PARIS — How is fashion made? Who is responsible for fashion? Adolf Loos put these questions to his readers some time ago — in 1898, to be exact. The Viennese modernist combined simplicity with luxury materials in his architecture. He never thought of fashion, beauty, or beauty as a value.
It would be absurd to suggest that we live at a time when aesthetics are as high-minded as those of 19th-century Vienna. We still pursue fashion and beauty more than ever. Nature is being supplanted daily by machines. Thus beauty was the yardstick by which to measure a run of men’s wear shows here characterized, above all, by its pursuit.
Whatever the runway specifics, designers, as if by secret compact, set their sights on conjuring it this season and none with more assurance than Anthony Vaccarello, who mounted a Saint Laurent show that was theatrical, elegant, blithely unconcerned with lines of gender demarcation and one that neatly answered Loos’s question.
From the moment the first model glided onto the stage beneath the rotunda of the Bourse de Commerce — Pinault Collection, fitted out for the evening with a circular channel-quilted banquette on which guests sat sipping Champagne, there was little question about what fashion may be.
It is attenuated in vampire boys in thin, floor-sweeping velvet or leather coats with enormous starched bows around their tiny skulls. It is funnel-neck sweaters that envelop half of the wearer’s face or cowl-neck silk shirts banded at the waist with cummerbunds wrapped like obis. It is smoking jackets and hooded cloaks and block heels of patent leather that mirrored the models’ vinyl-slick hairdos.
Mostly it is atmospheres reminiscent of decadent nights in the upholstered crypt that was Yves Saint Laurent’s art-filled Left Bank duplex.
Behavior now is certainly no less decadent than in the ’70s heyday of Saint Laurent and his louche cohort. One difference is that these druggie escapades weren’t crowdsourced online. No one dropped a penny on the orgies. As Mr. Vaccarello knows, everyone in the room looked every bit as glamorous and sexy with clothes as they did without them.
The Saint Laurent muse Betty Catroux was seen crossing an avenue near the Hotel des Invalides the day after the show. “I’ve just seen the most beautiful thing,” said Ms. Catroux, still striking and blond and rail-thin at 78. “The Saint Laurent show. It was amazing. All those tall young dead boys looking just like me.”
Paris has always been a city that gives people freedom. Grace Wales Bonner intimated as much after her show, held at the Hotel d’Evreux on the Place Vendôme, luxury’s epicenter. In preparing the collection, Ms. Wales Bonner warped the space-time continuum to “constellate’’ a Paris in which the writer James Baldwin, the showgirl-spy Josephine Baker and the cultivated and epicene Maharaja and Maharani of Indore all overlapped. (Baker and Baldwin could easily have been in Paris simultaneously, but the Indores are anachronisms.
When Ms. Wales Bonner talks about introducing an “Afro-Atlantic spirit” to European luxury and about elevating “Black male style,” it is sometimes hard to think she does not, in fact, mean the opposite. European luxury could use a jolt from Black male style in all its diversity and dispersion. As usual, Ms. Wales Bonner offered considered and precisely tailored garments in this, her first coed show, notably men’s suiting created in collaboration with the Savile Row stalwarts Anderson & Sheppard.
The addition of cowrie shells and Berber babouches to the mix felt forced. (One collegiate jacket had the words “Sorbonne 56” embroidered on it, a reference to the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, where Baldwin famously asserted that there is no unitary Black identity.) The models were pushed through various rooms by Hermon Mehari, a musician playing a trumpet. This only added to the uncomfortable feeling of constraint. Ms. Wales Bonner might decide to let loose one day. Move around the ballroom. Take down the walls in the gilded salons.
Music plays an important part in fashion productions. Matthew M. Williams opened Givenchy’s show with deceivingly slow rock sounds by Bakar. These were stark contrasts to the initial group of tailored black hit man suits made by his couture shop. As the beats got more urgent, Mr. Williams increased the intensity and emotion by sending out a multitude of looks that incorporated elements of streetwear, workwear, and grunge.
This context allows for beautiful to be used as a derisory word. Yet that’s a fine way to describe a Givenchy collection assembled with a spirit that was so stealthy it was almost guerrilla. It was common to disassemble luxury goods and then reassemble it. Trousers were made without side seams. A jumpsuit was made with the waist open, and draped in the back as a skirt. The house’s perfectionist founder, whose rattled hems and selvage edges were pathetic, was able to make the most coherent statement by a designer who shares more similarities with him than he may admit.
Did the thousands of screaming fans outside this week’s shows have any idea that an actual Hubert de Givenchy, let alone Cristóbal Balenciaga or Christian Dior, ever existed? Many were waiting to see Burna Boy and a member from a K-pop band.
Kim Jones knows, though, and at Dior Homme he is fastidious to the point of fixation about keeping alive a dialogue with the house’s heritage and, beyond that, our collective cultural past.
