Could Haute Couture become “the driving force of fashion again”? JORDAN RICHMAN travels to Paris to find out, hitting the défilés as the fashion world gathers in person for the first time since early 2020.
The industry has changed since Covid’s debut, and our correspondent can’t shake the thought that the stockist-less start-ups, indie retailers, and custom-order trends that have emerged in its wake have as much, if not more, to tell us about where fashion is headed – and perhaps about the nature of couture itself – than the old Maisons do. Meanwhile, the stakes are high in the salons of Paris, with legacy reboots and trailblazing debuts alike promising a new era (and new order) in fashion’s loftiest sphere. With health and safety measures restricting audience numbers, couture week is harder to access than ever. Nevertheless, some experimental strategies – and some designer drugs – manage to penetrate couture’s protective cocoon, testing luxury conglomerates’ immunity to new variants. Between crémants at La Perle and café crèmes at Flore, Richman considers the demise of Instagram-dysphoric design, femme-trolling florals, and the haunted triangle that is normcore/athleisure/streetwear – and predicts the rise of “responsible hedonism.”
Marie Antoinette and Mercury Retrograde
Nervous about my first international flight since the pandemic, I drug myself – with a proprietary blend of red wine, Benadryl, and ketamine spritz – for the redeye to Paris and pass out before take off. I wake up hours later in the dark, drool on my chin, unsure of where I am until a bright screen playing Marie Antoinette reminds me I’m on a plane. I reach for my phone to see the time and reflexively begin scrolling Instagram in my stupor. The first thing that catches my hazy attention is a post by the design director of Balenciaga. It’s a screenshot of the Balenciaga Instagram account wiped of all posts. I swipe over to the actual account and it’s blank. No more artists larping as influencers, snapping pics of themselves and their pets in matching Balenciaga gear. For a split second I thought it was another glitch in an endless chain of miscommunication brought on by Mercury Retrograde’s shadow before realizing the obvious: the wipe was part of Balenciaga’s strategy to double down on haute couture. Demna Gvasalia had already said that “couture actually may save fashion, in its modern way.” But what did he mean by that, and was this a sincere statement or more of his signature anti-fashion contrarianism? We would know in about 6 days’ time, when the creative director would debut his vision for Balenciaga’s first haute couture collection since the label shuttered its 10 Avenue George V headquarters 53 years ago. My eyelids feel heavy, everything fades back to black, and the next thing I know I’m standing in front of customs at CDG.
The week before heading to Paris I was with my friend Katharina Korbjuhn drinking dirty vodka martinis at Odeon. Behind the former model and Hedi Slimane muse’s icy blonde and stylish eyebrowless exterior is one of the sharpest strategic minds within the fashion industry. Katharina has been instrumental in reanimating the corpse that was Schiaparelli, turning the legacy Maison into the couture house most sought after by everyone from Cate Blanchett to Kim K. Kat is less interested in chatting about couture than she is in going on and on about the Lower East Side art house fashion boutique Café Forgot. Kat loves Cafe Forgot “because the emphasis is on these unique pieces with interesting craft,“ she told me. “I don’t have to endure some elaborately spun corporate narrative from LVMH to desire the products – the connection is much more visceral.” The reasoning sounded very “couture” to me, in a sense, given the appeal of putting attention and emphasis back on the clothes – on unique pieces and real connections – instead of on marketing. Kat was browsing Café Forgot’s Instagram DMing the shop about the pieces she wanted when she paused to bring us full circle: Schiaparelli’s biggest clients, she reflected, WhatsApp the CEO their orders.
