PARIS — How is fashion made? Who makes fashion? Adolf Loos put these questions to his readers some time ago — in 1898, to be exact. In his architecture, the Viennese modernist paired rigorous simplicity with luxe materials and never sniffed at fashionableness, let alone beauty as a value.
It would be nuts to suggest we live in a time as inclined to high-minded aesthetic ideals as that of 19th-century Vienna. Yet we pursue fashion more relentlessly than ever and need beauty more than ever as nature is supplanted by machines. Thus beauty was the yardstick by which to measure a run of men’s wear shows here characterized, above all, by its pursuit.
Whatever the runway specifics, designers, as if by secret compact, set their sights on conjuring it this season and none with more assurance than Anthony Vaccarello, who mounted a Saint Laurent show that was theatrical, elegant, blithely unconcerned with lines of gender demarcation and one that neatly answered Loos’s question.
From the moment the first model glided onto the stage beneath the rotunda of the Bourse de Commerce — Pinault Collection, fitted out for the evening with a circular channel-quilted banquette on which guests sat sipping Champagne, there was little question about what fashion may be.
It is attenuated vampire boys in skinny, floor-sweeping coats of velvet or leather and with immense starched bows flaring around their tiny skulls. It is funnel-neck sweaters that envelop half of the wearer’s face or cowl-neck silk shirts banded at the waist with cummerbunds wrapped like obis. It is smoking jackets and hooded cloaks and block heels of patent leather that mirrored the models’ vinyl-slick hairdos.
Mostly it is atmospheres reminiscent of decadent nights in the upholstered crypt that was Yves Saint Laurent’s art-filled Left Bank duplex.
Behavior now is certainly no less decadent than in the ’70s heyday of Saint Laurent and his louche cohort. One distinction is that those druggie escapades were intimate and not internet crowdsourced. No one dropped a pin on the orgy. And those in the room, as Mr. Vaccarello is well aware, took care to look every bit as glamorous and sexy in clothes as without them.
The day after the show, Betty Catroux, the Saint Laurent muse, was encountered crossing an avenue near the Hotel des Invalides. “I’ve just seen the most beautiful thing,” said Ms. Catroux, still striking and blond and rail-thin at 78. “The Saint Laurent show. Did you see it? All those tall young dead boys looking just like me.”
Paris is a city that has somehow always given people license. Grace Wales Bonner intimated as much after her show, held at the Hotel d’Evreux on the Place Vendôme, luxury’s epicenter. In preparing the collection, Ms. Wales Bonner warped the space-time continuum to “constellate’’ a Paris in which the writer James Baldwin, the showgirl-spy Josephine Baker and the cultivated and epicene Maharaja and Maharani of Indore all overlapped. (Only the Indores were anachronisms; Baker and Baldwin could easily have been in Paris simultaneously.)
When Ms. Wales Bonner talks about introducing an “Afro-Atlantic spirit” to European luxury and about elevating “Black male style,” it is sometimes hard to think she does not, in fact, mean the opposite. It is European luxury that could use a jolt of Black male style, in all its variety and dispersion. As usual, Ms. Wales Bonner offered considered and precisely tailored garments in this, her first coed show, notably men’s suiting created in collaboration with the Savile Row stalwarts Anderson & Sheppard.
Adding cowrie shells, Berber babouches and obscure intellectual allusions to the mix felt somehow forced. (One collegiate jacket had the words “Sorbonne 56” embroidered on it, a reference to the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, where Baldwin famously asserted that there is no unitary Black identity.) As models processed through the various rooms, the musician Hermon Mehari blew notes on a trumpet that only added to the uncomfortable sense of constraint. One of these days, Ms. Wales Bonner may decide to let loose. Kick over the ballroom chairs. Tear down the walls of the gilded salons.
Music always plays a big part in these fashion productions, and Matthew M. Williams at Givenchy opened his show with deceivingly slow stoner sounds by Bakar that stood in stark contrast to an initial grouping of precise black hit man suits tailored by his couture atelier. As more urgent beats kicked in, Mr. Williams ratcheted up the pace and the emotion, sending out a welter of looks layered with elements of workwear, streetwear, normcore and grunge.
Often enough beautiful can be used as a derisory adjective in this context. Yet that’s a fine way to describe a Givenchy collection assembled with a spirit that was so stealthy it was almost guerrilla. Stuff designed for the luxury goods market was taken apart and reassembled. Trousers were devised without side seams. A jumpsuit was left open to the waist and draped in back like skirting. Tatty selvage edges and ratted hems belied a level of elevated craft and contributed to the most coherent statement yet by a designer who has more in common with the perfectionist who founded the house than he may let on.
Did the thousands of screaming fans outside this week’s shows have any idea that an actual Hubert de Givenchy, let alone Cristóbal Balenciaga or Christian Dior, ever existed? Most were waiting for glimpses of Burna Boy or member of a K-pop group.
Kim Jones knows, though, and at Dior Homme he is fastidious to the point of fixation about keeping alive a dialogue with the house’s heritage and, beyond that, our collective cultural past.