Yet, do we still go to runway show to hear actors recite T.S. Eliot’s doomy World War I poem “The Waste Land?” We do not. Yet there, projected on screens in a darkened pavilion erected on the Place de la Concorde, were the actors Robert Pattinson and Gwendoline Christie, blown up to colossal size and laying it on thick in a reading of Eliot’s poem. It would seem this is Mr. Jones’s way of adding gravitas to his place in a lineage that includes not only a design deity like Dior himself but also Yves Saint Laurent.
Mr. Jones has such a surplus of design smarts he doesn’t need CliffsNotes references to give heft to presentations that stand on the merits of their own mastery. Few other designers can as confidently take a fisherman’s Aran sweater and open the sleeves so they ride on the outside of a wearer’s arms; or riff on suit jackets and oilskin raincoats turned into tunics; or add trailing wisps of transparent fabric to suiting or buoyancy batons to the front of a vest. Few designers have done more than to make skirts an integral part of a masculine uniform. This week, skirts for men were so common on Paris streets that they are no longer a trend but a fact of daily life.
Fashion week, like Cannes, is often a feast for the eyes. It offers a visual feast unlike any other. It isn’t fair, then, to unravel a spectacle as intellectually knotty as Jonathan Anderson’s for Loewe in a few lines. Yet, since that’s what space permits, let’s just say that by making clothes in wrinkled bookbinder’s vellum, beaten copper or pewter, deploying hatter’s tricks to pouf out the hems of coats so the wearer resembles a topiary yew, the designer took us into realms previously unseen. He also sent his thin, vulnerable-looking boy-men in white cotton underpants to Perv-land.
In sharp contrast to all that, Rick Owens’s show of relatively modest (“Victorian,” he said) cloaks, skirts, straitjacket parkas, paneled shearlings and down-padded jackets was chaste and corrective. Sometimes when viewing one of Mr. Owens’s shows, it helps to strip away the Goth styling and “Mad Max” effects. (Isn’t it time to retire the fog machine and the spooky contact lenses?) Subtract the gimmicks and what you are left with is uncontroversial clothes that go a long way toward explaining Mr. Owens’s booming commercial success.
It is difficult to maintain that balance when you are trying to make fashion. Louis Vuitton, for example, is increasing their social media content by hiring celebrities and putting on stage a kitchen sink. At Vuitton, the Spanish superstar Rosalía sang and rapped from atop a vintage yellow automobile. The paparazzi went crazy in search of the newest Kpop stars. Colm Dillane, a Brooklyn-born designer, was a.k.a. KidSuper, spun up scrappy energy and his trademark cartoon imagery for designs meant to drive logo freaks to the brand’s accessories.
Meantime, heritage houses like Hermès rehearse their heritage in an endless loop of tasteful French savoir-faire. (Clutching pearls, Vogue.com noted that the collection featured a “devastatingly gorgeous black cardigan in lamb shearling.”)
Too much can be a problem in fashion. It is not surprising that so many designers go overboard, but that so few adhere the KISS principle. This precept, formalized if not officially developed by the United States Navy in the ’60s, held that, in designing systems, simplicity is always the best means to an end.
“Keep it simple, stupid!” is not the worst approach to designing clothes.
Those that did were among the most memorable shows of the week. At Pierre Mahéo’s Officine Générale presentation, the designer riffed at length, in just blue and gray, on a strain of pared down chic people associate with a Paris that, realistically, vanished when Serge Gainsbourg’s five-pack a day Gitanes habit sent him to an early grave. Why not revive it, Mr. Mahéo suggested, with clothes for real people of all ages who’d appreciate a chic uniform to be refreshed now and then and worn till the end?
When the models strode out for the finale of the Officine Générale show at the Palais de Tokyo, you immediately hankered to see armies of such types in what used to pass for real life — pre-Instagram. And when Bianca Saunders presented a collection inspired by her Anglo-Caribbean upbringing in London, shown on a turquoise painted living room set with a corner bar and an easy chair and with an audio background of clips from the Jamaican comedian Oliver Samuels’s television show, you could readily imagine those tailored jackets, those dimpled pullover tuxedo coats, those ribbed knit leisure sets worn out on club night in Brixton or Trenchtown.
Rather than straining to force new narratives, the Paris appearance of Emily Adams Bode Aujla brought us another chapter in an ongoing tale forged from the designer’s core belief in autobiography. Ms. Bode Aujla’s maternal family and her mother’s summer sojourns working for an aged grande dame on Cape Cod. Fancifully evoking the funky sartorial folkways of a mostly bygone WASP world, she paired Icelandic sweaters with embroidered trousers, plaid pants with shearling vests, tie-dye pullovers with tweed jackets and added spangles everywhere, like a giddy kid pulling granny’s frocks from a trunk.
Like Mr. Mahéo and Ms. Saunders, Ms. Bode Aujla found her comfort in the familiar. No mood boards are required. Just use what you know.
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