By Robin Givhan
As is customary, the Louis Vuitton presentation was the last of the seasonal runway shows in Paris. The global brand presented its fall 2018 collection at the Louvre with guests entering through the I.M. Pei glass pyramid and proceeding through the museum’s stone interior. Locations in the city do not get more rarefied and dramatic than that.
For this show, the models walked around an expansive open courtyard that was once a stable. A clear tent had been pitched overhead but the space was not fully enclosed, and just as the spotlights came up, it began to rain, which lent a certain urgency to the proceedings. The models walked down a wide ramp and onto what could have been the deck of a space ship. There were fun cropped jackets and spangly skirts but they were a significant distance from the nearest seat. The result was that one took in the spectacle, the showmanship, but not the construction of the clothes or the details in them.
When the show ended, designer Nicolas Ghesquiére trotted down the ramp to take his bows. The audience was dispatched into the night and into the pouring rain. The whole experience felt efficient and organised, but vaguely sterile. Which garment made one feel desire? Which frock sparked passion? Where was the heat?
In the pantheon of runway shows, Vuitton’s was not over-the-top. But in the scope of the current season, it was the closest any brand came to setting off fireworks. While Paris is known for the creativity of designers and their delight in presenting their work in a dynamic environment, intimacy has been the byword in the fashion trade this season. Intimacy. Not sexy. Not hot. Not passionate.
Just clothes, ma’am. Thank you very much.
It’s been a rough year or two for fashion, trying to find its way at a time when women are asserting their power and redefining themselves in the public sphere. They are marching and protesting and taking no guff. Like so many other industries, fashion is having to sort out its power structure and the ways in which those who have sway use and abuse their positions.
It must determine what this all means for an industry that sells its products on the backs of young women and men, traffics in the currency of sexual provocation and is constantly testing boundaries.
For much of its modern history, fashion has used sex and sexuality to market itself. Sex became intertwined with power and privilege. And so perhaps, fashion needs to take a hiatus from its sex-driven advertising campaigns, runway imagery and the like until it is able to tease all these strands apart.
So turn off the steam. Put titillation on pause. Designers still might set themselves up in esoteric locations or jaw-droppingly dramatic spaces, but there was a concerted effort to simply brag about the clothes. They showed off the work of the atelier. They underscored French savoir-faire. They wanted customers to know that they are more than just a hot label even if the label is the best sales pitch.
Even that international bigfoot, Chanel, which has a tradition of extravagant, overwhelming sets, still managed to highlight the craftsmanship that goes into its ready-to-wear. Designer Karl Lagerfeld presented his collection at the Grand Palais amidst an indoor forest constructed for the occasion. An enormous silk screen of tall trees surrounded rough-hewn wooden benches resting atop a ground cover of leaves and moss. Inhale deeply and you’d be transported to an old-growth forest after a rainfall. There was even muddy soil underneath the leaves.
His models tramped through the forest in tweed suits with metallic gold over-the-knee boots and black-and-gold oxfords. There were cropped metallic trousers and an array of black dresses in chiffon and lace.
But even in the outsize manner in which Chanel presents its collections, the clothes are somehow, miraculously, never lost. The backdrop emphasises some essential aspect of them – in this case, the earthy colours, the textures and a reality-based grounding of the work. There was nothing conceptual: These were clothes to wear, and the assembled clients who were dressed in their own head-to-toe Chanel could feel free to shop.
There was a lot of wandering through nature and walking in the woods at the shows this season. At Hermès, designer Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski presented her show in a misty garden at twilight. As guests settled in on benches and warmed themselves with Hermès blankets, production assistants raked the red gravel runway until the rocks were just so.
The models emerged through the mist, and the clothes’ depth of craftsmanship was immediately clear. One could practically feel the weight of the cashmere jackets that hung from shoulder straps, and the buttery softness of the colorful suede boots.
Whatever the brand, no matter its size, the desire, almost always, was to find a way to bring people as close to the clothes as possible – to befriend the guests. But not seduce them. At Givenchy, designer Clare Waight Keller presented her second ready-to-wear collection for the house and it was a dynamic show inspired by Berlin and Brutalist architecture that featured strong-shouldered coats, a forest-green leather skirt and vest, plenty of animal prints and a thick undertone of female power. It was a collection that gave one a feeling of danger and aggression, as if the gremlin on your shoulder was whispering brisk exhortations to lean in and win. Stop being so nice. Stop apologising.
Sarah Burton’s Alexander McQueen eschewed the more elaborate stage set for one that had the models wandering through a maze of a runway so close to the audience that you could almost feel the fluttering fuchsia fringe on the long tunic worn by model Liya Kebede. You could see the threads of distressed embroidery on a red patterned coats. You noticed the flared trousers flopping over athletic sneakers.
The models walked on the floor. They were not elevated or put on a pedestal. They were all about business, about getting things done and taking charge.
Mostly, this hasn’t been a season of rip-roaring, knock-out collections. The ones that have stood out have done so with a calm focus rather than a frenzied drumbeat. Often it wasn’t the sweep of the collection that was most compelling but a few key notions.
Yang Li’s presentation was evocative and cool, but it was a single black top with an array of ribbon-embroidered flowers that left a lasting impression. It was romantic and mournful, a top that stirred deep emotions through its graceful lines and quiet whimsy.
At Paco Rabanne, it’s impossible to forget the chink, chink, chink of models padding down the runway in Julien Dossena’s chainmail dresses and those constructed from interlocking paillettes.
At Stella McCartney, it was her tailored blazers and coats worn with faded denim and sneakers that stay in the memory. As the soundtrack blared the frustrations of a woman who can’t find her cell phone – only to realise it’s been in her hand all along – the collection felt rooted in the here-and-now. Or maybe the here-and-1980s. It wasn’t especially exciting, but it was reassuring. It was not sexy. Or hot. It was a little bit frumpy. Purposefully so.
Chitose Abe of Sacai gave the audience the spliced-together beauty of collegiate stripes and puffer jackets, business plaids and olive drab, and the wholly reconstructed mix of sweater prints that call to mind Native American handwork.
At Loewe, designer Jonathan Anderson offered some of the best coats of the season, whether in sleek green leather or caramel wool. His fluid shirts with long neck ties and full skirts with easy sweaters showed off the skills of the design house and the beauty in keeping things simple.
And at Miu Miu, it will be impossible to erase the memory of acid-washed, high-waisted jeans with a matching bomber jacket and other dire remnants of the 1980s Devo era.
The most successful collections avoided rehashing the kitsch of the past. Designers might mine history for inspiration but when they begin to sketch, they cast their gaze forward. The legacy brand Poiret was resurrected under the direction of Yiqing Yin. Its heyday was in the early years of the last century when its founder, Paul Poiret, was credited with freeing women from the corset, while also inventing the hobble skirt.
This newest iteration acknowledges that past but wisely focuses on the house’s historical use of luxurious fabrics, draping and color.
Shades of purple, gold, mint, pink – virtually the entire rainbow was celebrated this season and in the most unlikely combinations. Every animal in the zoo had its markings serve as inspiration: leopard spots, zebra stripes, tiger stripes. Coats are enormous and essentially built for two. Fashion still loves track pants and sneakers go with everything.
This season, there was little strutting and taunting and flaunting on the runway. Instead, there were a host of beautiful, but discreet, gowns. Strong-shouldered blazers. Athletic-inspired sportswear. And nubby tweeds.
Sex – overt, bawdy, distracting – has mostly gone missing. Or perhaps, just into hiding.
The Washington Post