Paris Couture’s Ingenuity Girl Summer

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Photo credit: Images courtesy of Balenciaga.
Photo credit: Images courtesy of Balenciaga.

A veteran fashion designer recently told me that you’re either the hottest brand in the world or you’re failing. Kind of a bummer, isn’t it? If you don’t have the best bag and collaborations and the coolest show, you’re just not in the conversation. And if you care about brands that aren’t in this little clutch of popular girls—which I definitely do—then it can feel like you’re not following the right conversations. I think this is in part because of fashion’s hive mind, but also because there are so many brands and so many shows that it’s easier if we all sort of agree to pay attention to the same few things.

This season of Couture shows gently suggested an alternative reality, and not only because of couture’s more limited breadth. I watched the whole thing from afar—on my laptop, between meetings and deadlines—and ended the week with a feeling of freshness and a sense that originality and even provocation are alive in the art of clothes making. Two shows, in particular—Maison Margiela, and Balenciaga—offered an invitation to dream, a respite to gaze at and appreciate beauty, and, most awesomely, an opportunity to think. You can watch these two shows over and over again and get different, deeper impressions each time.

Maison Margiela thrums along just fine and cool kids of every generation seem to have the house’s Tabi boots, but John Galliano seems more content to do his own thing than something that feels hyper relevant or “now.” His take on gender fluid fashion, though it has its foundations in his own youthful experimentations can feel a bit dated, for example. But this week, for his Artisanal 2022 show, he staged a piece of theater and the audience watched the filming of the piece, so that the production itself became a part of the performance. It was a love story, called “Cinema Inferno,” resembling Natural Born Killers or True Romance: amorous step-siblings on the run “in the dark, poetic heart of America” after they kill their abusive parents.

The meta nature of the project made me think of Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas’s late ’90s triumph which the filmmaker has remade as an HBO miniseries, and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, the two-part film about the filmmaker’s own stumbling creative awakening. Both are projects that are monumentally self-indulgent, declarations that the personal is essential and even triumphant—which actually make them totally sublime works of art. What Cinema Inferno and these two works share is a sense that many great artists don’t reinvent themselves David Bowie-style but rather return to the same themes over and over, tweaking and reworking them for their moment or mood. We’ve seen Galliano’s rubbery caps, satin gowns, cowboy-Incroyables, and rough-draft-ish tulle dresses before, and I suspect, given Galliano’s savantism, there are details and innovations to be appreciated up close, and that the in-person audience or visitors to the atelier can better appreciate than those of us watching just the film. But I was so infected by his lip-licking sense of originality and dedication to creation (and also a little titillated by the political incorrectness of the story) that a search for novelty seems besides the point.

Which brings us of course to Demna, who is so exquisitely original and weird that it makes me excited to be alive in 2022. (Now there’s a feat!) It was only a year ago that he reintroduced couture to Balenciaga, and already many ready-to-wear houses in New York, London, and Paris are already stuffed with collections making faux-couture or couture-lite gestures, doubling down on grandness and intense emotionality as a ripple effect. This Fall 2022 collection appeared in two parts, one SciFi (or not?), with black scuba suits covering the whole body, including hands and faces, and one human (or not?). Celebrities like Nicole Kidman, Kim Kardashian, and Dua Lipa stalked around the Balenciaga salon in enormous dresses that recalled classic couture shapes. The bulbous dresses towards the show’s end, which recalled dresses in his Spring 2020 ready-to-wear collection, were both grand and ridiculous (the finale bride kept tripping over her hem), and looked as though they could eat you alive, or at least run you over and leave you flat. The meticulous draped dresses, like a silver one-strap gown worn by Nicole Kidman, or the fitted bodice and waterfall skirt worn by Bella Hadid, almost looked like stereotypes of couture dresses what a normie sees when they close their eyes and think of old-fashioned-fashion, almost like a bathroom sign for handmade luxury gowns. The colors themselves, like the too-grassy green of Hadid’s dress, or the sickening pink of a stiff gown with a fin-like back, were unnerving, like they were overly committed to the taste of another time. The silhouettes and colors struck me as daringly, doggedly retrograde, in a provocative way. Everyone else is talking about how to “modernize” couture and give it the values of today (inclusivity, accessibility, technological advancements, and feminism, for instance), and though Demna is doing some of those things, by opening a couture store where anyone can shop, for example, and arming his models with Bang & Olufsen speaker bags that piped out the menacing soundtrack, he is also just as interested in what looks old and therefore off. Demna, of course, is always having a completely different conversation than everyone else in fashion and increasingly, it seems, he is having the most relevant one.


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