Fashion sees bleak future, but there’s still sparkle in darkness

Robin Givhan

THE WASHINGTON POST — Kanye West was right there at that early morning hour, next to the piano in the centre of the circle of singers onstage at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, but mostly he was silent — just smiling and swaying. The choir members were the stars. They brought their charismatic optimism, their rhythmic body waves and emotive testimonies to shine a little light amid the darkness.

For 90 minutes, it was many voices in beautiful unity. It was only music: No MAGA hats. No political provocations. No fire and brimstone. No fashion. No talk of pandemics. No controversial Kanye. For 90 minutes, perhaps people could resist the urge to be cynical, to search for the ulterior motive, to be on high alert.

The choir swooped into a Fashion Week that has been practically dystopian. The coronavirus threat has sent some editors and retailers home early, stopped others from coming altogether and put most everyone on edge. The Louvre Museum closed. Tourists roam the city in surgical masks.

There’s been an inordinate amount of black on the runway. A glut of big shoulders and hooded cloaks. This isn’t any response to a virus; these collections were sketched out long ago. It all just flows from our long-standing angsty, uneasy sense that some leaden shoe is about to drop.

So many of the clothes on the runway have been born out of a state of instability. That isn’t to say that there are not deeply fascinating ideas coming down the runways here and some wonderfully compelling garments. But they have risen out of painful soul-searching, despair and frustration.

Photos show Balmain and Balenciaga fall/winter 2020-21 collection. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

For designer Olivier Rousteing, an exploration of his heritage led him to create his most refined and sophisticated collection for Balmain to date. In recent years, the designer, who was adopted, has aimed to learn more about his personal history — a journey that was documented in the film Wonder Boy. He discovered that he was half-Ethiopian and half-Somali — not biracial, as he’d always assumed. The reassessment of his roots had him recalling the rarefied world that he always felt was beyond his reach because of the colour of his skin and his background.

His fall collection was inspired by the upper-class codes that surrounded him as a child growing up in Bordeaux: The equestrian style, the silk scarf prints, the Old World fabrics. Those things informed the flowing silk dresses in mossy tones, the moulded leather bodices and the lush woollen jackets and skirts.

By turning inward, Rousteing brought a more meditative soulfulness to his work. He stopped shouting. And by lowering the volume, he delivered a more resonant message.

At Celine, a kind of aesthetic cynicism was on display. Designer Hedi Slimane unfurled so many culottes, scarf-tie blouses, skinny flared jeans, ’70s blazers and toggle coats on men and women that the sheer number of looks coming down his runway Friday night would test the patience of your average fashion fan.

But not the fans of Slimane. They settled in for the marathon session and cheered when the last model disappeared from sight. Slimane chooses models who mimic the beanpole physique from back in the day when serving sizes were smaller, working out was not part of a wellness routine and amphetamines were popped like gumdrops.

What Slimane offers is retro clothing — cleaned up, perhaps bedazzled, and styled to evoke a chilly air of cool. As garments, it’s hard to argue with a nicely cut blazer, a good pair of jeans and a pair of stacked heel boots. But it’s hard to get past the fact that Slimane’s Celine is stalled. It’s stuck in a past both recent and distant at a time when the future seems to require all of our attention.

The future has designer Demna Gvasalia worried. As guests arrived for the Balenciaga show late Sunday morning, barely an hour after the Sunday Service Choir had exhorted folks to keep the faith, they entered a black amphitheatre perfumed with an aroma best described as the scent of sweaty fear. As you descended towards the main floor, it looked as though one was walking toward an abyss — an optical illusion created by a perfectly still pool of water that stretched from one end of the theatre to the other.

As the first model walked out, dark clouds rolled in on the light screen that formed the room’s ceiling. The model, dressed in black, splashed through the murky water. On either side, the first three rows of empty seats were partially submerged in water. It looked as though an end-of-days flood had torn through.

The music boomed, and the dark clouds gave way to a fiery orange sky, until finally there was the image of our fragile blue ball slowly being eclipsed by a black shadow.

The spectre of environmental peril was at the core of Gvasalia’s fall 2020 presentation. And the sensory overload packed more of an emotional wallop than a set of grim statistics, a thick scientific journal or the exultations of an earnest speaker ever could. These were the sights, sounds and smells of dystopia.

And so what does one wear on a failed planet? Gvasalia’s work addresses the disconnect between individuals and the natural world, individuals and their community, individuals and themselves. As the models march past with their broad shoulders that make them appear fierce and formidable, you’re also reminded that the clothes serve as a kind of hideaway. Tucked into a massive coat or blazer, you don’t have to engage with others. The motocross uniforms, taken out of context, make the models appear to be inhuman and more like armoured-up cyborgs.

But the collection isn’t all bravado and swagger. There are beautiful examples of rigorous, modern tailoring and dressmaking, with jackets that are moulded to the body and catsuit-cum-evening gowns that transform the elaborate process of dressing for a black-tie gala into the equivalent of pulling on an ultra-glamorous onesie.

Gvasalia has championed dramatic shoulders before. They’re part of his established vocabulary. Now is the more challenging chapter: taking that vocabulary and telling new and nuanced stories with it. His silhouettes are relentlessly forward-looking. But right now, the future looks terribly bleak. It’s not necessarily a designer’s job to cheer us up — to offer up something that is a beautiful lie.

Gvasalia shows us the truth of our unsettled world, the darkness within ourselves. He ends his show with his favoured model, artist Eliza Douglas, wearing a rhinestone-embroidered gown that catches and amplifies the bits of light in the room.