pfw spring 2022

Cool Finesse From Saint Laurent

While the younger designers at Paris Fashion Week struggle to find a new path.

Left to right: Dries Van Noten, Saint Laurent, Dries Van Noten Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Courtesy of Saint Laurent, Rafael Pavarotti/Courtesy of Dries Van Noten
Left to right: Dries Van Noten, Saint Laurent, Dries Van Noten Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Courtesy of Saint Laurent, Rafael Pavarotti/Courtesy of Dries Van Noten

The Paris ready-to-wear shows are not likely to drop any bombs; no big Prada moment like last week in Milan, no revelation like Balenciaga’s haute couture collection in July. But Paris turns out to be a very good place to observe the intense shift in values. The Belgian designer Dries Van Noten told me, “Not everything has to be luxury, not everything has to be logos. That’s why it’s quite interesting to see shows now.” Van Noten himself went further out of his sober form — painting his models’ hair in electric colors and giving them long, fake, bejeweled fingernails. “We kept saying, ‘This is not enough.’”

But, beyond the self-expressive possibilities that fashion has always offered — and which the pandemic has certainly stimulated — there is also a wider shift. You sense that young designers in particular are trying to negotiate a path between their generation’s ideas about dress and what the industry has long regarded as essential to good design, beginning with the clear intentions of a designer.

Koché. Photo: Courtesy of Koché

I could not make out what Christelle Kocher, founder of the label Koché, was doing with so many sequins and feathers, not to mention goofy hats in the stylized manner of old couture shows. Feathers dripped off shoes, while sparkly dresses and pants in Easter-egg pinks and greens flopped above them. Kocher made her mark with clever-yet-practical sportswear, distinguished by fresh-looking prints. She seemed to now want to give her clothes a more couture look. Yet is it couture as Instagram presents it — all surface treatment and dumb hats — or is it couture as it’s customarily done, with well-executed cuts and trimmings? The answer is the former, and that, in my view, undermines Kocher’s credibility.

Thebe Magugu. Photo: Paul Samuels/Courtesy of Thebe Magugu/

Thebe Magugu, on the other hand, didn’t have that problem. The South African designer’s new collection was playful, consistent, honest, and included a wonderful off-the-shoulder, trench-style coatdress with one half in khaki and the other in French blue, cool shirt dresses, and a fitted jumpsuit in cherry red with the legs slit to the knee.

Ottolinger. Photo: Courtesy of Ottolinger

I also liked the raw, pared down sensuality of Ottolinger, by the Berlin-based designers Christa Bösch and Cosima Gadient. They showed in a shabby 18th century building on the Left Bank, the guests crushed into a few rooms and the stairwell, so that the models in their stretch tops and underpants, their Roman sandals made of what looked like bondage ties, nearly touched your knees. This will perhaps sound strange, but their designs remind me a little of Azzedine Alaïa, not his sensibility and certainly not his technical finesse, but more his energy and the way he used clingy fabrics and cut to unshackle the female body. Not everything in Bösch’s and Gadient’s collection was well done or interesting; the last two pieces, with wired flaps protruding from them like fins, were amateurish. But their printed, ultra-thin jersey tube dresses were terrific, their rough-cut denim jackets were okay, and I admire any female designer who takes the risk to bury centuries of imprisoning rules and myths about a woman’s body and propriety.

Saint Laurent. Photo: Courtesy of Saint Laurent

I didn’t see the Saint Laurent show last night; I wasn’t invited, haven’t been for a few years (for critical reviews). But I want to comment on Anthony Vaccarello’s collection. It struck me, with the very first look — a slim white ankle-length dress fitted on the hips so that the upper portion bloused slightly away from the body a bit — that Vaccarello was saying to his audience, “Let me show you real design, and not something done to efficiently get ‘likes’ on Instagram.”

That dress, which had a deep-V front and long sleeves pushed up to the elbows, probably took time and fittings to get just right. It was followed up with a version in black (with gold buttons) and another in warm orange. At the same time, the dresses were a nice balance of comfort and high fashion, a balance that Prada also pulled off. Vaccarello had plenty of sexy numbers, for sure, but I would argue there’s far more delight and mystery in seeing something with a beautiful line or drape, because it involves know-how beyond the ken of most of us. That knowledge is Saint Laurent’s special weapon, like the “smoking” dresses that he also showed (between catsuits) and the immaculate, razor-sharp blazers. Young designers can talk about doing “couture,” but what does it actually mean if it’s just a bunch of trimmings?

Dries Van Noten. Photo: Rafael Pavarotti/Courtesy of Dries Van Noten

Van Noten said he wasn’t ready to return to a live runway show, given the concerns around the Delta variant. He produced a film with Albert Moya, with still images by Rafael Pavarotti, and released them today. The mood is decidedly exuberant: think musical festival or Holi, the Hindu festival of love, when everything is saturated in color. As Van Noten said during a Zoom call, even if there’s a fifth or sixth wave of COVID next spring, “I prefer to just do it in crazy garments and have fun dressing up. Why not? Let the party begin.”

Though some details get lost in the film, the message is clear enough in the explosion of oranges, reds and pool greens; in the textured jacquards; the fat balloon sleeves and sheer blouses; a gorgeous slip dress in overlapping bands of jewel-colored fringe, and of course those long, glittery nails.

Cool Finesse From Saint Laurent