Fashion is tricky – if you truly care about it and demand excellence form it, your relationship inevitably turns into a mild form of sadomasochism. I suppose any relationship worth having takes on a similar form sooner or later. Life is imperfect and the pursuit of happiness is futile. You learn this as you get older and if you are more or less mentally healthy, your pursuit of perfection turns into pursuit of something great, which turns into pursuit of something good, and finally of something good enough.
There was all that on display in Paris, and of course plenty of plain bad if not outright terrible. A note on these reviews going forward; I usually refrain from commenting on shows that I have not seen in person, but this is a digital age, so I am slowly loosening these self-imposed boundaries, though I still feel that there is no adequate substitute for a show. Fashion demands to be seen in real life, and all the accoutrements of a show – the venue, the setting, the music – affect judgement. Judgements are subjective and that is fine – the point is what expertise and experience informs one’s judgement. Nevertheless, some shows to which I doubt I will ever be invited – either because I am deemed too low on the pecking order of fashion editor hierarchy or because I’ve been critical of the work – are important in the context of fashion and culture and merit commentary.
And so. I missed two excellent shows because my flight got into Paris late – Undercover and Dries Van Noten. I did watch the videos for both and visited the respective showrooms to examine the clothes. Uplift was one of the main themes of the season – I am all for it after the last eight years of mind rape that began with Trump and Brexit and segued into a pandemic and the war in Ukraine. There was uplift at both Undercover and Van Noten (and in plenty of other shows). At Undercover the complexity of patterns – garments with two tops or bottoms that could be worn in different ways – reflected the mixed mood of Jun Takahashi, something he told me when we met at the showroom. Takahashi brought his pattern-makers from Tokyo to see the show – a heartwarming gesture of appreciation for the unsung heroes of fashion. The cute-macabre tension that Takahashi is so good at was also present in sweatshirts that said “Angel” and “Sweet” on them, the words slashed with a razor, opening the top to reveal some skin, the wounds patched up with a rose here and there. The slashes were also on some of the suiting, lest one accuses of Takahashi turning conservative.
Dries Van Noten seemed to be in a similar mood. Somewhat uncharacteristically, his show opened with a series of black looks, which slowly transitioned into subdued colors and finally into an explosion of prints. At the showroom, the garments revealed not only his mastery of print, but also of silhouette and texture. It was a sublime collection.
There was more uplift the next morning at Shang Xia, where Yang Li played with the punk codes of bombers and perfectos by rendering them in pleasing pastels. It could have all gone south, but Li’s talent held it all together – there was a sweetness to the clothes that was not cloying or facile. Not to go too Tinkerbell on us, Li threw in a couple of his signature goth pieces, of which a long perfecto coat with a lace body was a particular standout.
There is no reason to hide that in the StyleZeitgeist universe a Rick Owens show is always the centerpiece of the fashion week. The show was good but not great – by Owens’s standards, of course, because it was still better than much of what this season had to offer. And there was nothing wrong with the clothes per se – but I wished for more newness. Except the “pile of tule,” which Owens playfully admitted was a rather sly trick, most of the things he showed – the bombers with super-strong shoulders, yet another version of the Kiss platform boots – we’ve seen one too many times. Owens is one of the most talented designers working today and the key to his longevity has been his ability to move forward while retaining his unmistakable Owensness. It is time to start a new chapter of his incredible book we are all lucky to get to read.
One could easily say the same thing about Yohji Yamamoto, but somehow his collections manage to vary enough and continue to inspire in their mastery of tailoring and his dark romanticism never feels stale. This show started slow – not only because of the clothes but also because of Yamamoto’s unwillingness to accompany his shows with music that stops delivering oxygen to the brain – but it ended with such a sartorial, haute-couture worthy bang that raised us attendees from our dogmatic slumbers.
Time flies in Paris and a blink of an eye brought us to Saturday and the entire Comme des Garçons family that goes through a titanic effort of staging three shows in one day. Unlike Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe is gracious with his audience (graciousness is something I wish Madame Kawakubo would also take to heart – the Comme shows delight in torturing show attendees)- he understands that an early morning show demands a fitting soundtrack and he jolted and delighted us with Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film.” His English New Romantics theme absolutely rocked – the clothes were phenomenal in their post-punk esthetic and in their awe-inspiring complexity. I am convinced that Watanabe’s pattern makers are not from planet Earth (actually, the same goes for the entire CdG family), and the government agencies that deal with aliens should look into them.
Then it was onto more envelope-pushing at both Noir by Kei Ninomiya and Comme des Garçons. I go back and forth on shows that don’t show clothes as clothes but as exercises in possibility, which hew closer to art. I am more partial to Noir here because Ninomiya stretches one’s brain in order to highlight his construction methods, while I cannot exactly make out Rei Kawakubo’s purpose. The whole thing is almost beyond judgement, because I’m not exactly sure which criteria I should apply. Of course at the showroom there are plenty of more down to earth translations on offer from both brands. A note of caution is due here that these translations sometimes come dangerously close. This time if the Noir clothes were at Comme and Comme at Noir, I would have not bat an eyelash. I suspect that Ninomiya will one day take over the Comme des Garçons main collection.