The last fashion decade started with Galliano’s fall from grace, back in 2011 – a fact I couldn’t help but remember when a friend asked to meet at La Perle before the Alaïa show, putting us at the scene of Galliano’s infamous antisemitic rant, caught on video. At the time, his stepping down from Dior seemed like an absolute. Now, after 10 years of cancellations – some deserved, others questionable – we have reached the height of contrarian culture, where edge lords have OnlyFans followers in the seven figures, polarizing podcasters win prizes at major film festivals, and the saddle bag that galvanized Galliano’s Dior has made a triumphant return (while the creative director has been installed, comfortably and creatively, at Margiela for most of the decade since.) There’s a critical point I’m making as I write this list, but it escapes me as I’m blinded by the bright lights of the Alaïa runway. The crème de la crème of fashion have gathered for this show. Seated to my left is Emmanuelle Alt. Circulating all over Paris are tense rumors of the editorial reforms coming at Conde Nast International in the next months. Anna Wintour gets up from her seat down the runway to walk over, and awkwardly asks Emmanuelle if it’s ok to kiss – aware, I imagine, of all the cameras around and the optics surrounding safety protocols. Emmanuelle is agreeable. The Americans are mostly maskless, the Europeans half and half. Across the runway sits Monica Bellucci, all-black and mask clad. It takes me a couple minutes to recognize the iconic beauty with half that face covered. It’s been so long since I’ve been to an in-person fashion show that I have forgotten how boring it can be waiting for one to start. All the guests seem to be trying to remember how they used to behave at such events. The music starts – it has a vague hint of James Bond GoldenEye – and a number of tailored black looks emerge, showcasing the feminine/masculine tailoring that Raf Simons protégé and Alaïa newcomer Pieter Mulier mastered as creative director at Dior. Watching the ensuing parade of my generation’s supers – Mika, Rhiannon, Vitoria, Anok, etc. – feels like seeing friends arrive “back at school” after a long summer holiday. But there’s no Naomi as anticipated, or even a Jenner or Hadid, amid the ensembles of python, fur, feathers, and leather – staples of the Alaïa metier that, in Azzedine’s hands, always looked more sophisticate than show girl. Pieter has taken these materials into new territory with a rigorous austerity that I can only hope will usher in the era of the “conceptual slut.” Sick of the proliferation of haughty prints, cheap polyester, and Instagram-dysphoric design, the conceptual slut looks hot and knows it. She doesn’t crowd-source self-esteem via thousands of little digital hearts. Men don’t slide into her DMs – they run across boulevards through traffic to chat her up and light her cigarette. I decide that if I had to sum up the show in one word it would be “respectful.” Clearly, Pieter didn’t want people walking out of the show saying, “that was not Alaïa,” so he stayed close to the archive, adding contemporary touches. Walking toward the backstage area I turn the corner to bump into Raf Simons crying. I freeze, embarrassed to be so closely witnessing this public outpouring of emotion. But why couldn’t he cry, a mentor proud of his mentee? When you think about it, isn’t the collective increase in vulnerability we’ve seen in the past year beautiful and the pandemic’s silver lining? I add “vulnerable” to my list of Alaïa keywords.
After the Alaïa show I head to Costes for dinner and drinks. Next to us there is a table of models still in hair and makeup from the show. I had been worried about having to wear a mask again in Paris after living a maskless existence in NY for the last month, but no one at Costes – not even the employees – has one. It occurs to me that Costes is the Florida of Paris.
Twee, or Très Chic?
Hungover after a late night at Hotel Costes I finally rise, take a whore’s bath, grab a Vogue cigarette from my friend’s purse and depart for Flore. I order a mint tea and notice my phone is only charged 18%. It’s an interesting challenge: how much can I write in my Notes app before my phone dies and I have to order a taxi, unable to navigate the arrondissment spiral without the help of Google. I cleverly ask the waiter for his pen and jot down my door code on one of the couture invitations I have with me.
Having avoided crisis, I make it to a presentation by Olivier Saillard. Known as a fashion curator, Olivier is presenting his fourth made to order collection, each of which has so far focused on working and reworking a single garment. This season, following explorations of white button-downs and simple t-shirts, he has ambitiously chosen the suit. A dozen people are crowded into a small room in the 2nd; aside from couture queen Amanda Harlech, most are unrecognizable to me. The presentation is a revelation: the XL men’s black suit is a blank canvas for its own alteration and exaggeration through fitting, pleating, and deconstructing the format in various but equally beautiful ways, somehow leaving us with a full collection. Everything is modeled by one cabin model, a recognizable face I imagine once belonged to Margiela or Helmut Lang, back in the good old days. She changes trousers and jackets in front of the audience, with Olivier and several assistants helping her with the more complicated pieces: t-shirts with the exquisite pleating of a Madam Grès gown. The show has everything that is painfully absent from the mainstream fashion conglomerates – it has intimacy, delicacy, variety, and ability. Applause go on for minutes after the presentation ends, all of us seemingly wanting to express our enthusiasm, but unsure of what is appropriate in this tiny salon. We look to Amanda for cues, and follow as she starts cheering, “Bravo!” After the show, I chat with Olivier in the garden. When I ask him his thoughts on the future of couture, he tells me, “Fashion is not an emergency anymore. You are wearing a t-shirt. I’m wearing a shirt. We are wearing very simple clothes. It’s not like it was in the 80s. That’s why we have to keep this moment of calm to reintroduce creation into fashion.” Despite the sophistication around us, I understand that what Olivier is doing with his collection is the same as what is happening in New York at Café Forgot – that the predicted “return of couture” is not aesthetic but conceptual, a response to a collective longing for authentic connection to clothes, not brands, whether one’s vibe is très chic or très twee.
