Did PFW Turn a Corner? The Scoop on the Spring 2020 Paris Shows

Corsets and panniers and crashers, oh my!

White was everywhere on the Spring 2020 Paris runways. It opened the shows of Valentino, Off-White, and Alexander McQueen. It closed Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton, and Dries Van Noten’s arresting collaboration with Christian Lacroix. Even Kei Ninomiya, the Japanese designer behind Noir, turned to white for the primary palette of his collection, an otherworldly feat of construction he titled “Beginning.”

White is often read as a new beginning—a blank slate. It also suggests going back to the beginning—back to basics, a theme Pierpaolo Piccoli, Miuccia Prada, and Loewe’s Jonathan Anderson touched on in their collections, all of which were at times lavish, at times stripped down to immaculate takes on the essentials. Were fashion’s biggest players trying to tell us something? Headlines during PFW warned of a global recession and called for action against climate change. To be sure, sustainability and going carbon neutral, as Kering has pledged to do, were hot topics this season, with numerous companies and designers shouting their eco-friendly accomplishments through press releases—some earnestly, some not so much. But I don’t think the proliferation of white wares was about that. It seemed to be more about creative purity and unlikely optimism. Or maybe designers just know that people like to wear white in summer. Either way, it felt like the needle moved in Paris—and there was something uplifting about that.

The Kids Are Alright

For starters, there is a crop of young designers gaining steam in the French capital. Just ahead of the Paris shows, Demna Gvasalia announced that he’d be stepping down as the creative director of Vetements to, as per WWD, “pursue new ventures” and, presumably, focus on Balenciaga, where he is creative director. In a sense, Gvasalia spurred Paris fashion’s current youthquake, proving that, in an age when the upper echelons of the fashion industry are dominated more by big business than big ideas, emerging talents can break through. One of those talents is 27-year-old Marine Serre, winner of the 2017 LVMH prize. While her collection wasn’t uplifting from a conceptual standpoint (inspired by a climate change-induced apocalypse, it was quite the opposite), her deft tailoring and razor-sharp vision are a beacon for a new generation. What’s more, the designer has made sustainability a priority since day one, and half her collection is now made from upcycled materials (she’s one of the earnest ones).  Rokh Hwang is another noteworthy newcomer. Born in South Korea, raised in Texas, and now based in London, the Central Saint Martins MA alum, who trained under Phoebe Philo at Celine, staged his eponymous line’s second runway show this season. Models stomped in deconstructed classics (a strapless trench dress, for instance), which were expertly spliced with tartan, tie-dye, and ’90s angst. He’s quickly developing a strong visual vocabulary—not to mention an international following, considering he already counts Saks Fifth Avenue, Net-a-Porter, and SSENSE among his stockists.

Now in his sixth year at the helm of Y/Project, Glenn Martens isn’t exactly a new designer, but he is one of the most exciting young names on the PFW calendar. His collections—imbued with historical references and irreverence—often turn traditional, aristocratic garments on their heads. Staging his show beneath the Belle Epoque arches of Pont Alexandre III (now a nightclub called Bridge), Martens offset the pomp of corsetry, lace, and high-sheen taffeta with deconstructed suiting, off-kilter denim, and erotic jewelry (a continuation of last season’s kinky baubles). Models marched to a Strauss soundtrack that began at a lethargic pace and escalated to warp speed. It echoed Martens’ ability to take garments we think we know and transform them completely.

Back to the Future

But Martens wasn’t the only designer playing with traditionally stuffy finery of yore. Panniers and huge, 18th-century gowns had something of a moment on the Spring runways. Jonathan Anderson mimicked them via diaphanous peplum belts at Loewe, and at Balenciaga, Demna Gvasalia turned out undulating gowns fit for a debutant ball on Mars. Rick Owens, too, proposed queenly mantua gowns, which wafted dramatically behind headdress-clad models as they strode down the stairs of the Palais de Tokyo. It’s worth noting that Owens’ show, which radiated with marigold, hot pink, and even iridescent sequins, was uncharacteristically effervescent this season. Inspired by his Mexican roots (specifically his immigrant mother), the outing featured men and women wielding huge bubble wands, who turned the courtyard show space into something resembling Willy Wonka’s room for Fizzy Lifting Drinks. As the soapy spheres floated over the runway and onto the audience, it felt as though we were being showered in laughter.

Thom Browne’s 18th-century silhouettes seemed somewhat more sinister. Ever the showman, Browne’s Spring 2020 romp is what I’d imagine would happen if Marie Antoinette and some east coast WASPs took acid and had a tea party at a seaside Newport mansion. Models in cage skirts and towering, powdered wigs wove through a maze of seersucker flowers, moseying at first to dreamlike operatic music and then screeching heavy metal. In the show notes, Browne described the collection as a fusion of 1780s Versailles, east coast prep, and 1980s punk. From the clothes to the set, the whole thing was visually spectacular, but the combination of the music and the collection’s pastel-hued extravagance was uncanny. The designer’s collection statement was a poem of sorts, referencing secret gardens, indulgence, and amusement. Was the show a comment on excess? Or just a typically Browne-ian sartorial trip? Regardless, it was a surreal experience.

