It can be a strange and disorienting experience sitting in a fashion show when part of the world is engaged in a game of empire-building brinkmanship; with one hand, you are surreptitiously checking Twitter for updates about troop movements in the Crimean peninsula, with the other, you are scribbling “eyelash fringe” and “split skirts” in a notebook. There is a danger of psychological whiplash. There is no really good way to reconcile the two.
But there are, or there were, as the Paris shows entered their final few days, at least designers dealing with similar problems (broadly speaking, of course), which is to say: diverging realities, and the dissonance – extreme or just daily – of regular life. Apparently, there is plenty of it to go round.
For example: “It’s about finding the masculine in the feminine,” said Phoebe Philo after her show of graceful, quasi-Edwardian cloth coats, dual rows of coloured buttons curving asymmetrically, threads wafting from the seams; oatmeal-tinged skinny ribbed knit dresses over skinny ribbed knit flares, reminiscent of the 1970s; and below-the-knee, full skirts slit into strips to stride.
Or, it is about “a raw freshness … a peculiar magnetism”, as Clare Waight Keller said of her Chloé show, which featured wafty chiffon dresses alongside belted puffa leather coats and floral lace inserts on silk dresses next to leopard-spotted, multicoloured striped furs in a collection that swung broadly and, sometimes uncomfortably, from fragility to almost tribal force. Or there’s Albert Kriemler, designer of Akris, on his collaboration with artist Thomas Ruff, which appeared as disembodied images of a spaceship in orange and grey silks (elegant and haute-arty), houses lit from within (a little strange in a garment), and LED lights sparkling on black evening gowns like stars in the night sky. Kriemler said of the artist: “He transforms reality and an existing image … through intense and complex work in technology”.
Even at her Leonard debut, new designer Yiqing Yin dealt in continental drift and plate tectonics, with Asian dragon prints banging up against Dutch florals. If the collision did not raise mountains, it was, at least, a beginning.
The point is, these clothes were not about escapism or denial, two options fashion has had a past tendency to exalt to a startling degree but, rather, about wrestling with things as they are. At Céline, say, the need to move briskly through life while also indulging in the swish and swill of length, or the imperative to convey power without ceding prettiness (even if it is just big paste gems sparkling ironically on a sleeveless sheath over a sheer organza shirt, or ostrich feathers sprouting from a bubble dress). In case you did not get it, there were even half broadtail, half cashmere bathrobe coats. Wrap yourself in contradiction.
Indeed, the literal conjunction of warring elements is the base on which Sacai is built: designer Chitose Abe has made a trademark out of taking different garments and weaving them together so it is hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. This season that meant cabled sweaters that became tartan wools, and polka dot silks that were skirts and trousers, and puffa/shearlings, and knits that exploded into chiffon pleats at the back. Sometimes the weights did not quite work (a wool wrap skirt atop devoré velvet just pulled, literally, the concept down), and sometimes the sheer detail of what went where and how it worked distracted from the overall impact of the garment itself (it’s a skirt … it’s a trouser … it’s both!). But the dualism inherent in the work was impossible to avoid.
Meanwhile, Stella McCartney took her signature menswear tailoring and transformed it into an energetic tale of two elements: one, professional and pioneering; the other, urban and athletic. Gold zips traced a hard line on black wool coats and suits, snaking around collars and down sleeves, and then became mountaineering cord finished in tassels on knits; colour-blocked jacquards transformed trenches and skirt suits into New Look shapes via big belts tied like obis, and draped fringe formed colour blocks of curves and counter-curves in cocktail dresses.
But things really reached their apogee at Givenchy, where creative director Riccardo Tisci took an aggressively subversive approach to familiar tropes, mixing ladylike chiffons with pussy-bow blouses and feral animal prints – snake or leopard, or exaggerated, spine-revealing butterfly wings; black and white tailoring sliced by broad elastic bands in bright colours; tuxedo all-in-ones under long broadtail vests bisected by clear plastic inserts, or sheer trousers with elaborately bead-encrusted halters.
His show was unrelenting and powerfully unapologetic about its own dichotomies, suggesting there can be beauty in discordance – sartorial or otherwise. Not a bad suggestion, really, for one way to think about the world.