Some of the best shows this season have been about coping with the modern world. Rei Kawakubo characterized her collection for Comme des Garçons — her first in Paris since February 2020 — as a “lamentation” for its sorrows. In a vast exposition hall located in the industrial parks near Charles de Gaulle airport, Balenciaga’s Demna again took a scene from the news — the image of people struggling against the elements. Last season, it was snow and wind; on Sunday, it was mud.
The set was the work of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, who had created a similar installation called “House in Mud” in Germany in 2015. That work was meant to be an attack on the art establishment, and Sierra invited visitors to put on boots and leave their prints in the mud. This wasn’t the idea at Balenciaga — or even recommended. The runway, as it were, was a dark and puddled path around the rectangular rim of a giant peat crater. If you slid down the bank, you’d be a while crawling back up, and never mind what it would do to your nice designer clothes.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination, though, to think of people’s homes filled with mud or washed away altogether because of torrential rain, the misery of homeliness and a child carrying a dirty stuffed animal or a crumpled bag of chips — Demna turned both objects into luxury handbags in the show — or the line of models in filthy hoodies and ripped jeans as a line of young military conscripts.
Of late, Demna’s choices have been sometimes morally questionable. It was difficult in March to watch models struggling on snow against wind machines, because you knew that it reflected real suffering somewhere. But one role of a designer is to question things. (That’s what both Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto did in the late ’70s and ’80s when they tore into the tailoring and beauty tradition of western dress.)
Demna — who, at 41, is half the age of Kawakubo — has feelings and quarrels of his own, which have become much clearer (indeed, more visceral) in the last two or three years. In his show notes on Sunday, he wrote, “Fashion loves boxes and labels more than anything. Luxury, not luxury, street, couture, good, bad, buzz, viral, all the same, who cares.” He added, “Putting luxury fashion into the box of polished, exclusive, and visually expensive is limited and pretty old school.” Backstage, he said, “It’s blasphemous to put a €1,000 shoe into a mud pool.” Or, for that matter, leather garments and evening gowns.
But, of course, Demna is addressing larger changes in the world — changes that have to do with youth culture, social media, inequality, and shifting values and are nearly impossible to understand. That’s what I appreciate most about his work at Balenciaga. Not only has he enlarged the scope of the brand while retaining its couture heritage, he has expanded the framework of high fashion in ways that few other designers have. He has created thoughtful and original shows around politics and our brainless obsession with celebrity — like last year’s brilliant “red-carpet show” and The Simpsons movie — which, if nothing else, proves that Demna has a funny bone. I hope he doesn’t lose it.
In his latest show, he male models carry infants in baby carriers. The babies were not real, though they certainly looked lifelike. “They’re quite creepy, I have to say,” Demna said with a laugh. But what was real were the images of men with piercings and crazy, beaten-down clothes — shrunken jackets and ragged jeans with extra-wide belts. In other words, not your standard urban dad. Demna has recently said that restarting haute couture at Balenciaga has “liberated” him, because it involves timeless techniques, rigor, and a slower pace. I asked him what gives him more satisfaction — couture or the big-picture show with snow and mud. He replied, “It’s hard to say.” But the point is that he has both outlets of expression.
Considering that Kawakubo was once responsible for truly crazy clothes, and that her deconstructive techniques influenced a generation of designers, it’s not surprising that the greatest living designer prefers to create sculptural forms rather than actual garments. All of the avant-garde methods she introduced have been absorbed and often made banal by mass culture. So she crafts an object that looks like a fancy, tulip-shape goblet or a dress turned upside down. Many of the 18 pieces in her show the other day seemed to allude to historical feminine dress — like a greatly overscale poke bonnet, tabletop pannier skirt, or, indeed, female orifices in the form of large donut rings of gathered fabric. With Kawakubo, the pleasure is in seeing the work of a designer in the late stage of her career still resisting the obvious. (By the way, most of the shapes and fabrics, like black felt lace and a brocade, have been translated by her studio into wearable looks.)
While Kawakubo was backstage greeting guests, wearing a black coat and bright white sneakers and holding a handbag with the words “Live Free” on it, I saw Marni’s designer, Francesco Risso, out front. He said, ecstatically, “You know, I loved how proud it was. I kept thinking, This is really against the body, and, yes, fuck it. This is really free. And the respect for it and the workmanship.” He grinned. “I am just full of energy right now.”
Junya Watanabe had a brilliant show. He dearly loves rock and punk, but on his return to Paris after confinement in Japan, he introduced a kind of hybrid of a coat and poncho in lightweight men’s wools with broad ’80s shoulders and, often, a belt. There were pleated white-cotton versions — including one with a pair of jeans with turned-back tartan cuffs. Wearing leggings and studded pony shoes with their flowing, capelike tops, the models swept onto the runway from the midpoint of the room, then headed in opposite directions. It was a great way to lay down a new look.
Yamamoto was perfection itself, a serene display of mostly black dresses and suits in lightweight fabrics with feminine details like open necklines, a slice of white cloth shimmering against the black, and bodices of some final styles that looked like fragmented corsets.
Pierpaolo Piccioli called his collection Unboxing Valentino. He, too, doesn’t like to put fashion, and Valentino wearers, in a box. In his case, however, it seemed an odd construct. A large number of guests at Sunday’s show were dressed in hot-pink outfits from his fall 2022 ready-to-wear collection — so many, in fact, that it looked like the rest of us had stumbled into a meeting of the Paris chapter of Mary Kay Cosmetics. Suffice to say that the new collection does not include that shade of pink. The best styles were simple evening dresses and mini cotton shirt dresses built on a body suit for a minimal, streamlined fit. There was a long red cotton shirt dress that was pretty fabulous. But the show as a whole would have worked better if Piccioli had used lower heels. A number of the women either removed their shoes or soldiered on in visible pain.
Matthew Williams has had his own struggles at Givenchy. He has gone from overly complicated, pretentiously edgy clothes to a collection on Sunday afternoon of watered-down pieces — ruched jersey dresses, office jackets over ruffled white shirts, bra tops and hoodies with faded denim shorts — that didn’t have any brand identity. Givenchy could be so much more than what it has been under his creative direction.