The pandemic has forced the European fashion system to hit pause on traditional presentations with live audiences and test other formats, mostly short films and digital shows. But far from some kind of divine punishment, as the industry’s complainers seem to think, the situation has given rise to some surprisingly successful results.
The Paris Fashion Week which closed on Wednesday, a protean and lively affair full of glamour, energy and escapism in the face of adversity, proved what’s possible. We have lost the pleasure of looking at clothes live on real bodies, that’s for sure. But we have also gained the freedom to conduct experiments that might prove mind-expanding for the industry.
Some of the best ideas were, in fact, the simplest. Patou’s video, a skit simulating a photo shoot in which a model ignores the off-screen direction of designer Guillaume Henry, was a three-minute masterpiece of wit and good spirit, the perfect container for a collection bursting with colour, psychedelia and the pure joy of dressing up. With a wink or two at the genius of Christian Lacroix, generous doses of 1970s fantasia and a play on volume that was both elegant and experimental, Henry proved that when times get grim, fashion can offer a soothing boost by reverting to something positively silly.
Patou Autumn/Winter 2021. Patou.
Marine Serre built a kaleidoscopic website, accompanied by a book, and succeeded in conjuring her post-human yet intensely humanistic world. At Beautiful People, pattern-cutting wizard Hidenori Kumakiri presented polymorphous pieces that could also be worn upside down through a woman-in-the-mirror video sketch that was not only effective but poignant in depicting the mental states of many during the pandemic, endlessly secluded in our homes with only the company of ourselves to keep us sane. Meanwhile, a show filmed on a white set, cut with images of frescoed ceilings, deftly conveyed the Franco-Roman inspiration behind Giambattista Valli’s collection, an affair of short and sharp lines and fluttering empire waists, with nods (see the contrast trims) to Coco Chanel.
Coperni went big, staging a drive-in show, with guests watching from inside their cars as models strutted by. The stunt was filmed for digital distribution and was a blast. At Nina Ricci models sashayed down a circular runway lined with empty Klein blue chairs, displaying a take on the revered French brand that felt cartoonish and jolly. And Courrèges successfully marked the debut of designer Nicolas Di Felice with a show filmed in a gleaming white cube in the middle of the banlieue. Everything was sharp and on point, from the dynamic fashion proposal to the perfectly edited film with blasting soundtrack.
Courreges Autumn/Winter 2021. Courreges.
Elsewhere, it was all about outdoor locations. Jacquemus might have set the template for this approach but by now it’s gone in many different directions. In her perhaps overly faithful debut at Chloé, Gabriela Hearst stormed the streets of the Left Bank at night. Rick Owens’ apocalyptic extravaganza of broken glamour was filmed on the beach of the Venice Lido. And Miuccia Prada, at Miu Miu, took an army of brave-hearted girls in flimsy slip dresses, studded coats and quilted bodices to the snow-covered slopes of Cortina d’Ampezzo. Here, the fashion recipe looked a little formulaic, though the crochet puffers were spot on. Thom Browne was close to nailing it, but his mix of skiing and couture ultimately came across as costume-y albeit amusing.
Connecting the ancestral with the futuristic has always been a signature of Issey Miyake, and designer Satoshi Kondo is wisely and poignantly taking the brand back to this intersection. Acne Studios’ strain of primitivism was of a different kind; it required a sofa-equipped cave and was all about faded and washed pandemic-induced duvet dressing.
Filming shows instead of staging them in front of live audiences opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of location. But nowhere proved as magical as the Louvre’s Michelangelo and Daru galleries, where Nicolas Ghesquière staged a traveling-without-moving Louis Vuitton extravaganza with a newfound sense of ease. Meanwhile, as a destination, the chateau loomed large. It was the Château de Franconville for the relaunch of the Ann Demeulemeester brand, which was acquired last year by Claudio Antonioli’s Dreamers Group. As a first outing, it was an act of continuity: the black, the white, the androgyny and the poetry were all there, polished to the nth degree, but possibly a tad repetitive. Antonioli cherishes and understands the DNA of the brand, which is very reassuring. From here on, however, it needs a tweak: times have changed since Ann’s heyday.
