PARIS — The status quo is over. A dead duck. Not working. This is something on which most everyone can agree. It’s time to upend the old ways. But in favor of … what, exactly?
“Continuing in a state of perplexity is a risk. Advancing ahead while fumbling around in the dark is also a risk.” Thus wrote Rei Kawakubo, oracle of fashion, as part of what was — for her — a veritable torrent of text (10 whole sentences!) before her spring show, which gave physical shape to the tortuous process of giving birth to a new idea: one full of lumps and bumps and rips in the fabric of familiarity.
She was talking about herself, and her own dissatisfaction with her work, but who can’t relate?
Not to the clothes, necessarily — to the classic military trench jumpsuits in elaborate, sparkling brocade, splitting open with the emergence of a rounded belly covered in a bodysuit of roses, newsprint or branded logos; ripped apart by an oversized rump, or two jutting growths on either side. To the point.
It’s just rare for anyone, designer or not, to admit to her own sense of confusion about where to go next — especially one who has been effectively crowned a living legend by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it is also true that to move forward, we have to choose. Ms. Kawakubo chose, she wrote, to advance in the dark. At least then, even if you bang your shin on a desk, you’re still getting somewhere. And it is impossible to argue with the power of a narrow, flowing floral-print dress capped off by a suit jacket cropped roughly at the bust, and just barely veiling a body bound in dangling silver chains.
Ms. Kawakubo works in metaphor. Fashion just happens to be the medium.
Anyway, it was messy, and refreshing, as attempts at change can be. Sometimes they don’t work; see Olivier Theyskens’ decision to brighten his gothic tailoring with silk screens from Hans Bellmer’s creepy Dolls series. But there are too many designers still playing it safe and spinning in place.
At Hermès, for example, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski brought her audience to the Hippodrome de Longchamp, presumably because of the brand’s horsy history, and then shied away from actual animals in favor of impeccably understated, perfectly finished and ultimately bland leather and canvas tunics, culottes and black tie overalls. At Sonia Rykiel, Julie de Libran built a whole collection on knits — oversize or body-con — in awning stripes, sporting lengths of swinging macramé fringe.
She had been inspired, she wrote in a note left on every seat, by the venue: a pedestrian thoroughfare between the Boulevard Raspail and Rue de Cherche-Midi where a Sunday market is held, and which before the show became Allée Sonia Rykiel, the first Parisian street ever named for a French designer (Mayor Anne Hidalgo did the honors). The clothes — reflections of the string bags that people use to do their organic shopping — were fine, but they didn’t take the idea very far.
Which is why Haider Ackermann’s first coed show was so convincing. As his men and women swapped louche jackets and trousers in houndstooth of many sizes, lounge singer satins and sunburst brocade, he made the case for genderless suiting with grace but without compromise, positing the exchange not as a political statement about the refusal of labels, but as generosity. Oh, you like this cut? Try it on!
It was a different way of thinking about an issue that has been percolating through the runways all season, just as Junya Watanabe took another hot topic — the two sides to every story — and gave it original form.
Using denim — faded, ruched and otherwise treated — as a toughened base, he merged it with the stuff of fashion frippery (lace, tulle, tartan, jacquard) in Delft-toned patchworks of eras and assumptions. Split legged jeans spilled trumpet skirts of tulle. Mermaid gowns were collaged together from rough-edged odds and ends and tossed over T-shirts. Crinoline-pouffed prom dresses turned out to be false fronts hiding jeans. New Look tea frocks were twinned with overalls.
The clothes did not demand resolution but in their duality and wit, they made a fraught conversation utterly delightful to contemplate.
At least until Demna Gvasalia pulled the rug out from under, reasserting the sense of free-floating disorientation that Ms. Kawakubo had identified in a tour de force of a Balenciaga show, held in a “video tube” on the outskirts of Paris, amid the morphing, melting images of morphing, melting civilization in a 360-degree montage directed by the artist Jon Rafman.
It began with a computer error message. Then came the waves. Then lava. Then sparkling pixels like millions of tiny diamonds and kaleidoscopic neon swirls. Burnt-out skyscrapers pitched toward the ground. Asteroids drifted by. There were chains. In the visual tumult, a pinstriped coatdress emerged, shoulders squared. And so it built: an argument for the ability of material constructivism to assert control in the confusion, in both women’s and men’s wear. That was an original Balenciaga thing, though the founder of the house would not have put it this way, exactly. Mr. Gvasalia has adapted it and made it his own
Collars jutted upward in triangles. The Balenciaga label emerged like a rectangular signpost on shoulder seams from jackets and trenches. Rhinestone Eiffel Towers twinkled on a black velvet slip dress, suspended like a tube from circular boning, as well as on a man’s inverted pyramid of a suit. Satin shirts cocooned in the back from dropped yokes. Logo prints had racecar graphics. It ended with a finale of silk skirts tied sarong-like at the front, and matching slithery silk shirts; evening looks, all wrapped up.
A chance to catch your breath before wading back into the chaos. As the video was titled, “The Ride Never Ends.” It wasn’t exactly comforting, but it was elegantly said.
By VANESSA FRIEDMAN