is fashion’s contemporary reprisal of the 70s and 80s, two scarf-centric decades; the rise of Zoom style, in which only the top matters and bright colors look lush on camera; the expansion of European models of luxury into American markets (the marketer Clotaire Rapaille once wrote that the epitome of French luxury was an Hermès scarf and the American a really nice refrigerator). But I think it’s having a moment because fashion is, as fashion does, changing—this time, in a way that has the potential to rock its own foundations. Where we’ve grown accustomed to tracking fashion’s evolution in visual styles, the proverbial silhouettes and hemlines, we may be finding ourselves in a moment when touch is edging out, sometimes even taking precedence over, sight as the primary mode of engagement in its world.


A few brands have seen this coming. Lululemon launched a “Science of Feel” campaign several years ago that allowed shoppers to select athleisure according to how they wanted their bodies to feel while wearing it: they might feel “hugged,” “held-in,” “tight,” “relaxed,” or “naked.” They framed their innovative textiles as feeling-makers, and invited customers to shop for the sensations they desired. Lululemon quickly abandoned that iteration for one grounded in a more traditional language of functions and action. The moment was not yet right.

But things might be different now. One sign is the pandemic-inspired emphasis on apparel and home products that engender feelings of embodied comfort: blankets, candles, sweatshirts, sweatpants, leggings, cardigans, kimonos, pajamas, slippers, even the retro-inspired snap house dresses brought back by the hipster brand Batsheva. Another is the rise and intermingling of wellness products with the fashion and beauty industry: Free People’s in-store workout studios and Movement classes, for instance. Pauline Brown has called the mindset that leads to fashion’s incorporation of feelings “the Other AI”—aesthetic intelligence. Aesthetic intelligence is less about the optics of beauty than the desirability of physical sensations. At a moment when more of life happens on screens, which can deliver stunningly sharp images and reverberating sounds but cannot recreate touch beyond the tap, haptic and skin-mediated sensation is garnering increasing value.

The rise of a fashion of feelings is happening in concert with other groundbreaking movements that are changing not only how fashion looks but how it interfaces with the skin. Fat activism, size inclusive fashion, and the celebratory embrace of a range of physical shapes and sizes are moving fashion away from being primarily a way of disciplining and punishing the body into formal submission to achieve a desired “look” (optics are embedded in the vocabulary of style). This may be one of the drivers of a fashion of embodied sensations rather than only visual delight, though clearly one of the most radical components of the movement is to create a more diverse visual lexicon and taste to find beauty in physical variety rather than uniformity. Nevertheless, thinking about how textiles and silhouettes make a body feel versus look invites an expansion of our sense of what styles are right for what bodies, and even what kind of body is nice to have. This logic impacts the relationship between fashion and gender, as well; imagine, for instance, what it might be like to choose garments and accessories based on felt kinetics (twirl vs. lift; grounded or still) and emotional states (powerful vs. playful; efficient or creative) rather than according to gender-conforming norms.


A fashion of feelings, governed by nuanced aesthetic intelligence can also more sustainably impact the way the industry interfaces with the environment. While fast fashion can mimic the look of more sustainably produced goods, it’s much harder to imitate their feel. But even less expensive fabrics can benefit from the touch-patinas of aged materials, as when the nubbing, thinning, stretching, and softening of vintage t-shirts adds to rather than detracts from their worth. Considering the good feelings of one’s moral consciousness when getting dressed is already driving different kinds of consumer decision making among Millennials and Generation Z.

What can designers interested in fashion’s turn to touch do differently? They can start thinking from the inside out, imagining desirable sensations on the skin, moods of the mind and heart, modes of consciousness, approaches to the world and start translating them into styles. If a sensation can be felt it can be created: what textures evoke what feelings and who might wish to have them? Though western, urban, modern humans have fairly developed visual, auditory, and culinary senses, we’ve allowed our understanding and cultivation of the aesthetics of touch and smell either to languish or linger excessively on negative forms of the experience (the elimination of odor, for instance, or the idea of suffering for beauty). But as we also live increasingly in ways that make us long for material experiences that our screens can’t offer us, if only to be able to take in the full range of sensory data with which our bodies are equipped to provide us, we can expect those neglected senses and the forms of information to which they’re privy to become ever more important and desired.

Main Image: Thinking about how textiles and silhouettes make a body feel invites an expansion of our sense of touch. Modern Love, DESEDA limited edition silk scarf, designed by artist Kasia Niemczynska. Photo courtesy DESEDA