Democracy Dies in Darkness

Arts and Entertainment | Review

In dark times, fashion grapples for the next right look. Will these styles get us there?

By Robin Givhan

October 4, 2017 at 2:36 PM

A final dispatch from Paris Fashion Week:

Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

PARIS — Like every collection here, Thom Browne’s spring 2018 womenswear had been conceived and produced months ago. But his presentation still felt necessary right now. On this final day of runway shows, Browne’s collection was light and fanciful. It was unapologetically beautiful even as it contemplated both dreams and nightmares and the strange nature of the deeply flawed inhabitants of this planet.

Browne showed his collection to a soundtrack from “The Little Mermaid,” and it opened with wobbling, dancing, otherworldly creatures that pirouetted in circles and stared at the audience in bemused curiosity from behind the scrim of their white orb-like helmets. In articulated dresses that could have been molded from Play-Dog they resembled dancing marshmallows or Michelin ladies or maybe angelic Botero paintings brought to life and dancing en pointe.

Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

The first model down the runway seemed to tower more than six feet tall, teetering ever so slightly in obscenely high, chocolate-brown platform heels. She moved slowly and deliberately, wearing a slim mermaid gown in a pale-gray plaid with an embroidered knee-length jacket that looked impossibly delicate. Her hair was slicked down and glistened in the light. She had a ghostly quality. She looked like someone out of your dreams: vaguely unnerving, emotionally captivating, magical.

Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Browne, who is American, has long shown his menswear collection here. But his womenswear had always debuted in New York, where it stood out for its unabashed, expressionistic aesthetic. For this Paris debut, Browne brought his outsize imagination, a slew of exquisitely crafted garments and a sense of wistful optimism that felt perfectly right for these very dark times.

Browne weaves stories. His clothes don’t function as costumes but are the building blocks for an entirely alternate universe, a different way of being. He isn’t exactly an avant-garde designer because his clothes aren’t questioning the very definition of a shirt; they aren’t unwearable ideas that are mostly just trying to spark a conversation.

Browne makes clothes that test the limits of your imagination. He asks that you consider what, in your wildest dreams, can you see? What can you envision? Do you dream in color?

Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

There were coats and dresses that looked as though they had been spun from glistening cobwebs. Other garments resembled thick coils circling the body. There were coats that were molded away from the back, as if the wearer was in a perpetual state of flight. A black dress was embroidered in white with the anatomy of a skeleton. A black and white jacket was like a topiary carved from ruffles.

Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

The collection hinted at fitful dreams and cathartic nightmares. It ended with a model dressed in white leading a unicorn down the runway, a feat made possible with larger-than-life puppetry of “The Lion King” variety. Believe in the impossible and sometimes it can be made real.

Thom Browne Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Designer Thom Browne takes a bow after presenting his Spring Summer 2018 collection at the Hotel de Ville.(Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

It was the kind of finale that speaks to how so many designers of different philosophies are able to find a home in this city. Joseph Altuzarra, who grew up here but established his business in New York, had a homecoming. He brought his collection of collage dresses, silver jackets and spirited knits to the runway here. And Italy’s Miuccia Prada showed her quirky mix of grungy — in a good way — separates, lace embroidery and knit bloomers.

Altuzarra Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Altuzarra Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Altuzarra Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Miu Miu Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Miu Miu Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Miu Miu Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Miu Miu Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Whether it is the more experimental collections such as Sacai and Undercover or the global powerhouses such as Louis Vuitton, there’s a place for them all, and each speaks to the business of fashion and what is asked of customers.

Undercover’s Jun Takahashi is also a storyteller, and for spring he was inspired by the duality of human nature — the light and dark in a single person, the good and the bad. He expressed this idea with twins. One set wore satiny dresses that called to mind the silhouettes of the 1950s. Others were wardrobed with references to the shape-shifting artist Cindy Sherman. And finally, there were the ghostly twins from Stephen King’s “The Shining.” Takahashi’s were wearing prim little dresses, both in white but one draped in red beading like streams of blood.

Undercover Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Undercover Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Undercover Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Undercover Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Undercover Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Chitose Abe’s collection for Sacai hinted at the balance between work and play, professional lives versus personal ones. Pinstripes contrasted with lace, menswear mixed with femininity. With her trompe l’oeil techniques, it was impossible to discern where a jacket ended and where a dress began. The lines are blurred no matter how much we try to delineate them.

Sacai Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Sacai Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Sacai Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Sacai Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Rick Owens was exploring the impossible task of creating a utopia faced by people who are constantly fighting their demons. How do imperfect people create something that is flawless?

Rick Owens Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Every season editors and retailers try to assess what looks right for the moment. Clothes that seemed gorgeous and stylish a few years ago feel woefully wrong today. Why does brittle, hairsprayed glamour seem so out of date now when it was all the rage a few decades ago? Why do trousers that slide below the hips to reveal the underwear scream 1990s? A micro-mini and a pair of spiky pumps seems out of date and a little desperate today, and yet, it wasn’t that long ago that it was practically a uniform for the club-hopping set.

We become suspicious of glossy perfection. The disenfranchised find themselves sitting in the corporate boardroom. Gender identity takes on new meaning. Fashion doesn’t change the times. It’s not a dictatorship. Instead, it’s a partnership. A dance.

What do these times require? Fashion will try to provide it. Last season, the culture wanted catharsis and fashion was bolder, more belligerent, darker.

Now we seem to be looking for hope, for answers, for a way forward.

Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

The season ended with Nicolas Ghesquière’s collection for Louis Vuitton. Shown in the oldest section of the Louvre, where there are remains of the site’s original fortress walls from 1190, the collection questioned history’s relevance to the present. Mixing 18th-century aristocratic coats with 21st-century running shorts and sneakers, Ghesquière played with the way history never leaves us no matter how much we may wish otherwise. It’s up to us to determine whether it is an awkward presence or an inspiring one.

Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2018 collection (Stefan Knauer/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Louis Vuitton, a billion-dollar brand, opened a new store this week at Place Vendôme. They did so Monday night with a cocktail party and a concert by Will Smith and celebrities such as Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore, who then dutifully turned up the next day at the show. The company has more than a century of history, and much of it will be on display at an upcoming exhibition in New York. Its cultural footprint is enormous. It has lasted this long by asking, What do the times require? In the past, that led to developments such as stackable steamer trunks when travel become industrialized. Louis Vuitton aligned itself with hip-hop when the moment called for it. It addressed gender fluidity by casting Smith’s son, Jaden, in its womenswear campaign.

And now, Louis Vuitton believes that the times call for chunky sneakers, sport shorts and gilded frock coats. Populism meets the one-percent.

Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

This city hosted designers having a personal reverie, seeking utopia, searching for balance and believing in unicorns. What is right for now? All of it.

Also at Paris Fashion Week:

Chanel is uninspired this season. Chanel groupies will buy it anyway.

Valentino is making incredibly glamorous anoraks, of all things. Anoraks!

Crocs on the runway, and other strange signs of the time in fashion

Junya Watanabe envisions a world of happy punks in big, pretty dresses

It’s like Gumby joined a utopian cult — and created the season’s most magical fashion

Chloé’s new designer came up with a fresh idea for pants, and it actually works

Lush, timeless beauty from fashion’s normal guy

Clothes that could make air travel glamorous again. Well, almost.

Sexy and sophisticated, the Saint Laurent show was just plain glorious

Dior slaps a slogan on a T-shirt and tries to pass it off as feminism

There is just no excuse for this ugly, boring fashion

Fashion wants to put on a spectacle. Can we keep sight of the clothes?


Robin Givhan is a staff writer and the Washington Post fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.

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