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At Paris Fashion Week, Less Was More

In an age of clickbait fashion, it was acts of reduction that, paradoxically, stood out most, reports Angelo Flaccavento.
Models walk the finale at Loewe's Autumn/Winter 2023 show.
Models walk the finale at Loewe's Autumn/Winter 2023 show. (Indigital)

PARIS — Post-pandemic Paris Fashion Week has greater pulling power than ever. Those who aim to play it serious and play it loud increasingly need to be here, ideally with posses of screaming teens outside their venues hoping to see their favourite TikToker or K-Pop star. It’s an unmistakable sign that fashion has hybridised with mass entertainment. Cue everything from horses performing at Stella McCartney and a giant Joana Vasconcelos installation at Dior to Coperni’s attempt to break the internet again with robot dogs and Harris Reed’s camp misstep at Nina Ricci (the issue wasn’t the drag; it was the unpolished execution). But beyond the clickbait, the calmer shows were, paradoxically, the ones that stood out.

In an age of sensory overload, acts of reduction resonated most. Balenciaga’s Demna, the original creator of the viral megashow, headed the other way, opting for a linear outing devoid of all theatrics, save for the emotional show notes. (His most compelling quality is being a romantic, despite his design language being so raw and in your face). The change of tone was expected in the wake of a major scandal over two of the brand’s recent ad campaigns. Stripped back to a simple runway in the symbolic Carrousel du Louvre, where Paris Fashion Week took place back in the days before brands began outdoing each other with their own locations and when fashion shows were just fashion shows, the clothes were more or less the same: deconstruction, reconstruction, a harsh take on ladylike style, and clothing as body sculpting. It was a matter of fact show from one of the few designers working today who is a real dressmaker: less a reset, and more an act of repentance and a kind of clearance.

Jonathan Anderson is fashion’s current purveyor of mind-expanding reduction. At Loewe, the stripping down that started with the men’s collection in January reached a peak with blurry memories of pieces impressed onto neat satin dresses (halfway between Martin Margiela and Gerhard Richter), pieces held together by a single pin, and inventive use of supple leather. A tension between control and release ran through the endeavour, which felt slightly erotic and very magnetic, making for clothes that were powerful despite their apparent plainness.

Less is always more at The Row, whose shows in a private mansion on Rue des Capucines are some of the most intimate gatherings Paris offers. The Olsen twins have a powerful sense of simplicity that is all their own and yet glistens with memories of Yohji Yamamoto, Romeo Gigli, Zoran and all the minimalist masters. As such, The Row keeps growing in a magnificent niche of deprivation as high privilege; luxury with a monk-like, utilitarian bent. Their offering is for women who have everything and can therefore do with almost nothing. This season, the collection was particularly roomy, wrapping and easy, with the added frisson of a sudden fold, long leather gloves in an off-kilter hue, a beanie with an evening dress. It was a joy to behold: an expression of true refinement and taste, too often a forgotten notion.

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Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière also pared things back. His examination of French style was visually engaging, with pieces that could translate to real life, and yet the outing was weighed down by the designer’s tendency towards brainy over-complication. Less, in this case, would definitely be more. At Hermès, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski went for botanical simplicity: her panelled coats and Fortuny-like pleated dresses, delivered in an earthy palette of wood tones, were her most assured so far.

At Chloé, the sense of simplification wasn’t as warm. Gabriela Hearst keeps exploring the hard side of a label best known for its feminine softness. The results are clear, but as if bestowed on the wrong brand. The accessories, however, were smashing.

Lanvin also seemed after simplification, with just a smattering of quirky, childish touches like aviator caps in cartoon patterns. This translated into clothes that were fine but a bit plain, lacking the spark and sense of identity a storied maison like this requires.

Elsewhere, this was the season of the black tailleur. In her first Paris show since Covid, Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton proved a master at sharp, devilishly stylish tailoring. Doing away with romantic storytelling, Burton focused on the idea of anatomy, which she channelled through endless variations on the suit and organically shaped dresses that were as precise as they were erotic. More than 10 years after the death of its founder, the house of McQueen has clearly grown into a new being, as Burton continues to carve out new creative territory. What remains is the fierce personality of the woman she dresses.

Ludovic de Saint Sernin’s debut as the creative director of Ann Demeulemeester, albeit a bit thin on clothes, was an assured mix of strictness and abandon in which one could feel a merging of Ann and Ludovic’s respective ideas of androgyny. This was an accomplishment.

At Off-White, it was not the giant mirrored orb taking over the catwalk nor the reddish lunar sand that commanded attention, but Ib Kamara’s shaping of the brand identity to his own liking. If the menswear remained street-inflected, the womenswear stood out for its Alaïa-esque hardware-infused strictness and totemic brand of femininity. There is work to do, but the step forward was noteworthy, and in sync with fashion’s current preoccupations.

Dries Van Noten’s strictness verged on the sombre, in a ‘90s Martin Margiela way, with a unique penchant for opulent fabrics and touches of exoticism. The vertical silhouette, all peeling strata and pieces that come apart, and the painterly play off the dry and masculine with the silky and feminine, felt deliciously accomplished, if touched by hints of nostalgia.

At Sacai, Chitose Abe was feeling strict, too, which gave the label a new tone and a new lexicon, all tailoring, sculptural trains and sweeping constructions that were as brilliant as they felt plausible beyond the catwalk.

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Uma Wang’s exploration of texture and shape oozed the kind of primeval intensity that conjures emotion, while Rokh was all about femininity coming out of mannish pieces in an office environment. Opting for chic severity, Matthew Williams brought back Givenchy to more convincing territories.

