At PFW, Designers Fail to Address the New Normal, Marking a Huge Missed Opportunity

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Loewe Spring Summer 2021
Loewe Spring/Summer 2021 | Photo: Courtesy of Loewe

With the pandemic being such a disruptive factor in our everyday lives, and certainly in respect to how Fashion Month shows were staged (most often as a “phygital” hybrid of physical and live streaming events), it was surprising that it wasn’t more intrusive in the actual collections. While guest lists were reduced, and many wore protective masks to the shows, there were a surprising number of set-ups that weren’t socially distanced, where guests sat right next to each other.

Even more surprising was the complete lack of masks on the runway itself. In the real world, masks are the most ubiquitous (and necessary) covering of them all, which would translate logically to their appearance in fashion collections as a compliment to the clothes. No one did that except Rick Owens, though. Loungewear was conspicuously absent from many collections, which is shocking given the rise of sales in that category, and many workforces choosing to permanently work from home (Twitter, Square) or allowing new work from home rotations (Google, Microsoft) planned for even after the pandemic is over.

How is denying reality addressing reality? Is ignoring our “new normal” a state of denial or a state of optimism on the part of the fashion industry?

As a digital publication, we are privy to immediate insights as they pertain to consumer behavior. More people than ever are searching for content about how to match their masks to their outfits, about accessorizing their face masks, and for cool styles of bold eye makeup to experiment with now that their eyes are all that’s visible above a mask. They’re searching for loungewear, for self-care activities. These are real-time, real-world problems that we can offer solutions for. These are unifying needs, and ones that the Paris Fashion Week runways largely ignored.

Nearly every brand and designer creating collections for Spring/Summer 2021 spoke about “reality” and how it played a massive role in their presentations. How is denying reality addressing reality? Is ignoring our “new normal” a state of denial or a state of optimism on the part of the fashion industry?

Rick Owens Spring/Summer 2021
Rick Owens Spring/Summer 2021 | Photo: Courtesy of Imaxtree

From time immemorial, fashion has been an expression of the zeitgeist. Dior’s “New Look” came as a direct reaction to the privations of World War II; women wearing trousers was a sign of progress in the arena of equal rights; combat boots and camo appeared all over runways in the 1970s in response to the Vietnam War; inclusive sizing happened on the heels of fourth-wave intersectional feminism. Fashion has poised itself as the scribe of society, the keeper of memories and emotions, distilled into wardrobes for your personal expression. Much like funeral goers wear black to express their sorrow and despair, fashion has devised a scrillion different modalities for relaying self-expression, mood, social causes, protests, value systems, and more. So where are the collections that deal out a wardrobe for the collective crisis we all face?

In concept, there are options to choose from. Tactility was big on the catwalk, drumming up sympathies for the isolated who crave human touch and interaction. Louis Vuitton, for example, staged an incredible show supplied by green-screen technology that projected Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, which was about an angel who watches human goings-on, and begins to empathize with them. So moved by the lives on earth – lives deeply impacted by loss, isolation, and estrangement from loved ones – the angel intervenes, appearing on earth in mortal form to discover touch, love, desire, and loss. Likewise, Hermès centered its collection on “second skin” materials, which echoed the soft, warm brush of human touch.

Other methods of roping reality into the fashion arena were achieved at houses like Chloé, whose “A Season in Hope” collection took place at Palais de Tokyo. The show’s models were filmed outside the venue, going about their daily lives in pedestrian fashion before making their way onto the physical catwalk. It was a clever way to embellish the “phygital” experience, and brought an unexpected intimacy to the collection itself.

Chloé Spring Summer 2021
Chloé Spring/Summer 2021 | Photo: Courtesy of Imaxtree

The most clever adaptation came from Loewe, which dispatched lavish “Show on the Wall” packages to those that would normally have been guests of the show in Paris. You might have seen examples of this on social media, as recipients were tasked with creating their own shows in their home environments, using posters, a scroll containing the collection’s looks, and craft supplies in the box to stage their bespoke versions.

It wasn’t only a brilliant, but a thoughtful, human way to allow people to interact with the collection, to craft a Loewe show with their own creative touches. Of all of the collections at Spring/Summer 2021, this was the most profound. The clothing itself was a tribute to Spanish style, literally, with little infanta gowns, broderie anglaise dresses shot through with wires, balloon sleeved-tops, and other fetching flourishes.

