The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How ‘street style’ lost its meaning and its power

Undercover Spring/Summer 2017 collection. (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

PARIS — There is no such thing as street style. Not anymore.

Oh sure, photographers still surge around the entrances to fashion shows here, their backpacks ramming into passersby, in an attempt to capture style in its so-called natural habitat. The women — and most of the subjects are female — traipse to and fro posing for the photo pack. Sometimes they peer directly into the camera, and sometimes they feign nonchalance. But the reality is that very little of what is presented as “street style” is actually of-the-street, born and bred.

These looks have not been cobbled together organically. They are not wild. And the photographers are not doing the fashion equivalent of foraging. Much of what we’re seeing the fashion crowd wearing on the street is simply well-placed advertising for brands — whether the clothing itself or the blogger wearing it. It is wholly domesticated.

Today, what we used to think of as street style — athletic, down-market, serendipitous, multi-cultural —  is reflected in the looks offered by both the historic Christian Dior and the corporate Maison Margiela. It is in Off-White and Koché — labels that were both short-listed for the LVMH prize for up-and-coming designers.

And most notably, it is in Balenciaga. Designer Demna Gvasalia has been instrumental in blurring and then erasing the lines between what has always been considered street style and the more rarified point-of-view of the atelier. As part of the Vetements team, he ushered in an era of ungainly, oversized silhouettes and helped to turn such mundane commodities as a logo t-shirt for express-mail giant DHL into a covetable fashion item.

In 2015, Gvasalia was appointed creative director at Balenciaga — one of the most high-minded houses in fashion history. He brought his subversive tendencies with him, along with a deep respect for the craftsmanship of the brand. For spring, the jackets are oversized with such broad and structured shoulders they reach beyond the realm of hyperbole and into distortion. There are vests that resemble gussied up flotation devices. And bold floral prints exquisitely teeter on the edge of garish.

Gvasalia was inspired by fetishes. So he used Spandex to craft pinstriped leggings. He created a latex cape that had the lewd whimsy of a sex toy. And he accessorized a host of ensembles with extravagant crystal brooches pulled from the house’s archive. Cristobal Balenciaga, the founder himself, had actually touched them.

The models also carried oversize bags. Some looked like a portable tuffet and others resembled upmarket versions of inexpensive nylon shopping bags.

[What happens when Balenciaga designs for normal people]

All of the varied elements that once defined street style are now high fashion’s greatest source of inspiration. At Jun Takahashi’s Undercover and John Galliano’s Margiela in particular, they have been incorporated in dazzling and inspiring ways. But sometimes the embrace of street chic comes across as a mere flourish tacked on to spice a bourgeois brand with a bit of danger, to make a woman with a coddled existence feel a bit more in touch. It is an attempt to buy cool.

Laudably, Junya Watanabe took the hard-edge look of punk rockers and Berlin’s street-artist scene and combined it with a dazzling display of geometric construction that has long been part of his repertoire. His models’ hair was molded into mohawks and glossy spikes, and they stomped down the runway as Nine Inch Nails rattled the audience inside the Palais du Tokyo at 9:30 on Saturday morning, when surely no authentic punk would be awake and functioning.

Watanabe’s was a bravura presentation, with the designer confidently mixing souvenir T-shirts with sharply tailored coats, leather shorts and tops that called to mind giant sea urchins.

Takahashi also used music as a source of inspiration for his Undercover collection, although he chose jazz — a once-suberversive genre that’s more melodic than punk. His collection paired loose-fitting trousers, wide leg jeans and embellished jackets in a collage of textures worn with sneakers or Birkenstock-style sandals.

[Street-style fashion photography is in crisis. Karl-Edwin Guerre might be its savior.]

As designers have embraced track pants, sneakers, sweatshirts and hoodies, they have also relieved high-end fashion of its off-putting formality and stuffiness. Fashion has become more relevant to daily life and more comfortable to wear. But it has also made even the most devoted fashion customer raise an eyebrow at the idea of purchasing a designer sweatshirt that has been priced like it is a feat of tailoring wizardry.

Such feelings surely must echo the conversation around the earliest designer jeans. But we all know how that turned out: Consumers proved themselves eager to pay a premium for their Calvins, and designers justified the prices with a vast assortment of fits, washes, types of denim and sexy ads.

But street style is not just a pair of jeans; it is an entire sensibility — a frame of reference. It is not just something borrowed from workmen or musicians or delivery guys. Street style was as a rejoinder to the formalized edicts of design houses.

When Vetements introduced its DHL T-shirt, it was read as a searing commentary on what the culture values and why. It was smart business, but it was also a business choice that went against the grain. But then its droll aesthetics became coveted fashion. Gvasalia landed at Balenciaga. And Vetements showed alongside haute couture — the most highfalutin’ form of fashion there is. What had ostensibly been subversive was absorbed into the ivory tower — or at least an annex of it. Everything has merged.

Abloh, whose Off-White label made a splash in menswear with graffiti-marked army jackets, pullovers and pants, showed his womenswear line Thursday night before an audience including Kanye West, Frank Ocean and various Kardashians. And as one might expect, the collection included edgy sweatshirts and cool-girl trousers.

But Abloh also showed the sort of frilly, ruffled dresses that one might find in some dusty Upper East side boutique. What do they have to do with the “street style” conversation he so ably led? Fashion is mutating. So pair the debutante skirt with a hoodie and call yourself modern.

And what do you call a brand like Koché, with its hoodies and t-shirts designed by Christelle Kocher, who is also the artistic director of Lemarié, the haute couture feather house owned by Chanel?

Kocher roots her brand in the “real” Paris. Previously, she has presented her collection in a grubby passageway frequented by drug addicts; this season, she chose a chaotic mall in the heart of the city where shoppers found themselves disgorged from escalators into the middle of her show.

Look closely and you’ll see that her clothes are beautifully made, with fine fabrics and luxury embellishments. But from a few paces away, they look perfectly at home amidst the food courts and sale bins.

It is optimistic to believe that this shift in fashion is good. If everyone is wearing sweatshirts, maybe eventually the tribal walls will tumble. But in the meantime, it feels like fashion is being degraded into little more than poses, pretense and status.

Fashion has always been connected to status, but it was about something else, too: the unique and wondrous nature of the clothes. It was not simply about crowing: I can afford Dior. It was: I can afford this really extraordinary Dior. Now you can just show off your fancy Dior underpants.

Somewhere out there, far from the runways of this city, there are un-coopted styles. Looks that have not yet been absorbed by designers in search of inspiration or picked up by neighborhood entrepreneurs looking to serve as ambassadors to the broader public.  The looks are personal — maybe even thoughtful or provocative.

Call it subversive. Call it idiosyncratic. Call it serendipitous.

But everything that has been on the runways for spring 2017 — and Instagrammed from the circus that accompanies it — is just plain fashion.