Loveshackfancy is another brand that has propagated recently in New York, across the US, and into the EU, approaching the level of popularity that Brandy Melville has enjoyed in the past few years. During a global pandemic, in which millions lost their lives and bodies awaiting burial piled up in Manhattan, a brand known for romantic florals, well, flourished – an escapist, even charming response to the apocalyptic doom that flooded our news feeds, taking us to a happy place of tie dye, flowers, and chintz. In New York, you can’t walk anywhere south of Houston without spotting hundreds of Loveshackfancy clones. The girly fantasy aesthetic is fast replacing the current reigning trifecta of streetwear, normcore, and athleisure. Contemplating recent runway parades chez Dior and Chanel, I couldn’t-help-but-wonder if this meant these high pastoral-femme brands were suddenly the most relevant again, with their references to Impressionism, jardins, palazzos, and picnic baskets. Are the buzziest brands of the late 2010s (Balenciaga), with their coded archetypes and severe streetwear-commentary, officially démodé?
Day three jetlag hits me like a ton of bricks. I wake up to a dead phone and terror I’ve slept through Chanel. Finally my phone turns on, confirming my severe panic – but there is still enough time to make my second appointment of the day at RVDK. Luckily, it’s just one hotel particulier over from the hotel particulier I’m staying at on Rue de Grenelle. I cross the courtyard and enter the house, where I find a syringe and a text titled “The Mind Vaccine.” I’m introduced to Ronald van der Kamp, who tells me he’s always been interested in the idea of designer drugs – and that he’s come up with one for his Maison, just as one might create a perfume. Inside beautiful objets, each made from vintage syringes – I think he said they were “from the navy”? – is the product itself: a CBD concoction. Ronald squirts some on our hands and we lick it off and he begins taking me through the collection. Now is the time for “responsible hedonism,” he tells me, and I think that’s as good a fashion term as “normcore.” In similar respect, RVDK is a bit of a trend forecaster. Running his small “ecologique” couture house, he has been discussing the medium of couture as one of responsibility for years – a theme that has finally caught one with conglomerates such as Kering. The CBD hits, and I feel chill – more chill than really feels comfortable, especially considering my next stop is maybe the least chill place in Paris: Place Vendôme. The clothes are extremely fun and hedonistic, but if I went out in them I doubt I would act responsibly: mini pouffe dresses, metallics, patchwork denim, resin embroidery, and, as accessories, handheld fans begging to be used as props for dancing on tables. There is also intelligence to the collection’s acknowledgement of the tension between responsibility and hedonism that is sure to trend in the coming years – that is, if there’s any future from which trends might emerge at all.
Schiaparelli is at 21 Place Vendome – impressive surroundings once home to the atelier and business HQ of couturière Madame Louise Cheruit. Up the skinny elevator I’m immediately introduced to Schiaparelli artistic director Daniel Roseberry. His demeanor is warm and kind, and he reminds me of a friend from New York I used to go drinking with at Julius in the West Village. It’s only the second day of the collections, but I immediately sense Schiaparelli has won the week. (“Schiaparelli” will stay on the lips of everyone I see the rest of the day, suggesting I’m right.) When I ask Daniel how it feels to be crowned the prince of haute couture after only two years in Paris, he answers humbly. Let’s hope this quality doesn’t disappear with all the success he has coming. The collection not only refers to fashion’s greats – Alaïa, Balenciaga, Margiela, Lacroix – it turns up the volume on whatever it’s citing 1000%. Schiaparelli’s Lacroix is more Lacroix than Lacroix. In the era of the “real fake,” Schiaparelli’s savvy lies in its ability to approach contemporary fashion theory – without going all Balenciaga-New-Models-provocateur. I ask Daniel who would be maison founder (and Coco Chanel archrival) Elsa Schiaparelli’s favorite celebrity wearing the label today. “I mean, she loved Mae West, who was not a beacon of safety or good taste – and our recent moment with Cardi B flirts with that,” he muses. “It takes good taste to flirt with bad taste, right? Cardi is in full possession of how she goes beyond and below everything, and I get really turned on by people who take risks like that.”
