From Coronavirus To Apocalyptic Fashion Shows, What Did We Learn From Paris Fashion Week?

An anxiety-fuelled Paris Fashion Week explored womanhood, religion and the end-times.


by Kenya Hunt |
Updated on

It’s difficult to overstate just how odd and angst-filled the month of fashion shows was. Fashion has historically been a place to escape from the grim realities of the news cycle. But the most recent round of catwalk collections, which ended last week in Paris, was inextricably linked to it, with world events crashing fashion’s bi-annual party like a drunk, belligerent and uninvited guest.

The elements of drama unfolded like any good theatrical production, with the rising action building up to a nail-biting peak, and a few curveballs worked in to keep us on our toes. Only this was real life. There was New York Fashion Week kicking off on the heels of a presidential impeachment and London taking place during a ‘weather bomb’ called Storm Dennis. In Milan, the giddy emotions around a surprise announcement about an earthshakingly momentous creative partnership between Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons — coupled with the hysteria over the whiplash fast spread of coronavirus in northern Italy. And the panicked frenzy over the latter continued on into Paris where designers cancelled shows and presentations, brands postponed showrooms and editors amended their travel plans, heading back to their home countries as companies declared business travel restrictions. And throughout it all, the fashion weeks rolled on, with tuxedoed waiters handing out hand sanitizer and face masks instead of champagne…

Face masks and anti-bacterial gel were handed out at Dries Van Noten ©Getty Images

Demna Gvasalia captured the WTF-ness of it all with an incredible, unforgettable Balenciaga show, one that stuck with guests long after they left. Set in an oppressively dark theatre, the audience sat in stadium seats above a runway flooded with water. As the models walked out, storm clouds rolled in above our heads on vast screens that covered the ceiling. And as the lighting brightened, we could see that it wasn’t just the catwalk, but the first three rows (long home to the top of the fashion hierarchy), submerged in water. Above, angry clouds gave way to raging waters and, later, burning flames. It was Book of Revelations levels of hellfire and brimstone — and yet with some of the best tailoring. Exquisitely cut trouser suits and coats that transformed the torso and leg into one flawless line. Elsewhere in the collection: monastic, black velvet robes, fit and flare floral dresses with enormous shoulder pads … and football kits. What does it all mean?

Balenciaga AW20 ©Jason Loyd-Evans
The opening look from the Balenciaga AW20 show ©Jason Loyd-Evans

‘The apocalypse? No! This was, for me, literally a celebration of fashion,’ Gvasalia said backstage with a smile while Kim Kardashian and Kanye West milled around.

But what about all the dystopian climate crisis imagery? ‘I say Vive la fete, viva la mode,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s really important, I think, to keep that fire about love, clothing, dressing and fashion in itself. Even though we live in times where we’re not allowed to kiss each other anymore or hug, we still need to dress. It was, really, the most Demna collection I think I’ve done here. It’s also my past, it’s my – kind of – orthodox/Christian/Georgian upbringing. Priests and football players, that was my kind of personal fetish.’

Religion, once the first place one looked in a time of upheaval, also underlined Julien Dossena’s impressive collection which wove together medieval Catholic references with the armor of Joan of Arc: ‘Because women now more than ever really need to be strong. Why? Because of the world,’ he said.

Paco Rabanne AW20 ©Jason Loyd-Evans

Strength and womanhood were also on the minds of Natacha Ramsay-Levi, Miuccia Prada and Pierpaolo Piccioli, all of whom broadened their casting to include a wider variety of ages and body types on their runways. At Chloe, Ramsay-Levi asked non-model friends to wear her soft, feminine, Seventies-inflected workwear. The mix of women gave the clothes depth and made a refreshing departure from the usual narrow type. At Valentino, Piccioli was in a similar frame of mind, showing his lineup of black and red dresses (two of the season’s biggest colour stories) on models both older and youngish and not quite sample size: ‘I didn’t cast a young girl to put on the runway. Everything is fluid, I don’t care about size, age, sex, I just feel the emotions of the people, that’s what I like,’ he said. What has been so nice about the season’s more inclusive runways is that they aren’t accompanied by press releases and marketing bells and whistles declaring them so.

