The Dior boutique on Avenue Montaigne, the luxury shopping thoroughfare bookended by the Pont de l’Alma, near where Princess Diana died.
And the beginning of the Champs-Élysées, is currently wrapped in a bright red, green and blue mural of raw-edged 1960s protest posters blaring, “Women empowerment” and “C’est non, non et non.”
Created to reflect Dior’s latest women’s ready-to-wear collection by designer Maria Grazia Chiuri, it is also symptomatic of an approach that has put activism at the heart of the maison, to the delight of some and the discomfort of others.
In the past, Chiuri’s cause of choice was women’s rights (hence the mural), but for the couture, she changed her target, creating an entire show in shades of nude and navy so impeccably invisible, it acted as an unmistakable riposte to the imperatives of the internet age.
You want clothes that shout through the small screen? Hah. She made clothes that whispered their way down the runway.
It turns out California is not the only place where people are speaking up about the digital era; gaming is not the only pressure point when it comes to issues of attention. Fashion, with its addiction to Instagram, to likes and followers, is fighting its own battle over first principles. And the couture, by definition an art of the hand and the inside, the one product unavailable to buy online, lies at the heart of the struggle.
John Galliano dramatized the tension in high definition with a riot of a Maison Margiela show that he called an “ongoing study of seductions in the millennial era.” This meant fashion’s ancestral antecedents — enveloping Poiret-like shawl collars; cocoon and trapeze volumes; molded corseted and peplum skirt suits — reinvented in entirely counterintuitive fabrics, including foam, nylon and what looked like insulation and mattress ticking.
Some of it was patched together from offcuts from other luxury houses (including silks used in Queen Elizabeth’s scarves); much of it was in “techno-pastels” derived from a Faye Dunaway lipstick shade; and the star accessory was not a handbag but rather a smartphone holster that could be strapped to the ankle or elbow.
It didn’t exactly reconcile the opposing poles, but it electrified the debate.
On one side of the tug of war are those designers who celebrate the performative aspect of clothing: Giambattista Valli, who can attach a statement-making train to seemingly any garment, including a sparkling tulle tube top paired with high-waist pants; Jean Paul Gaultier, who can mix elegance and visual puns in myriad Le Smokings as if he were doing “Saturday Night Live” in Versailles; and Schiaparelli, where Bertrand Guyon created a wearable jungle in leopard, zebra and flamingo. Sometimes all at the same time.
On the other side are designers like Chiuri, who insist on the primacy of the interior as opposed to the exterior. See, for example, Giorgio Armani’s 96 variations on champagne and black in lamé pantsuits, velvet columns and the occasional feathered fantasy.
The issue is one of values: Do you want your clothes to be a public pronouncement? Or an intimate conversation between you and yourself?
Only by getting up close, after all, would you understand Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld strategically placed zippers along the seams of sleeves and skirts and suits to reveal a glinting, seductive underneath. Or Fendi (Lagerfeld again), where the magicians of the atelier played optical-illusion games with mink, ermine, chiffon and sequins so it was impossible to identify with the naked eye which was which in the slither of shine of a dancing dress or in the mosaic of colors in a coat.
Or Givenchy, where, in an ode to the house’s founder and namesake, Clare Waight Keller brought Audrey Hepburn history into the 21st century with caped, graphic silhouettes bathed in starlight, medieval and futuristic at the same time, and then brought the atelier out on the steps with her to take a bow.
Yet this kind of close is off limits to 99 percent of people. So what’s a brand to do? Accept the idea that its greatest work will lurk largely in the shadows instead of going viral on YouTube?
Perhaps the answer is to reframe the relationship. Last week, two designers did it in two very different ways, and each time the result was extraordinary no matter how you looked at it.
Iris Van Herpen, for example, for whom technology is not a platform but the atelier itself. Half the time what she makes doesn’t even resemble clothing but rather some form of undulating carapace: the 5G network made material, cast in the style of Arthurian legend, and encasing the body; sound-wave patterns laser-cut out of Mylar and black cotton and heat-bonded to acrylic cutouts in something resembling (kind of) a little black dress.
And Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino, who happily said before his show, “I was not at all interested in what is modern couture,” thus in one sentence rejecting the struggle that had defined almost every other collection.
Instead he paired prune-colored wool cropped trousers with a crepe shirt the color of a baby chick, tied with a gold lamé scarf at the neck and worn under a floor-sweeping cape covered in jade green ... sequins? It’s a combination that never should have worked, but absolutely did.
Opera coats and wrap trenches held entire mythologies in intarsia pictograms. A finale of luscious taffeta gowns in ever more extravagant expanses of saturated shades had the shrugged-on ease of a T-shirt and the pockets of a pair of jeans. They were entrance making, and at the same time laid so lightly on the body that it seemed as if you could crumple them up and hold them in one hand, virtual ballgown of the most human kind.
At the end of the show, the house’s founder, Valentino Garavani, was on his feet and in tears. Piccioli had found the ultimate in connectivity, without ever mentioning the D(igital) word.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Vanessa Friedman © 2018 The New York Times