The sense of severity was so pervasive this season that even diehard purveyor of sexy Peter Dundas hid his trademark silk dresses under a cloak of marine-inspired peacoats and greatcoats. Meanwhile, for her second Paris outing, Victoria Beckham kept pushing things in a more edgy direction. Working with a “dressed up” theme, she mixed sharp tailoring with slinky dresses and lots of hair. It looked a little messy at times, but it had allure.

There was tailoring aplenty, of the slinky, brass-buttoned variety, interspersed with hoodies turned into bibs, at Palm Angels. This was the first Paris outing for the fast-growing Italian brand. The production was mega but the setting demanded a little more from the clothes, where maturing out of streetwear might take longer than expected.

Over at Y/Project, it was a new iteration of coiling, multipurpose silhouettes with a commanding sense of feminine power. New was a certain solemnity, but the rest came as expected. It’s probably time for Glenn Martens to grow out of his twisted comfort zone.

Amid the vitality of Paris fashion week, Japanese designers remain in a league of their own when it comes to sheer invention. This season it was Kei Ninomiya of Noir who stole the show with a wonderfully trippy blooming of bright colours, glittery surfaces and childish shapes that gave kawaii a dark, clubbing-inflected spin.

Junya Watanabe’s take on packable dressing and desert storms was a moody and captivating nomadic fantasy with something Dune to it. Over at Issey Miyake, Satoshi Kondo keeps delivering the goods. There is a force and a point of view to what he does that is assured and strong, and this season that translated into an imaginative detour around the square.

The Japanese masters, meanwhile, remain masters and very much themselves. Yohji Yamamoto did black upon black, floaty and poetically deconstructed as expected, but there was a newfound svelteness to the line that made it feel fresh. Rei Kawakubo, on the other hand, remains caged in huge volumes and sculptural theatrics with little connection to real life.

What happened to body positivity? All of a sudden, it’s nowhere to be seen on the catwalks, save for a few exceptions. Was it just a storytelling device, a marketing hook? Not at Ester Manas, where the body in all its non-conforming glory is the foundation of a brand that is gorgeously inventive and truly inclusive: one of contemporary fashion’s most interesting projects.

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An attention to different body types was mandatory for Alber Elbaz, and that remains at AZ Factory. The guest designers, this season, were Lucinda Chambers and Molly Molloy of Colville, and it was a thoughtful marriage of draping, ruching and prints coiling and flowing around the body. As much as it all seemed far from fashion’s current preoccupations, it was uplifting and plain beautiful, with an ease that is very Colville.

Isabel Marant’s sense of ease verges on the seductive, and remains a force of its own season after season. This time around felt more Isabel than ever.

This season, we also saw a swift return to the long forgotten notion of elegance, complete with veiled stockings, tons of jewellery and raised catwalks. It was evident at Schiaparelli’s quite literal take on Elsa’s own turbans and shapely dresses, with a few passing nods to good old Christian Lacroix. This was Daniel Roseberry’s first runway show for his ready to wear. As much as it felt old school, it was good to see the creative director venture away from theatricality to deal with reality. There is potential to what he does.

Giambattista Valli manages to balance conservative and provocative in his own unmistakable way. The collection was again a kaleidoscope of tweeds, feathers and chiffons, with a fresher vibe and a sense of elegance that remains season after season.

At Saint Laurent it was the 1980s all over again: broad shouldered blazers, pencil skirts and a shawl thrown on the shoulders, held in place by a ring. The look clearly evoked images of Monsieur Yves in his moment of decline as a fashion master: a slightly sick inspiration that Anthony Vaccarello turned into the epitome of cool. It was all very classy, and fresh for generations who have never seen anything like this. Quietly but steadily, Vaccarello has emerged as an author of few but meaningful words, which in an age of excess is a rare quality.

The skinny black tie, more mod than banker, was central to the Valentino show. This made for a collection that had graphic allure. It was a fashion fantasy with a punch, but at times seemed to reduce subculture to surface level.

Miuccia Prada keeps flying high at Miu Miu. There were hints of nostalgia here too: of the brand in the ‘90s and ‘00s. But it was all seen in a new way, playing with proportions, textures and colours for a bottomless look. Thighs are in, and so are knickers in place of skirts.

In such a climate, is modernism still modern? It is, in that very French, very swift kind of way. At Paco Rabanne, Julien Dossena charted new, turfy and cosy waters while simultaneously paying homage to the radicalism of the founder. It made for a journey that sometimes felt bumpy, and quite madame, but that at best had a painterly, vibrant energy.

Over at Courrèges, Nicolas Di Felice keeps connecting with the younger generations maintaining the focus on cut and silhouette. Quietly and steadily, he is growing into a fashion force to be reckoned with. His way with sharp and sexy has an ease that is unique.

The opening at Chanel was very yé yé, all vinyl and swiftness, but the goings soon pointed in too many directions, from panniers to abstract folk, with the use of camellias being the sole thread. Virginie Viard has a knack for making things women want to wear. And yet, the bloomers, cycling shorts and bermudas looked slightly ill-fitting, and the collection felt a bit out of focus.

Ultimately, it was Rick Owens who stole the show this season. He had everything that’s relevant right now — elegance, strictness, even the raised catwalk — but everything passed through his very own, brutal filter. His was a pure act of fashion making, amped up by just the right amount of theatricality. The crowd outside the venue was huge, but here the fanbase goes deep.

Further Reading

Reputational Rehab for Balenciaga

In the wake of scandal, it’s back to the future for designer Demna as he employs legacy — both Cristóbal Balenciaga’s and his own — to find a way forward, writes Tim Blanks.

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