Balenciaga, spring 2020CreditCreditValerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times
PARIS — In a large circular chamber covered in periwinkle blue velvet and hung with curtains all around, seats curling outward in snail shell tiers, Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga convened his parliament. Then he scented it with Blood and Money and Petrol (after starting with a bit of Anti-Sceptic, literally: he had perfumes made for the show) — the engines that drive the world’s rotting power structures — and a low thrum began.
The bass reverberated through the seats. Models and people conscripted to be models but otherwise architects, engineers, students, chefs and artists of many ages (average: 28) marched around and around and around in increasingly dizzying circles. First, both men and women wore big-shouldered, big-sized black trouser suits with I.D. lanyards as accessories. Then came squared-off boxlike “campaign dresses,” as the show notes called them. Then high-necked, pleated silk dresses pulled haphazardly to the side, printed with perfume bottles and handbag chains and shoes from previous Balenciaga shows.
The guys got T-shirts bearing messages such as “18+” and “X-rated.” Silk pajama suits printed to look like denim. One dress was splashed everywhere with tabloid headlines that turned out to be messages about the earth. The shoulders got bigger and more dangerous. So did some models’ cheekbones via prosthetics. Puffa jackets got so large they looked like pup tents, the heads disappearing inside. Faux furs practically ate the person.
Between the sights and the sounds and the smells, it was kind of disorienting. Sometimes a little nauseating. Nightmarish, in a familiar way.
Oh — modern life. I recognize you. And your discontents.
Many themes have been percolating through the shows the last three weeks — saving the earth, the mess of politics, historicism, the need for safe spaces — but Mr. Gvasalia slapped them all down on the table, in a tour de force of an argument for just shutting up and getting down to work before it’s too late. It wasn’t pretty, though like the finale series of extraordinarily simple bell-shaped gowns in gold and silver lamé or blue and red velvet that undulated like jellyfish, it was impossible to ignore.
Pointedly, the shoulder width was achieved through whalebones that could be removed; ditto the bell skirts and their crinolines. There are statements, and there are solutions. Mr. Gvasalia used Balenciaga’s signature exploration of volumes to offer up both.
The designer made waves a few weeks ago when he told WWD he was leaving the brand he helped found as a collective, Vetements, where he originally made his name (and came to the notice of the heritage house), saying he had “accomplished his mission.” He has a lot more to say at Balenciaga. And he is saying it.
In fact, the only thing he wasn’t really saying was “Let them eat cake!,” another recurring motif of the season, which reached its apogee in the hands of Thom Browne, and his pastel seersucker ballet of robes à la polonaise à la “Preppy Handbook.”
Witness panniers (honestly, this has to be the weirdest trend of the season, and at this point, if I never see another pannier, I will be happy) constructed from his signature red, white and blue grosgrain ribbon, often worn atop pants and skirts laced up the back and under elaborate frock coats. Bustles and hoops and towering Marie Antoinette hair played a part; shepherdesses in loops and whorls of shell pink and baby blue, each swirling and twirling and waving what looked like a wand with a miniature straw hat on the top.
Mr. Browne’s shows have been getting increasingly rococo, but beneath the sugar plum shades and froth a darkness lies. All that corsetry at this point in time is hard to countenance. In the middle of the set, a pinstriped putto peed into a fountain. On plinths around the room giant curving orca shoes kept living female statuary rooted firmly in place.
The vibe was Marie Antoinette, the color scheme was American, and there was a sense something could really go wrong. Beneath all the sometimes self-indulgent showmanship, the point seemed pretty clear. The White House is not Versailles, but perhaps it’s getting dangerously close.
Interestingly, the one major contemporary conversation that has not really seeped into fashion this season is any further discussion of the growing vocalization of women, demanding their due (yes, Mr. Gvasalia was all about a power shoulder, but he was also all about a power everything for everyone). There are more shows to come, so things could change, but meanwhile, into the gap stepped Clare Waight Keller of Givenchy.
She had been thinking, she said in an interview backstage before the show, about 1993, when she moved to New York and began to work for Calvin Klein. It was a time when minimalism ruled the runways, and female empowerment began to be defined as female undress: Throw off the shackles of suits! Unbind thyself! Wear … a slip dress.
That clearly didn’t work. So maybe coverage was the answer. Keep yourself for yourself. How does that debate look?
Like tight leather skirts and pants with nude boned corsets or a satin bra, contrasted with big floral poplins that dust the ankle and puff out around the arms. Like narrowly tailored suits with long jackets and pants cut off at the knee (otherwise known as Bermuda shorts). Old ’90s denim upcycled into something new. Strapless empire-waist gowns: barely there on top, sweeping to the floor below. Not entirely resolved, but worth considering.
As was Pierpaolo Piccioli’s approach at Valentino, which blew like a breath of fresh air through the melee, a calming hand on the increasingly angst-ridden human condition.
Using crisp white cotton, the kind many people wear every day, he applied evermore intricate couture techniques (fan pleats and feathers and flounces and frills) to transform it into something singular, before segueing via fluorescent pink and green into a Fauvist jungle of prints, sequins and shade (and monkeys, but let’s ignore those), and then washing it all away again in mist-light gowns of lace and tulle.
They were lovely, but it was the cotton that stood out: the way he found the possibilities in the ordinary by accessing the tools of the elite. Mr. Piccioli doth not preach too much, and he does it very gently. The result may seem like an antidote to the bad dream. But it has a real punch.
1. Silhouette and Design
- big-shouldered, big-sized black trouser suits
- squared-off boxlike “campaign dresses”
- high-necked, pleated
- bell-shaped gowns
- power shoulder
- strapless empire-waist gowns
- handbag chains
- grosgrain ribbon
- boned corsets
- fan pleats
- periwinkle blue
- gold and silver lamé
- shell pink and baby blue
- sugar plum shades
- fluorescent pink
- faux furs
5. Creative Jargon
- pup tents
- nightmarish, in a familiar way
- undulated like jellyfish
- not entirely unresolved, but worth considering
- a Fauvist jungle of prints, sequins, and shade