“It’s like a school reunion, no?” says Carine Roitfeld, French fashion editor, flicking her veil of hair off her black-lined eyes and glancing around at the Dior show on Monday. The gang is back, in a specially constructed box, as always, in the gardens of the Musée Rodin, as attendees who have not seen each other in person in more than a year air-kiss and embrace in delight. Roitfeld looks bemused, and not entirely pleased.
It’s true, there’s something somewhat disconcerting about the fall headlong back into the familiar after 16 months of life suspended: the paparazzi clamouring for a shot of Jessica Chastain before the Dior show; the multi-course dinners hosted by brands every night to celebrate; the Paris traffic. The stilettos (yes, they are back too.)
So while the audience is no longer jammed so tightly together that each person on a bench seems to be half on top of a neighbour’s leg, and masks are still required in tents, it’s hard not to think the gravitational pull is to the norm. Or what was the norm. Where are the signs of what has happened this past year? Where is the suggestion that fashion has processed the trauma, and the experience?
Well, “process” might be the wrong word. But some theories are beginning to bubble up through the seams.
There is pandemic cause-and-effect, for example, in an Iris van Herpen video that takes as its theme the earth from above; that pulls back, to offer a certain perspective so much greater and wider than the tiny islands of our individual lockdowns.
That was in part thanks to Domitille Kiger, a French world champion skydiver who swirls through the air in an extraordinary dress from Van Herpen’s collection, which itself seems to exist halfway between earth and sky. Just as the designer’s work seems to exist in some realm beyond fashion, where a dress can become a mutating expression of the processes of life, some hybrid creature of technology and art and imagination and … recycling. (Actually, Kiger was falling at more than 185 mph, the brand said, so think about the kind of fabric that can withstand that wind pressure.)
There is cause-and-effect in the unfettered humour and carefully calibrated excess of Daniel Roseberry at Schiaparelli, where gold body parts cast in 3D-printed resin decorate a matador denim jacket (made from 11 pairs of old jeans), double entendres are decoration unto themselves (toe shoes featured actual toes), giant roses explode across little black dresses and an elaborately fringed black cape turns out to be made of trash bags.
And in the escapism of Giambattista Valli’s signature party dresses and gender-agnostic tuxedos, and the disco-rama of Olivier Theyskens at Azzaro, where dresses are sliced waist-high on the side and practically scream “Tina Turner, where are you?”
“People want to live in the moment,” Valli says during a walk-through of the collection, standing next to a red ruffled skirt made from about 450m of tulle. “The past is heavy and the future is cloudy.”
But we always have nightlife! (Also, apparently, Ryan Murphy, who was name-checked in Valli’s show notes and whose TV contributions, like Emily in Paris, have admittedly helped with the whole escapism idea.)
That’s one way to look at it, anyway; at Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri had exactly the opposite thought. “We wanted to work on a wardrobe” (which is fashion-speak for daywear), she says during a preview the day before her show.
So she doubled-down on tactility and the touch of the hand, rendering tweed in cashmere, feathers and intarsia, transforming coats and jackets and skirts into swaddling clothes for grown-ups, balancing them with Grecian gowns that can seem so light they are like wearing air. One of the more interesting aspects of Chiuri’s couture is the way she eschews the showiness of decoration in favour of manual artistry: to make a single cloudy dress took 12 days of invisible stitching.
She set it all against an imagined landscape rendered in over 350 squ m of embroidery created by French artist Eva Jospin and realised by the Chanakya School of Craft in India over three months. It was, says Chiuri, a way to honour the artisans in that country who were so hard-hit by the pandemic, and to support them.
And it is a reminder, if any were needed, that even in couture, the most sheltered and traditional part of the industry – a bubble of elitism catering to the few (the ones who escaped to faraway estates to ride out the pandemic) – “beauty” is not enough.
That fashion is embedded in a complicated web of supply chain and imagery, which is a lot deeper than simply a mind-boggling dress. That throwing up your hands and cannonballing into the pool because we can finally gather may be ever-so-tempting (really, it is so tempting), but it cannot be all there is.
That when you go back to school, the idea is to have learned something.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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