Paris Fashion Week begins with coronavirus anxiety – plus feminism and flashing neon lights

Robin Givhan

THE WASHINGTON POST – “Were you in Milan?” The question was once so innocent. It was a casual conversation starter between editors, stylists and retailers as they arrived for the international fashion show circuit that included New York, London and then – maybe, just maybe – Milan, before they settled into their seat at Christian Dior, the esteemed French fashion house that unofficially signals the start of the ready-to-wear season here.

“Were you in Milan?”. That used to be a shorthand way of asking about runway trends, about whether designer Miuccia Prada still had the creative chops to leave an audience rapturously discombobulated.

What was once a question steeped in possibility and optimism, however, is now one drenched in anxiety about the coronavirus, cases of which have spiked in small towns surrounding Milan in northern Italy and have been spreading southward.

“Were you in Milan, where arriving travellers were greeted with uniformed officials monitoring people for signs of fever?” “Where you in Milan, where people were itching to leave?” “Were you in Milan, when everything turned dark and surreal?”

Now guests sit shoulder-to-shoulder at fashion shows from morning to evening. And more than ever, there is a sense that these communal gatherings of aesthetic prognostications are little more than petri dishes of incubating germs rather than ideas.

Feminism, as usual, took centre stage at Christian Dior. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
The Loewe fall/winter 20-21 collection
ABOVE & BELOW: Some guests attending the Dries Van Noten fall/winter 20-21 fashion show wore face masks; and ushers hand out face masks at the entrance to the Dries Van Noten runway show at the Opera Bastille in Paris

The Dries Van Noten fall/winter 2020-2021 collection

No one has cancelled a show here – not like in Milan where Giorgio Armani decided to live stream his runway show from an empty theatre as a safety precaution.

Some retailers cancelled their Milan trip and headed directly to Paris, where they will buy the collections in the affected brands’ showrooms here instead.

At Dior, designer Maria Grazia Chiuri’s show notes opened with an acknowledgment of the realities of our interconnected economy, “All our thoughts are with our teams, clients, friends and partners in Asia, Italy and around the world.”

At the entrance to the Dries Van Noten show at the Opéra Bastille, ushers handed out face masks. Large pump bottles of hand-sanitiser were stationed just beyond the metal detectors, which now greet guests at every show – remnants of last year’s fears, both real and existential.

Meanwhile, the shows go on. The anxiety simmers. There is no light. People obsessively scrub their hands with Purell. They are not so keen on the double-buss greetings when a smile at arm’s distance will do. But still, they take selfies. They step-and-repeat.

There is no light. Every time a bit of blue sky dares to brighten the day, the clouds roll in and the wind whips up and rain pours sideways across the stalled traffic.

Guests arrived at the entrance to the Dior show: a giant box constructed in the Tuileries Gardens. Darkness greeted the celebrities: Carla Bruni, Sigourney Weaver, Andie MacDowell. Neon words glowed and flashed feminist incantations and provocations from the rafters. Consent. Consent. Consent.

The words flickered off and on in red, orange and green. Women are the moon that moves the tides. The words held steady in bright blue lights.

The words leered in brazen pink. But this was not light. This was heavy, burdensome, dense. The fighting, the resisting, never ends.

Dior was exhausting even before Chiuri sent out some 100 models in a parade of plaid, fringe and branded shopping bags.

Chiuri is a feminist. It is impossible to tell a story about Chiuri and her design aesthetic without mentioning this fact. This is as she would have it.

From her debut collection as the first female Creative Director at Dior, she has used her position to elevate the philosophical writings of women who have dissect the patriarchy. Her presentations have rallied around women and railed against an intellectual environment that devalues women’s ideas, ignores their creative output and objectifies their body. Her fall-winter 2020-21 presentation was no different.

It was organised in collaboration with artist Claire Fontaine, who uses illuminated signs in public space to name our cultural contradictions. The models walked on a floor papered with pixelated renderings of Le Monde newspaper. The brand was legible, but the stories, the content, were not.