Louis Vuitton Autumn/Winter 2021. Louis Vuitton.
Carrying on with the feminist narrative which has defined her tenure at Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri devised a fairy tale-inflected fashion film comprising a dance performance choreographed by Sharon Eyal and a set devised by Silvia Giambrone — wax covered mirrors sprouting horns — inside the Château de Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. The disconnect between the different elements of the show was glaring as models furiously strutting by dancers contorting in front of the mirrors, barely acknowledging them. As for the clothing, it was 1950s silhouettes and a new militaristic sharpness that felt timely.
Elsewhere, the powers of dance coursed through the season, adding an expressionistic feeling to the proceedings not felt in fashion since the heyday of Pat Cleveland and models acting crazy on the catwalk. Dries Van Noten stole the show, collaborating with a troupe of 47 performers from the best Flemish dance companies such as Rosas and Ultima Vez, plus some from the Opéra National de Paris. The resulting video, shot against a black backdrop, covered a range of human emotions, running from confusion to joy, from anger to euphoria. It was a powerful outing, both abstract and visceral, halfway between Pina Bausch and Pedro Almodóvar, in which the clothing — an elegant dance of masculine and feminine, of grey felts and fluid silks, of construction and drape, in other words Van Noten at his best — came out glorified instead than mortified.
At Hermès, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski integrated dance into a triptych filmed by Sébastien Lifshitz: there was a catwalk show staged in Paris surrounded by dance performances, filmed in New York and Shanghai and choreographed by Madeline Hollander and Gu Jiani, respectively. It was a flawless opus that nevertheless failed to coalesce into a unified whole: a bit too long maybe, and forcibly expressive. As for the clothing, there was a new energy, a sporty sensuality in the air, but it seemed to stop halfway through.
Givenchy has yet to find its new place in the fashion sphere. Save for the hardware, and a certain metropolitan aggression, Matthew Williams brought the action back to where Riccardo Tisci was all those years ago — sans the sensuality: nipples peeking through a bra were a gratuitous trick, and nothing groundbreaking — adding some Alexander Wang and Alexander McQueen armadillo shoes to the recipe. Jil Sander’s debut on the Paris calendar was moderately daring, but somehow still felt blocked by hueing too closely to the template set by Phoebe Philo’s Celine. And Donatella Versace, who showed during Paris Fashion Week though not on the official calendar, was stuck between the mandatory replicas of archive looks, a collage of references à la Burberry and a new pattern that looked a little too much like Goyard.
In terms of sampling there was a lot of Gaultier around: from the masculine-feminine couture at Thom Browne to Madonna’s conical bras at Schiaparelli, where Daniel Roseberry has found his key — a catchy and kitschy one — to a difficult brand. Doing away with elegance in favour of eye catching, social media-friendly excess, Roseberry delivered some fun, which is what fashion should be all about, now more than ever before.
The ultimate takeaway from Paris was the enduring power of fashion as expression and escapism, from the liberating silliness of Lanvin to Paco Rabanne’s disconcertingly literal ode to 1980s fun of the French Vogue variety to the gloomy, vitriolic punk of Yohji Yamamoto. It takes masters to do hedonism and excess in ways that feel progressive.
Rick Owens and Loewe’s Jonathan Anderson were the winners of the season. The vision of Godzilla-shouldered shells and couture trains at Owens suggested a posse of aliens landed on foreign ground. The jolts of colour, the fringe and the outsized tassels at Loewe felt both uniform-like and experimental, in a very Bauhaus, Paul Klee, Cabaret Voltaire kind of way. Sometimes restriction and bonkers go well together, and all the better for it.
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