Paris’s fashion week wrapped up Wednesday, ending the fall/winter 2016 New York/London/Milan/Paris swing and posing the question: How much does context matter when it comes to fashion?
As Karl Lagerfeld recreated a Parisian bistro (named for Mademoiselle Chanel) in the glass-ceilinged Grand Palais – complete with mahogany bar serving Perrier-Jouet and croissants, red leather banquettes for guests and a tile floor – it was hard not to wonder.
When the clothes make it into stores in a few months, they will be hung on a rack among other racks, then head into consumers’ own contexts, not the frame in which they were introduced. So why waste the energy (or money) on scene-setting?
A cynic would say it’s manipulation, a subconscious effort to shape how the viewer sees the clothes (or distract from the collection, which may be less impressive than the space it is in). A more benevolent soul would say it is an attempt by a designer to share what is on his or her mind.
Both are, to a certain extent, true. When it works, it can give a garment a depth of meaning; when it doesn’t, it can make them feel like the emperor’s new clothes.
When Julie de Libran showed her second Sonia Rykiel collection in the original store in St.-Germain-des-Prés, but reimagined the space as a pop-up library filled with 50,000 books, the choice reflected her connection to the brand, but also a new dimension of her woman – questioning, intimate – as it was reflected, literally, in the silver-mirrored jeans.
But when Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski unveiled her debut for Hermes at the Garde Républicaine, aka the horse guards’ home base, the hit-you-over-the-head connection to the brand (which began life as a harness-maker) overwhelmed her polite versions of house classics.
Confidence has never been a problem for Saint Laurent’s Hedi Slimane, who, along with Lagerfeld, pretty much wrote the playbook for the venue shell game.
The ingredients are simple: an invitation booklet featuring the work of a California artist specializing in recycling; a specially engineered sound and light show (a moving runway raised and lowered by girders this time); and a specially commissioned track (“Pretty Boy” by the all-girl punk band Felines), the better to shroud what is effectively a broadly merchandised collection in the guise of a gang of Lolitas after a night of hard partying.
There were, as per usual, mini-crini polka dot prom dresses, skintight leathers, zip-slashed leggings. There were intarsia furs, capes (leopard, ebony), menswear tweeds. There were long backless silver-zebra-striped slinky gowns and short asymmetric sequin sheaths.
It’s a neat trick – overwhelming the senses with a punk rock message while slipping in some white-collar tailoring – but it’s starting to seem familiar.
Lagerfeld understands this. Though his Chanel show is always in the Grand Palais, he remakes the space every season to his own specifications, so you never know exactly what you are going to get. In the past he has created a modern art gallery, a supermarket, the Rue Cambon and an undersea reef.
Think what you will about spending so much on a 20-minute event, it has created something of an expectation frenzy around Chanel.
But here’s the thing: You would have gotten it without the setting, which turned the cool into camp. You might even have gotten it more powerfully, as you wouldn’t have been distracted by noticing that certain looks matched the waiters.
Case in point: the work of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, who held their show in the blank venue of a tent in the Tuileries.
Exploring the duality of “sensuality and independence” as embodied by women such as Emilie Floge, the artist and muse of Gustav Klimt, and Celia Birtwell (who collaborated on some prints), the designers created an extraordinary mosaic of black-and-white monasticism mixed with Klimtian luxe.
Working within their trademark silhouette – round neck, small shoulder, high waist – they sent out austere black leather capes over tailored trousers; skirts paved with hundreds of leather and chiffon triangles edged in gold, creating a stained-glass effect on the legs; tunic dresses of 10 kinds of lace; and red-carpet numbers with feather silks segueing into gold lace.
There were floral prints and soaring dragons, and as a finale there were Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson doing a “Zoolander” strut.
Huh? Where did they come from?
Rome apparently, to announce they were filming a sequel. Because in the end it’s what you put on the runway, not around it, that matters.