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Controversy in Wild Kingdom of Couture

PARIS — Ten a.m. on a frigid Monday morning, the first day of the couture shows, and Kylie Jenner was strutting through the marble halls of the Petit Palais trying to find her seat for Schiaparelli, shoehorned into spiky stilettos and a black velvet one-arm gown, a full-size tawny lion’s head jutting from the side. It was as if Aslan had taken a break in Narnia and stuck his nose through a time-space continuum underneath her armpit. Maybe it was Take Your Stuffed Toy To Work Day.

Nope: It was a dress so hot off the runway it hadn’t even appeared on the runway yet — though it was about to, along with a strapless faux-fur sheath with a snow leopard head jutting from the bust, its mouth open in mid-roar, and a big, hairy black silk and wool coat with a wolf’s snout emerging from the shoulder.

Painstakingly sculpted from resin, painted by hand in the couture atelier, the faux animal heads were supposed to represent the vices of Dante’s “Inferno” — lust, pride, avarice — according to the Schiaparelli designer Daniel Roseberry. He used the poem to describe his own experience with the pressure of creating the new; to make everyone smile.

To find a place in the attention economy. If social media and the red carpet are the fire of fame, Mr. Roseberry said, couture has become fashion’s “gasoline”: pour it on top and the conflagration gets ever hotter. It is “culture-making,” he said. Or outrage stirring. These days, the two ideas can seem one and the same (file them under “provocation”).

The fake animal heads collided and exploded with Jenner/Kardashian and real animal rights. swallowed the digisphere whole. Were the looks promoting big game hunting, even though they didn’t come from nature, or were they celebrating the beauty of the wild, as PETA declared, and facilitating “an anti-trophy-hunting dialogue”? Were they actually a metaphor for going after the rich — hunting them, eating them, selling to them — or were they a gimmick gone wrong?

They were objectively kind of silly and the whole hooha was bordering on the surreal (which makes sense since Schiaparelli is a house that is rooted in surrealism). Their viral fame set the tone for the entire week and all subsequent shows.

Not just because Chanel also had an animal theme, courtesy of the artist Xavier Veilhan, who created a giant movable plywood bestiary for the set, in reference to Coco’s favored menagerie. But because the drive to capture not just hearts and minds but eyeballs may explain the designer Virginie Viard’s otherwise puzzling addition of circus-master bow ties and top hats to her flirty bouclé skirt suits; narrow, floor-sweeping coats; and drop-waist chiffon and feather frocks.

Also the upscaling of Giambattista Valli’s rose-colored taffeta and tulle creations, which resembled nothing so much as sugar plum fairies on steroids. Maybe even Giorgio Armani’s 77 iterations of harlequins.

Once upon a time the couture was a closed world — that teeny tiny segment of fashion designed to showcase the art of the handmade, ruled by arcane requirements and priced so high it was accessible only by the very few: the apocryphal 200 global clients who were willing to pay the equivalent of an entry-level annual salary (and up) for a dress most of the world would never see. The price was justified by the artistry and know-how of couture designers. This allowed for the creations to be incorporated into everyone’s wardrobes.

Prepandemic, the party line was, couture was a safe space for social media because it required the intimacy of personal experience. However, now, with the help of the global crowd, it is morphing into something else. Darwin would be proud.

Sure, there are still those who delight in the subtlety of a garment so mysteriously constructed it reeks of ineffable ease: the gold fil coupé Bar jackets and straight skirts Maria Grazia Chiuri offered up at Dior that somehow managed to retain their exacting shape with no interior boning; her crushed velvet bathrobe coats, gleaming with plush insouciance. Ms. Chiuri revealed that she was inspired by the story Josephine Baker, a former client of Dior. Her set was wrapped with paintings by Mickalene Thomas, an American artist who depicted 13 barriers-breaking women of colour. The collection could have been heavy-handed but instead it riffed on a 1920s style with a touch of Jazz Age decadence woven in to the cloth. The result sits lightly on the body.

Even in boldface names, such understatement can have a powerful effect on the eye.

But it is the desire to be, said Jordan Roth, the theater impresario, collector and occasional model, “a singular piece of art on legs,” that makes couture — especially in January, as awards season gets underway — the ultimate celebrity dress-hunting ground (and the ultimate place to hunt celebrities; see the crowds outside the show venues, which resemble nothing so much as crowds outside concert venues, shrieking and waving their smartphones). A popular game has become guess who will wear what to the Oscars/BAFTAs/Césars. Anyone can play.

Dior’s cowled sleeveless dresses with gleaming gold or silver thread, the jewel-tone velvets that look like a siren draped gracefully over a piano will soon be available on a red carpet near to you. Ditto Chanel’s filigree white lace number with a bit of gold embroidery gleaming at the throat.

As for what the best actress nominee Michelle Yeoh, front row at Armani Privé, might choose from among all the diamonds and ruffs sprinkled over a collection that ranged from court jester to Picasso via trousers flapping an extra fabric fin at the side, caviar-bead cropped jackets and shimmering sequined gowns, there were some less — well — tricky, options.

The danger with the current game of one upmanship is that the clothes can sometimes go too far. At Schiaparelli, Ms. Jenner (who also sat front row at Maison Margiela, where John Galliano delivered his patented brand of upcycled mayhem by mashing together tulle, tartan, fishnets, Mickey Mouse and Pendleton outerwear) and her lion head managed to overshadow not only Doja Cat, who arrived covered in 30,000 ruby crystals like some sort of émigré from an Avatar-themed Met Gala, but also the fact that there were parts of the collection that verged on the sublime.

The opening look’s jacket, for example, made from hundreds of encrusted sequins tracing a perfume-bottle silhouette, over simple black pants. A pinstripe trouserser suit that played with proportions to create the illusion of a Mr. Pearl size waist but without the rearranged Organs. Breast plates made with abalone and precious stones and lemonwood marttry, which rose up toward the throat and stretched material to its limits.

After all the smoke had cleared from the wild Kingdom controversy, they were a reminder of the danger of getting burned when you put gasoline on fire.

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