Paris Fashion Week: The very real value of slowness

Image of Vanessa Friedman

One of the constant refrains of the fashion world, as in politics and business, is the problem of speed, aka the 21st-century condition: the fact that the digital age is driving everyone into a permanent state of hyperactivity, tweeting and tumblring in a never-ending cycle of instantaneous reaction and short-termism. Politicians think only of the next election and what it will take to win it, executives focus on quarterly growth, and designers need yet more new products to drive people into stores, not to mention more bells and whistles to call attention to their new collections.

Even in a situation where, theoretically, everyone is there specifically to pay attention to their new collections. Even in a situation such as the ready-to-wear shows.

So it was meaningful that, early on in Paris Fashion Week, a show opened that demonstrated, completely and convincingly, the very real value of slow fashion, and the struggles being played out on the catwalks as creativity is forced to run at 200mph.

The show was actually an exhibit: the Azzedine Alaïa retrospective that spanned the Palais Galliera and the Musée d’Art Moderne, featuring the designer’s work from the 1980s until today. In its consistency of vision and aesthetic vernacular – without an information plaque, visitors would have been hard-pressed to identify what garment was made when – it provided a masterclass in the way a designer develops a proprietary vocabulary over time, and the power to transcend trend that provides. And it did so without the aid of digital projections, or behind-the-scenes videos, or any other extra entertainment (aside from the backdrop of an enormous Matisse in the Musée d’Art Moderne). As well as without a single handbag.

“It’s refreshing,” said a stylist looking at a trio of velour dresses inspired by the Matisse, one long, two short, all with skirts that fell in generous but precise folds around the hips, vaguely reminiscent of a Velásquez portrait and yet entirely modern, “to see dresses that don’t need anything else to be beautiful.” And it’s rare these days for any creative director to have the courage of that conviction, though some are clearly trying.

Indeed, Jun Takahashi of Undercover addressed the issue directly, with words and anagrams – God/Dog, Listen/Silent, Noise/Thought – splashed across sweatshirt tops with belled arms, leather A-line skirts, and handbags clasped around a forearm. Many garments were left half-finished, so a white button-down was paired with a sheer top, a black tunic left with only one fluted sleeve, while others featured oversize buckles, chains, and other restraints. In the end, the lights came down, and clothes came out bearing the glowing messages: “I am here,” “Trust,” “Demand” and “Silence yourself” – though whether the latter is still possible is a question Mr Takahashi posed, but did not answer.

Certainly, no one was silent at the end of Marco Zanini’s show for Rochas, his last for the brand after a quick five years (he’s heading to Schiaparelli) – part of the reason for the clapping and hooting that greeted his parade of spun sugar-dusted sherbet-shaded princess dresses, neat car coats, and generous skirts.

In his time at Rochas, Mr Zanini has tried to imbue it with a romantic hyper-femininity achieved on a platform of fabric innovation. Such efforts reached their zenith this season, with every piece seeming dipped in fairy dust thanks to a new “tinsel-like” fabric named Nigel (really) that glittered and glowed on almost every garment. And the ones that weren’t Nigel-ised were lamé, or covered in so many diamanté crystals they were hard to see for the refracted light. It was as though Mr Zanini was trying to blind us by prettiness.

A little more subtlety might have gone a longer way, as it did at Balenciaga. There, in his second collection for the brand (which he designs along with his eponymous collection), Alexander Wang evinced a strategy for both acknowledging the heritage of the house and attempting to reframe it in his own language.

Starting with a rigorous, highly structured silhouette – a belled-out miniskirt or tap pants (which looked a lot like the sporty tap pants in Mr Wang’s show in New York) under a curving cropped jacket, both done in a basket-weave of leather strips, the designer gradually deconstructed the silhouette via a focus on the back, where tops were left to jut out like flying buttresses or hang loose in a classic Balenciaga cape, and the hips, where trousers came with built-in peplums or were framed by a shadow of fabric from the waist. The final parade featured very short (they are clearly playing to the youth vote here) shirtdresses, tuxdresses and strapless sheaths under veils of chiffon.

The clothes were a little Balenciaga, and a little Wang, which is probably what consumers familiar with both names want, but the end result also felt a little like sartorial franglais.

At least at Ann Demeulemeester the designer has the advantage of having invented a language of her own – one that was given a new dimension of lushness this season via stylised velvet devore William Morris prints on trademark stovepipe pants (some sheer, some matte), exactingly cut jackets, short shift dresses, and long airy gowns, the hem caught up on one hip. And Gareth Pugh, once a goth extremist of Paris, is edging ever-closer to the clarity that comes from practice, and evolution.

Toning down his signature Game of Thrones fantasies, Mr Pugh sent out bias-cut floor-length silks, the seams circling the body; supple leather jackets wrapped at the waist in classic couture shapes; and leather tops that reduced the Elizabethan ruff to an architectural curve at the back – weird, but in an interesting way. Amid it all was one perfect, pearl grey, slightly A-line, sleeveless shift, and a belted white tunic over matching flares, both of which would have been at home at a Cipriani anywhere.

In other words, Mr Pugh is learning – and Ms Demeulemeester recognises – a truth articulated by Olivier Saillard, the curator of the Alaïa exhibit: in order to truly hone a talent and a visual identity, there has to be no “fear of repeating oneself.” Tweet it and weep.

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