When I see the collection, it dawns on me that couture is made look by look – not as a collection. Each dress is its own fleshed-out concept; each outfit contains the same amount of consideration that goes into an entire season of ready-to-wear. The details are too many and too fantastic to describe without getting into In Search of Lost Time territory, length-wise. Writing from the garden of the nearby Ritz while eating a very bloody cheeseburger, I recall a black strapless column with golden embroidery sprouting horns that stretch above house model Maggie’s head; a bronze metal breast plate made of enormous flowers and crafted by the 90 year-old former apprentice of sculptor Claude Lalanne. Maybe I’m most impressed with how well Daniel walks the tight rope between camp chic and what, in anyone else’s hands, would look more like RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The Balenciaga Couture show is good, but maybe not the full revolution expected. The hope with this collection was that Demna could do again what he did with Vetements and his early Balenciaga collections, presenting a vision so irreverently contemporary that it rendered everything else irrelevant. But maybe it is not couture’s obligation to try. If couture is about the clothes and the clients, then there was plenty there for them to appreciate: solid tailoring, normcore elevated to literal couture status, cocooning, satin, embroideries, and a bride-as-finale. Balenciaga has always had an emotional, borderline hysterical bond with its couture clients. Mona von Bismarck, who famously bought 150 pieces from the house in one season, became ill and retreated to her room for three days when Cristobal Balenciaga closed the couture Maison in 1968. Now “newly restored” by my friend Niklas Bildstein Zaar and his Berlin studio, sub, the original salons leave a deliberately ghostly impression, designed to reproduce the slow decay representative of the 53 years since 10 avenue George V was closed to couture audiences. Sub’s mesmerizing, elaborate scenography – accompanied by pulsating soundtracks by bfrnd – is usually a central part of the sensory overload experience that is a Balenciaga fashion show; today, the immersive ambiance was absent, the space hauntingly austere, the runway silent (a hushed nod to couture traditions from the von Bismarck days). The garments had the audience’s full concentration – when not scarily distracted by Kanye’s Halloween mask, anyway. The casting was conspicuous, however: artist Eliza Douglas opened, followed by Ella Emhoff – or as I call her, “Alt Hadid” – and my friend Charlie Engman’s mother. Bella, not walking, was front row instead, flown in privately from Cannes the morning of and flown back right after the show. (Apparently she returns to Paris again in the morning for a Mugler shoot.) In Paris, one big topic of the week is whether or not we should all have just gone to Cannes instead. I guess some like Bella can have their couture and eat it too.
If couture is to become the driving fashion force in the next years, as implied by Demna et al., change can’t wait another season.
Broke My Brain
Last year, a Kylie Jenner x The Grinch holiday collaboration showed up in my feed and broke my brain. I FaceTimed my pal Sean Monahan, formerly of “normcore” forecasters K-Hole, for his thoughts. He explained to me that for a collaboration to be successful today, it doesn’t need to make sense or even have a concept – that in fact, it may be that the more random the pairing, the more profitable it can be. Frustrated, I decided to embrace the chaos and avoid an anger stroke. When I first heard Jean-Paul Gaultier was coming back after announcing his retirement from fashion just last year, turning the couture line into a platform for a rotation of guest designers, I thought, “Sure, why not.” The more I considered it, the more forward-thinking I found the idea – particularly amid recent predictions that in order to survive in the future, fashion brands will have to become fully fledged media platforms. First in Gaultier’s new line-up was Sacai’s Chitose Abe. I did wonder what the incentive was for a designer with a thriving brand and business to invest time and energy in creating a collection for someone else. But this isn’t your typical crossover, capsule, or collab: this is couture, which despite the changing landscape remains (as Demna would surely agree) fashion’s highest honor. The clothes are fantastic, the perfect pair-up of Sacai’s urban warrior meets Gaultier’s witty take on fashion clichés past and present. Sexy tailoring, corsets, deconstructed knits, and requisite sailor stripes appear alongside the clear winner of the week’s most popular material: denim. I am equally excited to see Sutton Stracke from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills sitting front row. Speaking of vulnerability, southern belle Sutton gives her best Blanche Dubois, breaking down and crying constantly. She has even started using a lymphatic face roller to self-soothe while talking with the other women on the show. At a couture week completely overlapping with Cannes – meaning very few celebs – Sutton is the surprise star. I hear that Ludovic de Saint Sernin has been chasing her around for a picture.
