Robin Givhan, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning fashion critic, is covering Paris Fashion Week. Follow along as she makes her way from runway to runway. Read her stories on Style Blog and follow her on Twitter: @robingivhan.
PARIS – The first model Simon Porte Jacquemus sent out for his show here Tuesday night wore a pair of stiff fisherman’s waders and a mask.
She was otherwise topless. The young woman padded barefoot down the runway that wound through eloquently tattered rooms where plaster peeled from the walls, her face obscured by a swath of brown paper.
Unnerving, perhaps, but not surprising. Nudity is a favorite tool of designers — particularly the young ones — who are under pressure to find ways to startle, provoke, dazzle and stand out in this fiercely competitive fashion capital. Newcomers and even veterans presenting their wares during Paris Fashion Week, which opened Tuesday, must confront the city’s grand history of creativity and reputation for technique when preparing for an audience — editors and retailers from around the world — who expect to be wowed.
In front of this relatively jaded audience, nudity might not shock, but it catches the attention. It can still send a murmur through a crowd.
It’s not as though Jacquemus — whose label bears only his surname — is some anonymous aspirant off the street. He is among the 26 semi-finalists for the second annual LVMH Prize, a list chosen by dozens of industry luminaries from media and business. So, while his work might not yet be commercial, it speaks to the future of fashion and its creative urges. His collection was presented to music with a strong, primitive, tribal beat. The models had sketches of Picasso-esque faces drawn on the side of their own faces — a walking homage to cubism. Those blank, rough-hewn masks spoke of surrealism, as did hand-shaped bodices that palmed the breasts.
But all one could really focus on were the boobs.
Tiny, naked breasts coming down the runway. The models were so close to the audience that one could see the fine hairs on their slender arms, as well as the goosebumps. Even when the models faces were concealed, it was possible to read discomfort in their taut body language.
Everything about the mis-en-scene and the references read “art.” Jacquemus aimed to use the female body in the manner of paint or clay. He wanted to make his audience see it in a new way. But there was little in the execution that elevated the work from anatomy lesson to something more thoughtful or evocative. In this case, a naked breast was just a naked breast.
Jacquemus gave himself a difficult, though not impossible, task. Designer Hussein Chalayan has used runway nudity as a commentary on clothing as shelter. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons regularly treats the body as raw materials for her craft. And notably, in 2002, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited a series of exquisite nudes photographed by Irving Penn from 1949-1950. In them, he transformed the female body into meditations on lines and curves, fertility and beauty. The images mesmerized the eye because they spoke to both the heart and the brain.
Jacquemus is not aiming to be Penn, but he, like a lot of designers, is attempting to use fashion as a way of helping us see ourselves in a different way. The easiest way to do that — some might argue the cheapest route — is to reveal the body in a manner that is still considered taboo. Can we change the rules by breaking them? Yes. Even when done so clumsily? Maybe not.
Designer Anthony Vaccarello also flouts taboos. He cuts his dresses high on the hip and low in the neckline. And for fall, he chopped some skirts so short that one could almost see the models’ nether regions.
Vaccarello, who was recently appointed creative director of Versus — a scion of the Versace label — is known for designing sexy, tough-edged clothes. They are ostensibly for a woman who wears her sexuality like armor or weaponry. For fall, he settled on a theme of stars against a palette of black. They were applied to skirts and dresses as appliqué and metallic adornment. Hemlines were edged in metal fringe. And cuts were angled and oftentimes so complicated that a single garment consisted of a one-legged, skirt-covered, jumpsuit tunic. And if that sounds complicated to imagine, it would be almost impossible to comfortably wear.
But the runway doesn’t have to be about comfort or even logic. Ultimately, it is a place to explore ideas about how we wish to be perceived. Vaccarello designs clothes that make a woman’s sexuality the central element of her public persona. Sometimes that squares with her mood.
He should just remember that gynecology is not part of fashion’s mission statement.