PARIS, France — The true stars of the Paris Fashion Week, which closed Wednesday, were not the designers, nor the clothes. They were the stylists. From Céline's sexed-up chaos to Louis Vuitton's feral glitz, everything looked incredibly polished, painstakingly put-together and immaculately picture-worthy, even when the underlying idea was that of a certain seedy messiness, as with the collection shown by the up-and coming label Vetements, its studious unbalance perfected to the nth degree.
The fixation with the hyper-visual is related to the attention deficit disorder of todays customers.
This comes hardly as a surprise. Contemporary fashion is less about clothes making and more about image-making. So much so, in fact, that some of the most successful designers working today — Hedi Slimane at Saint-Laurent and Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino, to name just a few — blend a product-driven approach with an editorial eye (they certainly know how to put a look together), making them veritable masters of a new way of thinking, which could be christened ‘design-marketing.’ In that sense, their skills are, mostly, those of a stylist. Wasn't Riccardo Tisci's Victorian-suburban galore of dark romanticism and chola girls for Givenchy a thing of haute styling? It certainly included some mean tailoring and some incredible craftsmanship, but the whole thing would have looked a lot weaker without the arresting styling and face jewellery.
This is the era of the montage, after all. Style is the pervasive rule, which means an emphasis not on the what (the actual pieces or their design), but on the how (the assemblage). This is where stylists cement their power.
The names of super stylists are usually whispered in secrecy among the cognoscenti. Everybody knows who's working on what, but these relationships are rarely acknowledged officially by fashion houses. Marie-AmeliéSauvé's long-standing relationship with Nicolas Ghesquière and Benjamin Bruno's substantial contribution to Jonathan Anderson's work at both JW Anderson and Loewe are exceptions to the rule. But otherwise, stylists remain firmly behind the scenes. Usually, they are not even credited in the show notes. Their influence, however, has never been as strong and pervasive as it is now.
The rise of the stylist is locked up with a number of questions regarding creative collaboration, invention and homogenisation; Paris brought them all to the surface. As a stylist friend once told me, the role of a stylist, similar to the editor of a written text, should be that of a "cleaning lady.” A stylist is there to polish a vision and make it shine, to take away rather than add, to fine-tune rather than distort. But, if the cleaning lady suddenly turns into an interior decorator and, instead of tidying up the room, starts to refurbish it, well, that’s a problem.
You cannot turn straw into gold, but that's exactly what they kept trying to do in Paris. Acne Studio's over-wrought, silly layering of humongous tailoring made shapely through giant stitching and lavishly-applied accessories was a desperate attempt to imbue an undeserving collection with avant-garde status. The dry, minimalist brushing at Nina Ricci, on the other hand, completely erased the hint of sensuality and femininity once associated with the label, making Guillaume Henry's debut collection look dull instead of sleek.
Which all makes me wonder: how does the relationship between designer and stylist really work? Certainly stylists are much more than mere muses or even editors of a designer’s work. They have become co-designers themselves, lending their hand and eye to fabric choices, fit and so on. Of course, a creator needs to dialogue with someone. But the over-stylised shows we saw in Paris are not good for fashion.
The phenomenon is tightly linked to the rising importance of marketing. With fashion collections increasingly designed in bulk — and often blurring together — what really seduces clients is a powerful image and good stylists know how to create one. They work simultaneously for many brands, sometimes high street as well as high fashion, which explains the migration of aesthetic spores here and there, but that is another problem.
Heavily styled catwalk looks are also harder to break up and recompose for magazine stories, making the work of editorial stylists much harder. As a result, they often opt for the full outfit, strengthening again the power of big brands over the creativity of progressive image-making. As you see, it is a beautiful-looking trap.
In Paris, there was still evidence of real creation, of course. The Japanese designers continue to push the envelope and challenge convention. Chitose Abe (Sacai), Jun Takahashi (Undercover) and Junya Watanabe were all in top form, giving us things that we have never seen before. As for the rest, Paris was possessed by the spectre of Martin Margiela, the original ghost designer whose elongated silhouettes and elegant slashes of deconstruction appeared even in the collections of brands like Chloé. They did not, however, appear at Maison Margiela, where John Galliano reverted back to his dramatic tricks after a convincing couture debut, leaving me scratching my head.
All in all, Paris was slightly forgettable, largely due to a general lack of coherence in many of the collections. We saw, if not everything, almost everything at once. It was sometimes as deliberate as designers delivering a precise— and actually uplifting — message to women: embrace your multiple selves. It worked well at Céline, a little less so at Valentino and Louis Vuitton. Yet deliberate incoherence, far from being cultural manifesto, is also interesting on a commercial level. The randomness in the running order of many shows and the haphazardness in the succession of looks clearly telegraph the fact that, right now, what counts is the product, not the concept. It is the single look that pierces the eyes and wallets of customers — forget about consistent storytelling.
After all, this fixation with the achingly hyper-visual might have to do with the permanent attention deficit disorder of today's customers. You've been warned.