Valentino AW20 ©Jason Loyd-Evans
Chloe AW20 ©Jason Loyd-Evans

See actress Storm Reid opening Miu Miu's lineup of intelligently bejewelled skirts and dresses or Jill Kortleve and Paloma Elsesser in Alexander McQueen, where Sarah Burton showed a quietly considered line-up of upcycled patchwork coats, hand-beaded dresses and statement tailoring inspired by a trip to Wales.

Actress Stormi Reid opens the Miu Miu AW20 show ©Jason Loyd-Evans
Paloma Esser walks the Alexander McQueen AW20 runway ©Jason Loyd-Evans

The modern realities of womanhood dominated the week from start to finish. How exactly does one dress for the age of #MeToo? An impeccably tailored trouser suit, all business, in black? Latex leggings, glossy with the veneer of sex? Both?

Maria Grazia Chiuri kicked the week off by showing her Dior collection under an installation of neon lit signs that spelled out the feminism she has become known for projecting at the house. ‘CONSENT,’ a series of primary coloured works created by the art collective Claire Fontaine read. ‘When women strike the world stops,’ another broadcast.

Above a floor covered in various editions of the French newspaper Le Monde, the so-called ‘woke subtitles’ were so timely they could have been ripped from the day’s headlines about the Weinstein verdict.

Christian Dior AW20 ©Jason Loyd-Evans

And yet Chiuri is a creative director who understands the practicalities of her woman’s day to day needs. Her's are clothes you can move freely in and foster what she has described as a ‘sense of liberation.’ She continued that upbeat, no-fuss sensibility in her offerings for autumn from an opening series of black suits and dresses (some worn with neck ties, which are trending this season) to a range of miniskirts in heritage fabrics and checked coats and jackets to suit every age and shape. On the models’ feet: stomper boots and sensibly heeled Mary Janes, to make it all the easier for a modern-day change-maker to get around.

At Saint Laurent, Anthony Vaccarello also showed women on a mission with models stomping down a carpeted runway in gorgeously tailored double breasted blazers, silk blouses, sky high stilettos and latex leggings that coated their gams in glossy slicks of crimson, black, purple and fuchsia. Does skintight latex have to mean sex? At the sight of all the red lips, leather bustiers and nipple-baring lace tops on show, the bedroom was understandably the first place the mind went.

Saint Laurent AW20 ©Jason Loyd-Evans

But not so fast. Vaccarello insisted he was instead exploring the ‘well-behaved and overly bourgeoise’ women of the Nineties, playing up their elegance and sense of daring. It’s the contrast between the two that made his collection stand out so brilliantly in the month’s crowded calendar of clothes. ‘For Saint Laurent, elegance is mandatory but it also goes with perversity; one without the other would only be plain bourgeoisie or vulgarity,’ Vaccarello explained. On the surface, the fur coats, teeter-high shoes, hold-your-breath-tight pants and blown straight hair seemed to run counter to many of the values that rule fashion right now. But maybe that’s the point. In Vaccarello’s world latex can be a liberation too, depending on the woman wearing it.

Saint Laurent AW20 ©Jason Loyd-Evans

At Chanel, Virginie Viard was thinking about a different kind of liberation as she loosened up the house signatures with a freer, easier and more wearable style of dressing through breezy, poppered trousers that split open at the sides, walkable, two-tone boots and pared back tweed suits. It was all very Parisian, Eighties-inspired and distinctly feminine. Hedi Slimane also looked back to vintage French dressing, doubling down on his exploration of the bourgeoise with polished blazers, belted silk dresses, romantic blouses and tailored shorts. Both shows made it clear that bon chic, bon genre is once again a thing.

Chanel AW20 ©Jason Loyd-Evans

Meanwhile, Nicolas Ghesquiere looked to the past to make sense of the present in an ambitious Louis Vuitton show, which featured a backdrop of 200 opera singers all in varying period dress from the 15th century to 1950. His line-up of trim, streamlined sportswear was a collage of nostalgic and modern elements that ultimately produced a look and feeling that was firmly future-facing. And as a wall of singers dressed in an encyclopedia’s worth of looks including Empress Eugenie style hooped crinolines, clerical robes and jaconet gowns, the moment was a reassuring reminder that we’ve been through worse, and not only survived, but thrived.

Louis Vuitton AW20 ©Jason Loyd-Evans

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