In 1955, the notion of the gray flannel suit as a symbol of the deadly corporate drone entered the American lexicon thanks to a novel by Sloan Wilson, making it pretty much impossible to view this specific item of clothing in a neutral way again. This has become the basic stance of our skewed work-life balance, the triumph of business over fantasy. It got, fair to say, a bad rep.
Over the past two decades, New York designer Thom Browne has tried to change all that: first, by shrinking the proportions of his men’s suits to prompt a re-evaluation; Then, by erasing the boundaries between the sexes, and then by creating many variations on the subject, he effectively transformed the little gray suit into a Rorschach test that contained large numbers.
However, Monday in Paris took it to a new level: haute couture. We effectively suggest that a gray suit deserves the same legendary status as a Chanel bouclé, YSL Smoking suit, or Dior Bar suit. And that American fashion (not American fashion, but fashion with its overt roots in American culture) deserves its place on stage.
It was a very radical proposition.
The performances began in Paris in light of national unrest due to the police killing of a teenager of Algerian and Moroccan origin, which sparked accusations of racism and discrimination. For a while, there was a question as to whether the collections would happen — or should — at all. There are few events, after all, more symbolically linked to the state’s history of privilege and isolationism than haute couture: handmade, made-to-order, and styles for .001 percent. Heidi Solomon Celine’s men’s clothing show has been canceled, which was originally scheduled for the night before Haute Couture officially began. Bulgari canceled a cocktail party.
The rest stood still, observing the situation and noting, when asked, that there are few industries that represent the economic and artistic strength of France as fashion, globally. And that couture is a celebration of the craft at the highest level. But it was jarring to walk past the protests in front of one group of historic buildings (Assemblée Nationale, Palais de Justice) on the way to see the extraordinarily elaborate dresses elsewhere (Petit Palais, Musée Rodin).
That tension may be the current human condition, but it’s also elevated performances that have lasted. Yes, they offer escapism and beauty — and thanks to social media, escapism and beauty for everyone to look at, rather than just the elite few to buy. However, at their best, they must also offer something more. And not just the ballet flats Giambattista Valli wore with taffeta and lace dresses. Although this was a welcome addition.
Artists and gods
In Schiaparelli, for example, Daniel Roseberry offers an interpretation of the virtue of dialogue: between art and fashion, past and present.
The set was supposed to be Part 2 of a show trilogy inspired by The Divine Comedy – Part 1, which took place in January, and was based on “The Inferno”, so this would have been “Purgatorio”. But at the last minute Mr. Rosebery changed the title to “…and the Artists” to avoid any misinterpretations in the light of current events. Instead, he said backstage before the show, he was looking at “the earthly world, which is the human experience, which is the act of creating, and the desire to decorate yourself and express yourself, which is fashion.”
Which prompted him to think of washed silk, draped in a cloud around the shoulders, as well as Elsa Schiaparelli’s penchant for artists, which led him into his own artistic pantheon: Yves Klein, Lucian Freud and James Witten. Which, in turn, led him to one of his most relaxed and considered ensembles of the seasons: black collars that wrap around the shoulders of perfectly cut white coats; wooden fittings stacked on bronze body parts draped over a jewel-coloured base; Puffers and lavish opera suits covered in mirrored mosaics.
Mr. Rosebery’s work has become increasingly exaggerated as it leans into the surreal history of the house. Last season, it led to a social media meltdown after three fake, life-size Wild Kingdom costumes sparked a wave of anti-animal rights protests. This time, the clothes and cliches are toned down, and the imagination is turned on. The result was a step closer to divine.
As was Maria Grazia Chiuri’s meditation on Greek and Roman antiquity at Dior. The goddess in every woman is one of her favorite subjects, vulgar though it may be, but this time there was a stark sternness in her expression that elicited an armored high priestess rather than a new-age nonsense. In a palette of neutrals—ivory, sand, and black—they were small, layered wraps cut front and back but extended to the floor at the sides over peplo-like gowns; a metal mesh weave that resembles macrame from afar; The micropaillettes are filled with tiny pearls of seeds, like very shiny little ball bearings.
And while Iris Van Herpen has shown off what looks like a royal court wardrobe some moons away, complete with robotic mini dresses and iridescent chiffon that floats around the body like soap bubbles (why Marvel hasn’t yet hired her as its creative director is a mystery), it turns out that Based on reality: Oceanix, the floating city that is being planned in South Korea.
The idea of a waterborne city was once an idealistic vision that may now, given climate change, become a necessity. It could easily have led to thoughts of a dystopia, but Mrs. Van Herpen’s genius lies in her ability to imagine her way into an extraordinary future, right down to the silicone-covered abalone shards pinned to the bodice of her sea-green gown. This makes her work a gesture of faith.
Shades of gray
Still, it turns out, she wasn’t the only one thinking about the aquatic life. In his couture debut, Mr. Brown was also—or at least contemplating drowning his sorrows. He’s one of fashion’s greatest directors, and every collection tells a story.
The reveal took place this time on the stage of the Palais Garnier, now home to the Paris Opera Ballet, before an audience of 2,000 cardboard men in gray suits that ranged from orchestral to Chagall ceiling (the IRL audience sat in the suites). As faux pigeons crouched here and there, a story based on the 1980 song “Fade to Gray” by British new wave band Visage, began of a man (actually model Alek Wek) alone in a train station, watching his life pass through in 58 iterations of gray suit and prepster Each one is more complex and referential than the previous.
They came in pieces engraved in gold ingots that painted images straight from Cape Cod: of jellyfish, sea gulls, clams, and dolphins; in stripes and plaids picked out in beads or shimmering, translucent microbeads; In the Irish woven from strips of tulle. They came mostly in the same simple silhouettes—miniature, elongated, skinny shoulders—as well as some exaggeratedly molded bell shapes and cream ball gowns. At the end, there was a bride wearing a simple white chiffon top with a very long ponytail. Well, there had to be a train somewhere in there.
Mr. Brown can charm excessively with his own skills; Hence his constant tendency to put his models in un-wearable shoes as they groan excruciatingly and tediously. His dramas could verge on high-camp charades. But there’s no denying his achievement in wearing a gown that was once synonymous with anonymity and reinvented as an expression of individuality. Couture may be the ethereal tail of fashion, but this is a totally contemporary idea.