Let’s talk about the clothes, because once you get rid of the smoke and mirrors, the music and the elaborate sets, that’s all that’s left. These are challenging times for the fashion industry, because consumers are seeing more clearly the ways in which fashion has obfuscated and misdirected. They are changing their habits; they’re altering how they shop and why they shop.
The ground beneath retailers is heaving; most recently, it shifted under Forever 21, once one of the leading purveyors of fast fashion. The brick and mortar merchant’s bankruptcy filing has been attributed to overexpansion, the rise of online shopping and increasing concern over the effects of disposable fashion on the environment. As Forever 21 takes a hit, we can grieve over the loss of jobs. But should we mourn a business model that’s based on consuming as much as possible as quickly as possible and then dumping it all in a landfill?
Meanwhile, on the other end of the price spectrum, Barneys New York filed for bankruptcy protection in August, as it has struggled to sell enough merchandise to pay the high cost of leasing its buildings — specifically, its Madison Avenue flagship. What do consumers want? Cheap, disposable clothes? Expensive styles-of-the-moment?
The designers who debuted their spring 2020 collections here are making a bet on how to thrive amid these shifts. A few are aiming for sustainability by offsetting their carbon footprint and recycling the bits and pieces of their elaborate sets. Some are making clothes that are so irresistible customers will want to wear them forever, or at least until they become threadbare. They are making their clothes available wherever people want to buy them: stores or online. And they’re marketing them on models who look at least a little bit like their potential customers. And they are keeping their fingers crossed.
Here, at the tippy-tippy top of the fashion pyramid — where garments are hand-embroidered, adorned with silk ribbons, bejeweled and bedazzled — there is a lot to desire.
Valentino designer Pierpaolo Piccioli created a simple slip of a gown with a flowing train in a shade of geranium that is so bright it’s positively radioactive, and yet it takes your breath away. His story of color and silhouette built like a symphony. He allowed its melody to build to a crescendo from its quiet opening of voluminous shapes in stark white. Only his models’ eyelashes, glittering with gold dust, hinted at the richness to come.
Piccioli immersed his audience in shades of Day-Glo pink and acid green, then he shifted into fauvist flora and fauna paintings on pleated day dresses and tops. He gave the eyes a rest with a return to white, and then came another explosion of color.
To watch his spring collection unspool in the glass box constructed near Les Invalides under an overcast sky was an exceptional joy. A skilled designer was at work. And he was making fashion’s best argument for why clothing is worthy of an investment — and how it can provide an enduring pleasure.
This season, John Galliano’s Maison Margiela collection riffed on uniforms and in the process produced modern tailoring that blurred the line between masculine and feminine. Joseph Altuzarra delivered heirloom knits inspired by the sweaters that his grandmother and mother made for him as a child. Designer Kunihiko Morinaga played with perspective and turned something as simple as a navy crested blazer into a study in proportions.
Designer jeans rise again. Hedi Slimane continues to mine the 1970s for inspiration at Celine. He, like Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy, is offering up faded jeans that will likely sell for some $800 — give or take a gasp of horror. His are high-waisted and flared — similar to Landlubber jeans, said one baby boomer as she reminisced about the brand that was popular during her teen years. His models, who seemed contractually obligated to keep their hands in their pockets, stalked the runway with a bored and dismissive posture — an attitude at odds with the earnest urgency of a generation marching for gun control and environmental causes. Keller’s jeans are wrecked — ripped, faded, gnawed — and paired with tailored jackets or fancy blouses. Her models were allowed to let their hands hang free.
Miuccia Prada’s Miu Miu collection had hints of the 1940s and 1950s, but mostly it was just a dazzling balance of unlikely fabrics with sensual shapes, extravagant embellishments on humble fabrics and naif embroideries on garments as delicate as spun sugar. Lacoste brought chic elegance to athleisure and made one want to put more of an effort into not looking like a sweaty mess when commuting to or from the gym.
Sarah Burton’s Alexander McQueen collection had no elaborate theme other than the skill, time and spirit of collaboration that’s required to create clothes that aspire to become heirlooms rather than castoffs. “I love the idea of people having the time to make things together, the time to meet and talk together, the time to reconnect with the world,” Burton said in her show notes. Time, after all, is the greatest luxury. And Burton has imbued her collection with a sense of its preciousness.
Burton presented her work on a stark set — essentially a long runway constructed of humble wood. Indeed, there were so many sets constructed of bare plywood and engineered wood that one wondered if the lumberyards of Paris have anything more than a wood chip left in stock. Burton’s winsome sensibility is rich in romance and history, but also luxury. One always imagines walking slowly across the heath on a misty evening — toward a waiting limousine and a bottle of Dom on ice.
This was a special collection. A crocheted ivory dress mimicked Irish lace. Botanical embroidery adorned dresses with monumental sleeves. And a pale blue dress, which looked as if Burton had managed to lasso a bit of sky and bring it to earth, was created from hand-pleated and hand-cut silk gauze organza.
At the conclusion of her show, Burton emerged to take her bows. In a blink of an eye she was gone, but she was followed by the members of her atelier, by the people with whom she takes the time to collaborate.
The runway season closed Tuesday with Nicolas Ghesquière’s presentation of his Louis Vuitton collection inside a tent constructed in the courtyard of the Louvre. It is a magnificent indulgence to walk past the I.M. Pei pyramid in the twilight of an overcast day and then past the metal barricades and the teeming crowd gathered to catch a glimpse of … who? Perhaps guests Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel.
Inside the tent, another wooden set. A black and white image of the pop singer Sophie glowed from a video screen covering the entirety of the back wall. Her face slowly bloomed into a full color video as her voice soared and her eyes seemed to calmly consider the crowd. The runway collection flowed from tailored blazers and high-waisted trousers into richly colored and patterned dresses. Ghesquière’s bravura collection was another spirited argument for the bounty of fashion.
Fashion is feeling its way into an unknown future, while facing the same hurdles and committing the same sins as other industries. It needs to become more nimble at a time when changing technology is upending its longtime business model. But fashion also painted itself into a corner. Instead of encouraging consumers to savor every purchase, it taught them to briskly chew up every errant trend, spit them out and ask for more.
The standout collections for spring weren’t the ones looking to give consumers a sugar rush but the ones offering the indulgent, memorable pleasure of a chef’s table. And, perhaps, a way forward.
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