PARIS, France — The Paris men’s fashion week which closed on Sunday night was a deeply escapist affair. There was plenty of feisty hedonism on offer, but also a pervasive fantasy of the working man à la Junya Watanabe. Quite a few shows glorified a refusal of adult life, embracing the arrested development of permanently dressing — and thus feeling and behaving — like high school kids.
Others were based on the revolutionary freedom of ignoring gender-based codification, which was basically like running away from the accepted norms to write a new — if still largely utopian — agenda. Why not? Artistic chaos was another pervasive theme, particularly noteworthy in the crash of active and ethnic at Valentino, in Sacai's wonderfully odd take on practicality, in the fusing of tailoring, workwear and outdoor attire at Lanvin.
But there wasn't much more happening on the catwalks. Balenciaga's refreshing celebration of the Sunday stroll in the park with the family felt wisely grounded in everyday reality, just as much as it came across as a firm refusal of the harshness and dehumanisation of metropolitan life. The same applies to Acne Studios' poetic ode to softly tailored, layered, weightless vacationing in the countryside. The everyday and the ordinary — normality, that is — were, in fact, rather persistent preoccupations, from the hyper-banal banality of Julien David, to Dries Van Noten's pictorial take on office clothing with a slight militaristic tingle to it.
To be sure, there were a few different signals going off at once, but was there really any breaking news? There was not. Sportswear, normality and a kind of “fluidification” of gender stereotypes have been dominating the fashion conversation for quite a while now. Add to that the fact that these, despite the hype, are not the most fashion-forward of times. Homogenisation dominates the creative landscape, with everybody blindly following a small bunch of trendsetters wherever they go. In this sense, Hermès’ unlikely adoption of windbreakers and track pants, if still within the frame of their very own idea of understated luxury, was a telling sign of the times.
The brief, nowadays, is to sell. The space for true fashion evolution, for testing new shapes and new aesthetics that are not just another remix of old tropes, has been radically narrowed. Almost everything, one way or another, feels referential, which is reflective of the times. Still, it bites. In this sense, even a show as dry and punchy as Thom Browne's womenswear-as-menswear galore of strict office suits, schoolgirl pleated skirts, sombre teacher attire and general boarding school severity, paired from start to finish with high-heeled wingtips, owed something — and probably more than something — to Jean-Paul Gaultier's gender- and genre-defying outbursts in the Eighties.
It was not a formal debt, let's be clear. Gaultier raised his own proverbial enfant prodige middle finger in the face of bigots by simply proposing skirts as a menswear staple, following in Ray Petri's footsteps, while Browne went as far as designing a full wardrobe of resized women's stuff, complete with bracelet sleeves, down to the wedding gown, for men.
His move was possibly more radical, if still rooted in the binary thinking that's an essential part of how mankind thinks and categorises the world. It was the idea of empowering masculinity though what is traditionally considered feminine — heels, in primis — that was similar between the two: a discombobulating, thought-provoking move today as it was 30 years ago.
The other purveyor of feminine attire for men, Palomo Spain, sits on a completely different planet. The designer’s work, fine and precious in craftsmanship, comes with a liberating ode to self-conscious queerness that is gay to an nth degree — as in both joyous, jolly and, well, gay. Palomo's own sense of style is Mediterranean and as such comes with an appreciation of the good things in life that are invigorating. It is transgressive in an in-your-face kind of way, yet still delicate.
This season, even the show venues were escapist. Never as often have fashion shows been staged in schools, universities, colleges: closed enclaves where children cultivate knowledge while keeping the adult world at a safe distance. These calm spaces made you actually want to go back to school; to easier times when the only preoccupations were the day's homework and shaping one's own identity, which is, in fact, the topic Pierpaolo Piccioli explored at Valentino through the idea of sport. In top form, Piccioli jumped on the ubiquitous sportswear bandwagon, keeping the house couture finesse in place, and scored with a collection that felt fast and young, if winking here and there at things we know already, Visvim sneakers, for instance.
The soundtracks, too, spoke of running away from reality. There was vintage disco blaring out of the speakers, recalling better, carefree times of hedonistic abandon, disease-free sexual liberation and general enjoyment. Nowhere did this forcibly optimist mood shine brighter than in the glittery, sequinned, jolly Comme des Garçons show, with its dancing gang of kids forgetting the angst of contemporary life and dancing like there was no tomorrow.
It was uplifting to see Rei Kawakubo, a designer known for the heavy conceptualism of her work, go bananas in such an honest way, but it also made you question her current views on menswear. Of late, Kawakubo keeps reducing men to infants, almost denying them the space to grow up. The trousers she proposes are never longer than bermudas, for a start. It would be interesting in the future to see Kawakubo revert back to conceiving grown-up menswear visions, like she did in the heyday of Homme Plus, when she was in fact dressing hommes not garçons.
The reason why escapism is so relevant right now is not difficult to understand, of course. We're living in harsh times that get harsher by the day. Running away from what is unbearable is a completely human reaction. But at its best, it can come with a dose of heroism, as suggested by Rick Owens in what was probably the best show of the season. What Owens is capable of doing with both design and theatrics is superhuman. His vision is truly empowering because it accepts corruption, decay and even dirt, but turns them into positive forces.
Owens has a unique way of making statements through shows that are grandiose but never pointlessly so. There is a cohesion and coherence between all the elements which is as progressive as it is impressive and something from which many designers should learn; Carol Lim and Humberto Leon from Kenzo, for instance, whose high theatrics are, in general, just a bit more than a nice frame to the clothes. Owens' brand of theatrical outbursts, instead, is more than that: a way to run away from reality to build a new one.