Anthony Vaccarello has always loved deserts. “The English Patient” was one of his favourite movies when he was a kid. “The desert brings an energy that clears your mind, something you don’t find at the beach, or in the mountains,” he said when he called in from Paris on Monday. For Saint Laurent’s Summer 2021 show, Vaccarello’s models walked along the crest of a massive sand dune, “somewhere in the world where we could travel”, was as specific as he would get. “No lights, no structure, just the pureness of the girl, the clothes, the desert, materialising in the moment. The show was the moment.” And when it was over, the wind would dematerialise every trace of its existence.
Similar dunes stretched to the horizon. Soaring drone shots established just how elevated the models were, and how narrow their walkway was. One slip and it looked like they would roll to their doom. But at the end of the shoot, Vaccarello did just that. Rolled down the dune for the hell of it, a child playing in the biggest sandpit on Earth.
Yves Saint Laurent famously loved the desert too. One of the reasons Vaccarello chose the setting was a YSL shoot in Morocco from 1969, with the bodies of the chiffon-clad models famously girded with gold body pieces by sculptor Claude Lalanne. “I was able to use real Claude Lalanne vintage pieces in the show,” the designer said. “I thought it was important to mix them with clothes of today, and when they agreed, it was really the finishing touch for the collection I had in my mind.”
Which was the late 60s, specifically “Soixante-Huit”, when a revolutionary turmoil gripped France. Saint Laurent’s couture collection from 1968 was Vaccarello’s starting point for Summer 2021. “After the huge success of the colours and the latex for last winter, I didn’t want to be stuck on that thing. I wanted to go back to the roots of the house, the lines, the purity, the short, very simple dresses with a zip up the middle.”
Against the consummate blank slate of sand, the first model appeared over the lip of the dune in an elongated jacket belted over matching bike shorts, as stark as a single black line in the sand. “I reworked all the thick jersey combinaison from the couture of ’68,” said Vaccarello. “It was very strict, but it had the same function as what a woman wears today, and I wanted to make that link between the two periods. After living inside for this whole year, we want to be in comfortable clothes, but I don’t like floppy. Though you can move freely in this, it’s still very Saint Laurent, very fitted, very elegant, and not constricted like other seasons.”
Very Soixante-Huit too, Vaccarello might add of his monochrome boho wraiths in their modified Sassoon cuts. Which made a single exception all the more striking. It was a long-sleeved, high-necked dress in camel cashmere jersey falling to a mid-calf length over a high boot. It was also Vaccarello’s favourite look in the collection. “I never did anything like that. I liked the softness, it was very elegant, very ton sur ton with the sand. And even though it looks covered up, the body is not erased.”
There was more suggestive drollery in the styling. The closest thing in the collection to YSL’s classic saharienne was the jacket Anja Rubik wore over a stock-tied blouse. So far, so perfectly proper. But it was paired with a pair of lace panties, cut high on her feat-of-nature thighs. This was Vaccarello’s sly comment on WFH, 2020′s modus operandi. On screen, you’re all business. Out of sight, you’re anything goes. The same pairing of proper vs. panties popped up a few times.
Another handful of equally abbreviated looks in feather-trimmed, floral chiffon, the evening looks of the collection, were inspired by “les liseuses”, the label that Saint Laurent, heavily influenced by Proust, sardonically applied to the kind of women he imagined lying around in bed all day reading, indolently swathed in satin and chiffon.
“He thought it was a bad look,” Vaccarello explained, though he thought he too had created a bit of a bad look with the feathers and the florals, which he called “mean”. “But I also think it’s nice, since we spent so much time inside this year, to dress to read a book for yourself, or for someone else.” Vaccarello also liked the idea that his “liseuses” were dressed to get up and go out if they so desired.
The show was the latest manifestation of Vaccarello’s new independence from the traditional fashion calendar. “The collection was ready on time during fashion week, but I just didn’t want to show it in the circus of something we’re not into anymore. I didn’t want to do a show in an empty space, with people seated every 10m with a mask. That’s sad. It’s always important for me to have air and a big space outside and I’m kind of happy that I realised in the end I don’t need an audience. If I film it, I take out the audience anyway. Like my shows in Malibu and New York. They were about landscape and mood.”
Which wasn’t to say that Vaccarello wasn’t looking forward to the time when audiences would return and he could hug his friends after a show. But, in a year of change, it seemed fitting that he’d found a metaphysical truth in the all-consuming vastness of the great outdoors. The women on the dune reminded me of the boys on the Great Wall of China in the film that was shown for the men’s collection in September. Maybe Vaccarello felt the same.
“You realise you’re so small,” he confided. “That’s what makes me emotional. We’re busy making clothes, doing business, but in the end it’s a small thing against the enormity of the world.” He likes it like that, very éphémère. Which was probably why he still wouldn’t tell me where that dune was. Perhaps it no longer exists.