The Ann Demeulemeester show was my last of the day – it started very late, Cher waltzing in at the last minute. The crowd went wild and the Instagram feeding frenzy ensued, with Cher barely hiding her distaste for being treated as a prop for other people’s pictures. Oh, well, such is the life of a star who chooses to come to a fashion show today. The circus outside of the shows keeps getting more and more out of control. Perhaps one day the authorities will step in.
And then there were the clothes, which felt like a step forward, or rather half a step, and still not enough to garner excitement. There are plenty of elements of the Demeulemeester DNA missing and the brand is begging for a new creative director. The whiffs of Margiela – elongated silhouette with floor-sweeping skirts and sheer tops over shirts were obvious to those of us who have a longer memory than your average fashion show attendee, probably due to the fact that this collection was spearheaded by one of Margiela’s OG designers. The ribbon styling trick felt exactly like a trick, and certainly not enough to break up the monotony of the collection – this particular piano is in sore need of more keys. There were cool highlights, like the bags with pockets, but again not enough to add up to a collection that moved one’s heart, which is what Demeulemeester is about.
My only event Sunday was the presentation of another Belgian designer, Olivier Theyskens. The collection consisted mostly of patchwork dresses that were gorgeous and sensual and fairy tale-like. The question Theyskens will have to answer remains the same – who are these clothes for in 2022? This world is too coarse and too vulgar for the kind of attenuated sensitivity that Theyskens is a master of and which found a loyal audience, celebs including, in the ‘90s, when counterculture heaved its last pale breath. I can’t think of any of our present day pop culture luminaries that would be elegant enough to dress in this manner. In a way Theyskens and Demeulemeester are facing the same problem, how to bring a brand synonymous with the ‘90s gothic romanticism into today’s world of mass narcissism, in which relentless self-promotion is the name of the game.
Perhaps Chitose Abe at Sacai has an answer. Not only her clothes are both au currant and creative, she understands the need for a designer with a strong and easily recognizable esthetic to move forward and expand her vocabulary. This collection was signature Sacai, and yet full of newness and dynamism, whether in the way Abe treated pleats or stripped down a trench to its belted pockets.
The last show I attended was that of Thom Browne. It was again a fabulously weird spectacle – as if to hammer the point home, the show was held at the Paris Opera. The clothes were masterful, though they demanded one’s concentration since the spectacle overshadowed them. Mercifully, we were spared anchors, crabs, and tennis rackets. Still, I wish that Browne also showed somewhat of a pivot fro his too familiar tropes – the way he did in a memorably show in New York a year ago that was all about subtraction and not addition – and not lean in too heavily into the theater.
Now a few notes on the shows I did not attend. First, Givenchy, where Matthew Williams seems lost and not quite sure in which direction to move. The streetwear / couture mix simply does not work, ditto his related desire to somehow blend the casualness of Los Angeles with Parisian chic, an exercise that seems akin to forcing two incompatible species to copulate. No one in my memory who has tried such cross-breeding has succeeded and I doubt Williams will. The house of Givenchy sorely needs an aesthetic reset before it falls into complete irrelevance, and I am not sure where it will come from.
And then there was the dreaded Balenciaga show, with another round of Demna’s antics that hide the fact that he is a mediocre designer who has simply run out of design ideas. But he, or his team – are good at mis-an-scene, that is repackaging the same stuff. This one was all about the apocalypse, dystopia, faux-social responsibility, faux-seriousness and so on. Demna has done its hardest to flip things upside down, and by and large his audience, including many fashion critics, have drunk his Kool-Aid of cognitive dissonance, even though he was slinging mud at them in his preposterous show notes that tried hard to hide the fact that Demna is an employee of the second biggest luxury conglomerate and is in the business of selling cheap, distressed hoodies to rich people for a lot of money, and no amount of mental gymnastics and calling the white black and the black white will change that. It takes a breathtaking amount of willful blindness to buy into Demna’s propaganda, and Demna’s cynicism seems to thrive on the fact that so many do. All the lazy pseudo-intellectual stuff about him being a torchbearer that forces the industry to look at the real world is hogwash. I, for one, don’t get my geopolitical news and opinion from fashion designers – I get them from the New York Times and the Economist. But if you think that Balenciaga is better equipped to comment on current affairs than the BBC, perhaps now is a good time to ask yourself how much you truly care about the world.
And that is more or less it. Last night in Paris at dinner I brought up Kanye West’s latest fashion week stunt, and my friend said, “I refuse to talk about him.” I urge you to do the same.