Sunday was a big day for fashion, and I’m not talking about the Oscars. If you can pry yourself away from the red carpet for a moment, there were some big shows happening in Paris that deserve your attention as well. Givenchy, Balenciaga, and Valentino delivered a trio of great collections that finally brought some juice to what had been a fairly low-energy season, and Thom Browne had the last laugh.
Starting the day with Givenchy, Clare Waight Keller showed her second ready-to-wear collection for the house, which was enlivened by streamlining the men’s wear, picking up the pace of the models, and adding a jolt of surprise with a broad array of faux furs that looked so real that some people, when they learned the designs only included shearling, were disappointed not to have the chance to be offended. What’s really impressive, though, is how quickly Waight Keller has made Givenchy her own, given the distinctive image her predecessor, Riccardo Tisci, had created there in over more than a decade. Her first couture collection in January was a smash hit, and I suspect you’ll be seeing some of it tonight in Los Angeles, if you haven’t already. Givenchy no longer seems menacing or gritty, but more poised and elegant.
And no, I don’t mean weak. No one could have thought that when Cate Blanchett, wearing one of Waight Keller’s first designs for spring at the InStyle Awards last October, said, “Just because women dress sexy doesn’t mean we want to fuck you.”
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For her fall collection, she started somewhere a little dark, with a “Night Noir” theme that was more obvious in the spooky lighting and soundtrack than in the clothes. Besides those play furs—big, entrance-making pieces that looked like they were up to no good—there were superbly tailored coats and a camel trench-cape hybrid that looked less tricky than it sounds. The standout pieces were dresses of metallic pleated material wrapped and wound around the body in tiers, all loosely flicking at a louche Berlin club theme, but not so much that you couldn’t envision these clothes living somewhere less perverse.
The Balenciaga show was staged on the outskirts of Paris in an enormous theatrical studio with a pyramidal set designed like a snowboarding park, covered in graffiti. As the show started, the throbbing bass of the soundtrack, broadcast on extraordinary professional speakers that rotated and whirled from the ceiling, was so intense that the bleachers rattled and your guts felt like they were being squeezed. The creative director Demna Gvasalia has grown more ambitious in creating a vision for Balenciaga that transcends the cheap tricks of streetwear culture, and this show, combining men’s and women’s on one runway, looked surprisingly refined.
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While his signatures remained present in the tactile body suits, saturated colors, and multi-layered garments in outsized proportions, there were more tailored pieces that looked fully realized as big design ideas. Namely, there was a jacket shape with molded hourglass hips, referencing historic dress, certainly, but in a more futuristic way since there did not appear to be any seams in their construction. A second, more casual story was told in outerwear composed of coat upon coat upon coat, so that models became monsters, as if wearing the entire contents of a wardrobe. The ideas suggested the designer had been concerned with over consumption, the competing needs for work clothes and casual attire, and the tendency of fashion to fetishize silhouettes for a season or two before casting them aside. There was also the thought of a need for more protective clothes in cases of extreme weather and climate change.
At the same time, Balenciaga announced a new partnership with the World Food Programme, joining its campaign to combat global hunger. Gvasalia incorporated the organization’s logo and motto (“Saving Lives, Changing Lives”) on outerwear and knits, with proceeds going to benefit the charity. Encouraging people to buy very expensive clothes for themselves in order to help the underprivileged gets into some questionable ethical territory, but I admire Gvasalia’s willingness to open such a can of worms in the first place. And I’ll say this, neither the designs nor their intentions read as cynical.
Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, after his extravagant couture collections and revitalized ready-to-wear, opted for a simpler, mostly monochromatic motif for fall, almost a palate cleanser from all that richness. Well, his dresses were still mighty flavorful, beautiful if a little less complicated. The thin, thin models were enveloped in long cloaks, some with hoods, in sweet pastel swirls of fabric with pronounced scalloping along the edges, or more sober black numbers trimmed with white piping. Red, pink, white, green, tan, and blue–the colors were as solid as if each had been rendered with a single crayon. And for romance, there were flowers, rendered as large appliqués that gave a bit more dimension to the final looks.
Thom Browne ended the night with a tour de force collection that looked surprisingly relaxed, with his normally uptight gray wool suits and dresses completely undone. Madonna and Carly Simon provided the tracks, the kind of music you might sing along to when you’re getting dressed and think no one is watching. Some looks revealed not only the womanly body beneath, but a bit of lingerie, or even fabric bunches and molds designed to emphasize the naughty bits. Perhaps my favorite look was the last one I saw, as the models rotated throughout the room, leaving me with a vision of a young woman wearing a gray suit with the fabric etched in rows of tiny pearls. The jacket was beautifully tailored, but worn over a body suit constructed of molded breasts and a bulbous behind, while the trousers had been pulled down, like those of a beltless rapper, into a puddle of fabric beneath the knees. This she wore while voguing in place.