PARIS, France — The men's fashion week, which closed in Paris yesterday, was a bit of a blur. Sitting at the shows, watching look after look passing by, felt like forgetfully scrolling through an avalanche of images on Instagram. We are living through strange and saturated times: forgettable stuff is piling up everywhere; conformity rules; the system seems to be on autopilot. Save for the work of true authors, including John Galliano, Rick Owens, Dries Van Noten and Demna Gvasalia, telling designers apart is becoming more and more challenging, though it's precisely a deeply carved signature that makes a label stand out.
Rick Owens, for instance, remains a niche — a powerful and profitable one — exactly because the designer keeps stubbornly exploring the same topics — asceticism, brutalism, purism — season after season, progressing steadily while maintaining his own identity in the face of passing fads. The sliced and twisted knits and the monastic coats he showed this season looked particularly Owens, a reaffirmation of a familiar code. The collection was noteworthy for its clarity of vision and message, which is increasingly rare.
Because, you know, not only did the whole fashion week look confusing and chaotic, but many designers also channeled chaos and confusion in their aesthetic credos of the moment. The beginning of most shows failed to connect with the end, with the middle often sitting somewhere else altogether. Fact is, throwing everything at once on the catwalk and putting magpie inspirations into a spinner equals no message at all. Too much invariably turns into nothing. But that's a general problem of our era: visual abundance has made us distracted and lazy. That said, chaos can also be productive: it's where the seeds of life first bloom.
The chaos of this particular men’s fashion week was widespread. A veritable big bang, it stretched from the technical wizardry and history-drenched yet modern eccentricity of John Galliano's brilliant first menswear outing for Maison Margiela, to Sacai's catchy multicultural travels; from Palomo Spain's giddy and jolly vision of frivolity, to Vetement's sardonic take on gritty thrift-store dressing and banlieue chic. This particular Vetements collection felt, if possible, more divisive than previous ones. It was probably the finest collection that Demna Gvasalia has ever done. As hyper-styled as it appeared, and as arrogant as the decision to present off-schedule in Saint-Ouen actually was, the show felt like a powerful commentary on the current state of fashion, in particular on the notion of replica and appropriation.
Gvasalia, who actually ignited it all, was blatant in a way that left you speechless, unsure if it was dada humor or just plain thievery. He doubled down on the Margiela nods that are the original sin of his work. From the four-stitched label to the tabi shoes, he put it all out there, owning it, and it felt like a juvenile punch. The reproduction of banlieue-worthy piled-up styling through expensive designer clothing, on the other end, felt borderline offensive. Was it an assured masterclass in dark irony or Vetements’ swansong? Probably both.
Vetements aside, fashion's main preoccupations continue to shift. Loud and edgy streetwear, for instance, seems to be waning, after reshaping the industry and adding to the current wave of chaos and mediocrity. GmbH was a case in point. They staged their first proper fashion show en plein air — with the added bonus of pouring rain — on the outskirts of the city. It was heralded as a fashion moment under the confrontational slogan "my beauty offends you." But beyond the throbbing music and aggressive casting were rather normal pieces that felt heavily over-hyped.
Then again, everything today is about hype, which has very little to do with actually making good clothing. It's the aura a designer projects that truly counts. And in this way, no one catches the zeitgeist better than Virgil Abloh, the man who has single-handedly turned smart merchandising into a self-promotional tool. Abloh's Off-White shows are nothing special, drenched as they are with easily detectable references — this season, in a collection titled Business Casual, the sources were pretty clear and included a bit of everything, with lots of old Prada and Raf Simons — even though what the brand actually sells is tees, sweatshirts and perfectos with bold graphics. Off-White is fuelled on Abloh's aura of polymath cool. You don't really get what he does, but he seems to have a hand on everything that counts. Will he soon have his hands on the Louis Vuitton men’s collection, as widespread speculation suggests? If this happens, it will be discomforting but make perfect sense nonetheless. Merchandising is the essence of contemporary fashion, and Abloh is a master merchandiser. For Vuitton, too, merchandising is vital, hence the prospective marriage. In the light of this, Kim Jones' last collection for the house felt a tad sombre.
But the skill level of someone like Dries Van Noten, Rick Owens, Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli or even Haider Ackermann's, whose Berluti show was a highlight of the season, still makes a difference. These designers make products that are captivating and beautiful to behold. Real clothes, not just communication tools.
The system needs a return to proper clothes-making. Because that's really the best way to develop meaningful narratives. The virtual must grow out of the real. After all, even an over-hyped stalwart such as Demna Gvasalia is first and foremost a dressmaker. Not to mention, of course, John Galliano. That's what we need more of right now.