Still, do we go to runway shows to hear actors reciting T.S. Eliot’s doomy World War I poem “The Waste Land?” We do not. Yet there, projected on screens in a darkened pavilion erected on the Place de la Concorde, were the actors Robert Pattinson and Gwendoline Christie, blown up to colossal size and laying it on thick in a reading of Eliot’s poem. It would seem this is Mr. Jones’s way of adding gravitas to his place in a lineage that includes not only a design deity like Dior himself but also Yves Saint Laurent.
Mr. Jones has such a surplus of design smarts he doesn’t need CliffsNotes references to give heft to presentations that stand on the merits of their own mastery. Few other designers can as confidently take a fisherman’s Aran sweater and open the sleeves so they ride on the outside of a wearer’s arms; or riff on suit jackets and oilskin raincoats turned into tunics; or add trailing wisps of transparent fabric to suiting or buoyancy batons to the front of a vest. Certainly few designers have done more to turn skirts into an obligatory element of a masculine uniform. And skirts on men were so present on Paris streets this week that they are less a trend than a fact of life.
As at Cannes, where critics are bombarded with new cinematic productions, fashion week sometimes offers up a visual meal richer than any human can reasonably digest. It isn’t fair, then, to unravel a spectacle as intellectually knotty as Jonathan Anderson’s for Loewe in a few lines. Yet, since that’s what space permits, let’s just say that by making clothes in wrinkled bookbinder’s vellum, beaten copper or pewter, deploying hatter’s tricks to pouf out the hems of coats so the wearer resembles a topiary yew, the designer took us into realms previously unseen. He also made a concerning detour to the perimeter of Perv-land when he sent his skinny, hairy, vulnerable looking boy-men parading around in white cotton underpants.
In sharp contrast to all that, Rick Owens’s show of relatively modest (“Victorian,” he said) cloaks, skirts, straitjacket parkas, paneled shearlings and down-padded jackets was chaste and corrective. Sometimes when viewing one of Mr. Owens’s shows, it helps to strip away the Goth styling and “Mad Max” effects. (Isn’t it time to retire the fog machine and the spooky contact lenses?) Subtract the gimmicks and what you are left with is uncontroversial clothes that go a long way toward explaining Mr. Owens’s booming commercial success.
And that balance is tough to maintain now when you set out to make fashion. On the one hand, there are houses like Louis Vuitton doubling down on social media content with celebrity-studded guest lists and everything including the kitchen-sink onstage. At Vuitton, the Spanish superstar Rosalía sang and rapped from atop a vintage yellow automobile. The paparazzi went crazy for the latest K-pop stars. And the Brooklyn-born designer Colm Dillane, a.k.a. KidSuper, spun up scrappy energy and his trademark cartoon imagery for designs meant to drive logo freaks to the brand’s accessories.
Meantime, heritage houses like Hermès rehearse their heritage in an endless loop of tasteful French savoir-faire. (Clutching pearls, Vogue.com noted that the collection featured a “devastatingly gorgeous black cardigan in lamb shearling.”)
Even in fashion, too-muchness is a problem. The wonder is not that so many designers go overboard but that so few adhere to the KISS principle. This precept, formalized if not officially developed by the United States Navy in the ’60s, held that, in designing systems, simplicity is always the best means to an end.
“Keep it simple, stupid!” is not the worst approach to designing clothes.
And, in fact, among the more memorable shows this week were those that did. At Pierre Mahéo’s Officine Générale presentation, the designer riffed at length, in just blue and gray, on a strain of pared down chic people associate with a Paris that, realistically, vanished when Serge Gainsbourg’s five-pack a day Gitanes habit sent him to an early grave. Why not revive it, Mr. Mahéo suggested, with clothes for real people of all ages who’d appreciate a chic uniform to be refreshed now and then and worn till the end?
When the models strode out for the finale of the Officine Générale show at the Palais de Tokyo, you immediately hankered to see armies of such types in what used to pass for real life — pre-Instagram. And when Bianca Saunders presented a collection inspired by her Anglo-Caribbean upbringing in London, shown on a turquoise painted living room set with a corner bar and an easy chair and with an audio background of clips from the Jamaican comedian Oliver Samuels’s television show, you could readily imagine those tailored jackets, those dimpled pullover tuxedo coats, those ribbed knit leisure sets worn out on club night in Brixton or Trenchtown.
Rather than straining to force new narratives, the Paris appearance of Emily Adams Bode Aujla brought us another chapter in an ongoing tale forged from the designer’s core belief in autobiography. Here the inspiration was Ms. Bode Aujla’s maternal family and her mother’s summer sojourns working for an aged grande dame on Cape Cod. Fancifully evoking the funky sartorial folkways of a mostly bygone WASP world, she paired Icelandic sweaters with embroidered trousers, plaid pants with shearling vests, tie-dye pullovers with tweed jackets and added spangles everywhere, like a giddy kid pulling granny’s frocks from a trunk.
Like Mr. Mahéo and Ms. Saunders, Ms. Bode Aujla found her grounding in the familiar. No mood boards required. Just use what you know.