Chiuri also found inspiration in the writings of the late Italian feminist Carla Lonzi, who pondered the ways in which we are all complicit in the patriarchy and how women must have agency over their body but not be defined by it.

Chiuri wrestles with complicated issues – ideas about identity and the role that women play in perpetuating the myth of male supremacy. It is not that fashion does not have the capacity to grapple with these concerns in thoughtful and meaningful ways.

Fashion is the perfect place to explore questions about social hierarchies and power. But Chiuri doesn’t allow her clothes to speak to the subject matter that has so captured her intellectual curiosity.

The first look down her runway was a black double-breasted pantsuit. Traditional. Masculine. Emblematic of power. Nice suit, but it seems like a simplistic response to a question that has spawned countless dissertations.

Is that what it means to fight the patriarchy? Dress like a gilded era gentleman? Chiuri turns to the densely packed writings of feminists, art critics and activists.

Instead of countering their work with her own fashion daring, she offers an apology. She surrenders to the lie that fashion is without power and authority.

At Dior, as at so many other shows, young women walk across a vast runway as the object of everyone’s attention, dressed not by themselves but by a real world Pygmalion. They are inspected and ogled.

Is there a way for them to retain agency over their identity under these unnatural circumstances?

Instead of taking on that challenging question, Chiuri throws up her hands.

She elevates other women’s groundbreaking ideas, but she is barely scratching the surface of bourgeois adornment. She amplifies their voices, but Chiuri’s voice remains muffled. She is a feminist enraptured by the big, amorphous fight but who is ignoring the small discernible victories she can exact on her own runway by, for example, highlighting crones, matrons, spinsters and all the other versions of non-nubile women that society rejects.

We are in the thick of a new chapter in feminism.

The Harvey Weinstein guilty verdicts, while not a perfect victory, shifted the tone of the entire conversation surrounding assault. The 2020 presidential race is giving us multiple new templates for what it looks like when a woman runs for commander in chief, pushing us just a little bit closer to a time when those templates will no longer be necessary.

And in fashion, specifically in Milan, Prada recently brokered a new kind of creative collaboration, announcing she was bringing in Raf Simons as her Co-Creative Director to ostensibly inject a bit of outsider energy into the label that bears her name. It is a seismic shift at a brand that has exuded feminism by wholly redefining what it means to be beautiful and powerful without being beholden to the male gaze.

Prada has welcomed Simons into her world. Welcome to the matriarchy.

What would a matriarchal fashion industry look like? One that was driven by female desire, self-possession and creativity? Would it include the latex leggings and pencil skirts Anthony Vaccarello put on the runway at Saint Laurent? Would they be worn by models with the legs of wobbly ponies?

Vaccarello emphasised the tension between polite society and the underground. He dignified latex with his sophisticated colour palette of violet and raspberry and pale blue.

He gave aesthetic credence to the male gaze. His clothes might rile up feminists – or feminists might take ownership of his vision. But his clothes were voluble. Vaccarello dominated the conversation.

At Dior, folks heard the voices of women.

They heard their anxiety, anger and self-doubt in a stream of babble: Were you in Milan? You are more than your anatomy.

The disappointment is Chiuri herself was silent.

DISPARATE POINTS OF VIEW BEAUTIFULLY COEXIST

The protective face masks have become more intentional. Instead of institutional white surgical masks, guests entering the Loewe show at the UNESCO offices had the option of grabbing one in basic black.

A sustainability programme scheduled at the British Ambassador’s residence was postponed because of health concerns. The fashion conglomerate LVMH called off a party celebrating the finalists for its fashion prize.

And yet, the crowds do not appear to have thinned. The models are still working. And the designers are still taking their bows. Fashion goes on in an environment that is hyper-aware of the permeability of borders and the interconnectedness of us all. In this moment, inclusiveness takes on a different meaning. No one stands apart.