At Comme des Garçons, Rei Kawakubo offered a veritable survey of fashion history, exploring the Elizabethan era, the 18th and 19th centuries, the present, and the future (according to Comme). The Spring 2020 collection is part two of a three-part series, tied to a forthcoming project with the Vienna State Opera, for which Comme des Garçons has created costumes for composer Olga Neuwirth’s production of Orlando, an opera based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name. The first act was the menswear show, presented in June, and the final will come with the debut performance of Orlando in December of this year.

In short, Orlando’s titular character was born in the Elizabethan era and lives for more than 300 years, hence Kawakubo’s time warp. The first look out was an embellished floral jacket paired with deconstructed baby-pink bloomers, and as we moved forward in time, the garments became less ornate and colorful throughout the progression. The final looks were severe, stark, and imposing. And while these were shown in black (not white) they suggested a stripping down—an acceptance of the bare essentials (again, according to Comme). These “future” silhouettes were clean, sharp, and architectural—a notable contrast to the feminine shapes and flourishes we saw last season. A hint, perhaps, at where the next 300 years of CdG will take us.

New Beginnings

Guillaume Henry visited the past in another fashion. Spring 2020 marked the former Carven and Nina Ricci creative director’s first presentation for the newly revived house of Patou, which, founded in 1914 by Jean Patou, has been dormant for the last 30 years. Shocking a heritage house back to life is no easy task—especially one with as much history as Patou—but Henry seems up to the challenge. Instead of literally reinterpreting the archive (often a dangerous trap), he aimed to capture the spirit of the brand—youthful, playful, French—and inject that into modern clothes. With knit hoods trimmed in a halo of ostrich feathers, a tomboyish navy shorts suit, and plenty of demure-yet-flirty frocks, Henry did just that. Another revival of note? Schiaparelli ready-to-wear. Daniel Roseberry, a Thom Browne alum, made his Haute Couture debut for the storied, surrealist house this summer. This season, he premiered the maison’s first full ready-to-wear collection since Italian businessman Diego Della Valle woke it from a 60-year slumber in 2013. The ready-to-wear effort wasn’t quite as invigorating as Roseberry’s acclaimed (and enchanting) couture offering, but a turquoise suit embellished with ants (of the beaded variety) had showgoers squirming to grab an Insta-snap. Mugler, too, is a revival house getting buzz. Creative director Casey Cadwallader took a more literal approach to the brand’s heritage for his third show at its helm. There were mesh corsets aplenty, strong-shouldered suiting, and lots of lingerie-inspired looks, but it was Cadwallader’s casting that really stood out. Bella Hadid, Anna Cleveland, and Karen Elson walked alongside a cabine that was inclusive in every way, from size to race to gender identity.

Naturally, one cannot talk about heritage houses without discussing Chanel. Let’s get one thing out of the way: That crasher. As the models did their finale lap, a woman shot through the audience and leapt onto the stage, strutting with her hand on her hip until Gigi Hadid, in what was described by many as the most “boss” move of the season, wrangled her off stage. The crasher was Marie Benolie, a French comedian and Youtube star who goes by the moniker Marie S’Infiltre. Some found it frightening. Others found it funny. She was apparently trying to expose the absurdity and current joylessness of fashion. Before this show, I would have argued that her stunt was misplaced—this was one of the most inspiring, fun-filled Paris fashion weeks in recent memory. But unfortunately, Marie S’Infiltre’s cameo may have been the most memorable moment at Chanel.

Chanel was one of the most highly anticipated shows of the season because it was Virginie Viard’s solo ready-to-wear debut after longtime creative director Karl Lagerfeld’s passing earlier this year. Viard was Lagerfeld’s right-hand woman at Chanel for decades and has worked at the maison for over 30 years. She received high praise for her recent Resort and Couture collections, both of which stayed true to the house’s codes while exuding an effortless and—gasp—wearable breed of chic that was long missing under Lagerfeld. He focused more on fantasy and spectacle than real-world clothes—and there’s nothing wrong with that. The runway is a place to push the fashion dream—especially when you have the history and production budget of Chanel. Viard is more about reality, which is also great—a nice change of pace, even—and I was excited to see what she’d propose. But the set—a Parisian rooftop—said it all. It was perhaps romantic in theory but, in practice, it was just grey. That set the mood for the collection, a restrained parade of simple separates, youthful hot pants, and tweed suits that read a bit flat. Maybe it was because we were so used to Lagerfeld’s performative shows and wit-laden lineups, but Viard’s ’60s-inspired show was lacking in that gotta-have-it Chanel energy. To be fair, she’s stepping into what’s arguably the fashion industry’s most difficult role—and she might well be the only person who can fill Lagerfeld’s black boots. She’s got the chops—she’s already shown them to us. She’s just got to trust them next season—to find her groove—else her clothes might, once again, be overshadowed by some tweed-clad crasher.

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