In case it isn’t obvious by now, the lack of diversity at couture is unacceptable. The regressive attitude is a stain on the entire week – one that, frankly, I don’t see anyone in Paris discussing or writing about in their reviews. Couture, like the art world, seems to imagine itself sufficiently ultra-exclusive to avoid the reckoning that it desperately needs. If couture is to become the driving fashion force in the next years, as implied by Demna et al., change can’t wait another season.
The Wrap Up
It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m taking the metro to the Margiela Couture screening at the Cinema UGC Normandie on the Champs Elysées, now fully regretting not taking up a friend on her offer to join her in Cannes for the festival. Word is that this year’s Cannes is back to full glamour. Couture is a handful of in-person shows, an occasional dinner, Bryan Ferry, drinks at La Perle, and an unescapable female artist from the states rumored to have paid to attend one of those scam modeling schools – she wanted to grow up to be Alessandra Ambrosio – before eventually settling for influencer/artist. After all, we can’t all be Bella Hadid, going back and forth daily on the private jet between Paris and the Côte d’Azur, posting plane selfies like you’ve never heard of a carbon footprint. As I enter the lobby, I realize it’s my first time at the movies since Covid. Back in Los Angeles I used to go several times a week – I loved going to The Grove during the Movie Pass heyday. There’s nothing like cinema for escapism, and one of the cruel ironies of the past 16 months is that theaters were closed when we most needed to escape. A press attaché hands me a popcorn and I take my seat. The first 20 minutes or so show Galliano explaining his practice, the mood, the bias (ahem). If you’ve ever been in a YouTube fashion k-hole, I’m sure you understand – and I’ll spare you a description. The film starts somewhere coastal, and its gorgeous pink skies remind me of Querelle. The clothes on view are appropriately nautical, completing the shipwrecked seamen/semen vibes. They make me nostalgic for all my summers growing up in Wellfleet, for the weathered-casual of the Cape, where everything – homes, fisherman sweaters, linens, desires repressed and/or exaggerated – is passed down from generation to generation. I decide that next summer, I definitely need to make an appearance in PTown. I’ll go clamming in Margiela’s artisanal yellow latex tabi waders.
Fendi is also “digital” again this season. The show notes say the presentation is “a poetic transfiguration of the past within the present day.” The video opens on Kate Moss’s eyes, seen through a verysoft Vaseline filter. The clothes at Fendi are similarly soft, delicate. Almost all the exits are a shade of white or another pale pastel. These clothes feel “couture” in the way we expect clothes to feel “couture.” The lace, embroidery, feathers, and tailoring are some of the most intricate and exquisite I’ve seen all week in Paris.
Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean Raymond, the first Black American invited to show at Paris couture, opted to present remotely from New York state’s Villa Lewaro: the former home of Madam C.J. Walker – the first self-made female millionaire in America, the daughter of enslaved persons, and the owner of a Black hair care empire. The official presentation has been postponed due to Hurricane Elsa, but attendees weathered . Former Black Panther Party chairperson Elaine Brown spoke on the runway amid showers. Blunts were passed around to rained-out guests, (delicious) jerk chicken, fried snapper, macaroni and cheese were served, and invitees danced into the night to DJs playing classics from Stevie Wonder. Nothing in Paris has come close to sounding as joyful this week.
Couture ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. On the last night of presentations I go out to meet a photographer for some Levantine cuisine by Canal St Martin. I haven’t been to the neighborhood in years. It’s incredible how much it feels like Berlin – the graffiti, the shitty architecture, and mostly the canal swarmed with people drinking and hanging out. After dinner we go to le splendid and meet up with friends from NY, Paris, Zurich and Berlin. We dance, finally, and it feels incredible – our community, built over the past decade, reunited after 16 months of separation. My eyes moisten, à la Raf, in contemplation of this period of domestic solitude – or maybe at the idea of returning to our synched and sponsored lifestyles, traveling faster than ever from couture to Qatar aboard new Concorde jets.