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Fake Animal Heads Cause Outrage at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week

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 though Aslan had taken a break reading Narnia, and stuck his muzzle under her armpit in a time-space continuum. Perhaps 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. The poem was a metaphor for his own experience of the pressure to create new things; to make everyone smile.

To make a niche 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”).

So fake animal heads collided and Jenner/Kardashian values and real animal rights. And for a while, the explosion. 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 through artistry, knowhow and the notion that what couture designers did trickled into the wardrobes for everyone else.

Prepandemic the party line was that couture was a safe place for social media, as it required intimacy and personal experience. It has been transformed by the gaze of the global population. 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 stated that she was inspired to create the collection by the story of Josephine Baker, a former Dior client. The set was wrapped in artworks by Mickalene Thomas featuring 13 women of color who broke barriers. 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.

This understatement is a powerful tool, even when it’s surrounded by boldface names that seek the visually stunning.

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.

The Dior cowled sleeveless gowns with full embroidery in gold and silver thread, the jewel tone velvets channeling a siren draped languidly above a piano, are likely to be soon available at a red carpet near your home. 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 of the current game is that clothes can sometimes become ridiculous. 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 trouser suit with a pinstripe pattern. The jutting shoulders created an illusion of a Mr. Pearl-sized waist without the rearranged organs. Breast plates made of abalone, precious stones, and lemonwood marquetry rose upward towards the throat and stretched out the material’s definition.

After all the smoke had cleared, the Wild Kingdom controversy was over, and they were a reminder of the dangers of lighting gasoline on a burning fire.

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