The runways remind us how many different points of view, how many different aesthetic dreams flourish in this international city. It’s a place that embraces the sophisticated ease of Chloe, the subversive imagination of Rick Owens, the audacious exuberance of Dries Van Noten and the intellectual gamesmanship of Loewe. These design houses have nothing in common. Oh, sure, there are some broad trends that might connect them – the full trousers, some chunky shoes – but these collections were especially terrific precisely because they are so unlike anything else.

How the designers at these labels express themselves has nothing to do with what someone else has already done. Their work doesn’t convey aching insecurity wrapped in a layer of self-conscious cool. These designers aren’t performing; they are simply breathing life into something that is truly their own.

Season after season, Loewe designer Jonathan Anderson has made a case for the craftsmanship of the individual garment. He doesn’t tell seamless stories; each look can stand alone. It doesn’t have to be in conversation with everything else on his runway.

To finally understand that has been a bit of a revelation. It means looking at his work, particularly his fall 2020 collection, with great admiration. It is a stunning exploration of silhouettes and texture and craftsmanship. His fabrics are lush, the dresses play with volume in the sleeves and the hips. A pair of Brobdingnagian-size trousers are at once absurd and delightful.

His coats are a patchwork of fabrics and colours; his dresses are adorned with the artful compositions of the Japanese ceramist Takuro Kuwata; marabou hats fluttered as models walked.

Anderson’s work sends the mind whirling as it tries to decipher the lines and angles that conspire for such beautiful results.

Dries Van Noten’s avalanche of colour and pattern delight the eyes. His collection, shown at the Opéra Bastille, merged grunge and punk, with rock-and-roll and luxurious fabrics to create a kaleidoscope of joyful volatility.

The coats often wrapped around the body, the trousers were artfully slouchy, patterns clashed with abandon.

It was all a reflection of the distinctive aesthetic vocabulary that Van Noten has created, yet he revealed another facet of himself: This is who I am. Isn’t that what we all want? To be able to say that and to have the world respond with applause?

That was at the core of the collection Rick Owens presented at the Palais de Tokyo. It was an expression of the heart.

It was about an insecure boy from California who grows up to be an expressive designer whose work brings our dreams and fears into the light.

His models, in their giant Lucite platform heels, towered over the audience as they walked through a rolling cloud of dramatic mist.

Their duvet capes – a collaboration with Moncler – billowed out behind them. The models’ long, lean physiques were emphasised by the high slit dresses that slithered around the torso and over the hips.

They were like otherworldly women attired in shades of cherry red and glorious fuchsia and sky blue. And, of course, they were wrapped in the reassuring embrace of black.

Owens’ clothes are cool, not because they exude irony or aloofness, but because they are brutally honest.

They stand outside of the mainstream in a place of vulnerability. There’s no winking and nodding to the Establishment.

There’s just the simple but brave willingness to live outside of it.

At Chloe, designer Natacha Ramsay-Levi offers a lesson in centrism, which is to say, she creates great clothes that look modern and smart. They don’t demand that you free up brain space to figure them out.

They don’t need to be dissected. Wearing them probably won’t make you feel vulnerable or powerful, but you’ll likely feel quite good in them. They won’t make your heart skip a beat, but shouldn’t the people in your life do that for you – not your possessions?

Ramsay-Levi incorporated the work of three female artistes when she unveiled her collection T at the Grand Palais. The gilded totems of French artist Marion Verboom delineated the show’s set. The voice of ‘60s British singer Marianne Faithful echoed from the soundtrack and the art of Rita Ackermann, who lives in New York, enlivened some of the garments.

The dresses flowed, the coats and jackets were belted, the trousers were beautifully tailored. The collection referenced the ‘60s and ‘70s without getting stuck there.

It was an enticing collection that celebrated women with grace but without fanfare. It was, in short, a reprieve. Quietly and deliberately. Fashion carries on.