Loewe Spring Summer 2021
Loewe Spring/Summer 2021 | Photo: Courtesy of Loewe

For the reduced number of show attendees, it was other humans that they missed the most. The fashion community at large stayed home, watching the proceedings from their phones, washed with #FOMO. The frisson of crowds at Paris Fashion Week had evaporated, the chaotic traffic around the shows was orderly and easy, the swarm of photographers that raced into the streets to snap a picture of influencers on their way into the venue had disappeared. In their absence was an eerie silence. This was captured smartly by Balenciaga, who eschewed a physical show and instead released a nine-minute music video of models stomping the empty streets of Paris at night. To Demna Gvasalia’s credit, his Spring 2021 pre-collection actually did incorporate loungewear like slippers, robes, and silk pajamas, upscaled for the fashion savvy.

Meanwhile, Balmain brought the fashion community together, virtually. His front row was actually filled, not with humans, but their avatars, who looked on as sharply tailored suiting unfolded. Kris Jenner, Jennifer LopezCindy Crawford and other front-row attendees watched from the comfort of home, and in a meta-twist on the proceedings, filmed the show with their phones, while being filmed watching the show, which the world watched from their phones. 2020 is wild, y’all.

Miu Miu also had a similar digital front row, populated by the likes of Miranda July, Gabrielle Union, and Elle Fanning. In fact, before we saw the Miu Miu show, we watched Miranda July get ready for it by dawning a truly marvelous Miu Miu coat (“It’s faux fur!” she enthused), before sitting down in front of her laptop to join the other famous front-row luminaries. Like the Prada Spring/Summer 2021 show, Miu Miu’s took place in an empty arena, this time with a hot pink backdrop, as cameras rotated around looks. Models served direct eye contact with the lens, swiveling so we could see their beautifully embroidered jackets, embellished skirts, plaid tops, and fabulous jewelry up close and personal. It was less austere and more playful than the Prada show, but no less bewitching.

As Paris Fashion Week progressed, adapting to this new life of living, shopping, talking, partying, meeting, and even marrying at a distance, headlines crowed that the creative output expressed by designers was “proof that the pandemic hasn’t stifled creativity”. Nowhere is that more evident than at Maison Margiela. Fashion has undergone a really radical transformation lately, one that productizes everything to the point where traditional trends have been eradicated. But that means that everything, eventually, starts to look the same, as brands rush to copy whatever has gone viral lately. Starved for real fashion – fashion that makes you dream in color, that makes you feel, that makes your heart beat in your chest like a wild animal, fashion that doesn’t copy but innovates – Margiela is the answer. 

An audacious forty-minute video, taking place in lieu of a traditional show, centered on the theme of tango, an intimate dance style that has passed down from generation to generation in the Latin World. More than just a fashion film, ‘S.W.A.L.K II’ was cut with interviews with John Galliano as he supplied the rationale for the collection, behind-the-scenes footage of the looks combining with tango-inspired dance, the memories that were embedded in Galliano’s fragrances for Margiela, and more. It was a 360-degree look at the house, woven through with a ‘Blood Wedding’ narrative that put tango and goth-romantic storytelling at the center of the collection.

At PFW, Designers Fail to Address the New Normal, Marking a Huge Missed Opportunity

When it comes to answering the question posed at the beginning of this feature – ‘Is ignoring our “new normal” a state of denial or a state of optimism on the part of the fashion industry’– the result is unclear. The fashion industry wasn’t denying reality, so much as making it a conceptual focus. Longing, touch, desire, intimacy, the need to be connected to others — these themes were evident throughout Paris Fashion Week. However, the collections didn’t reflect that as much as one might expect. When it comes to crises, we search for tangible comfort – big fleecy hoodies that feel like a hug, soft cashmere loungewear that caress the skin, footwear that doesn’t pinch or bind. Life is already hard enough, our clothes need to cushion us from hardship. It remains to be seen what will make it from the runway into commercial production, and eventually, the retail shelves. 

Fashion is nothing if not supremely personal. For some, the desire for escapism was their tallest order for Spring/Summer 2021, for others it was acknowledgement of the hardships we’re all facing as a society. Maybe, in focusing on one aspect over another, we miss a larger point. What’s astonishing this time around is to witness real-time reactions to shows via live-streamed events on Instagram, Slack, and YouTube. Coming from the masses, reactions were at times jaw-droppingly negative, and what’s more is that we could also see them flooding into the comment sections at the same time. Maybe traditional, industry-facing Fashion Week events have been a protective format, insulating brands from what the public really thinks about their work. At the same time, the less informed someone is about fashion, the less their comments really sting. This is a thorny topic, to be certain. Yet, even a consummate fashion critic of more than 15 years can look at the whole, strange week and see that something is missing.

As far as optimism is concerned, we’d like to think that’s the real thrust of the matter. In a recent podcast conversation with Tim Blanks on Business of Fashion, Schiaparelli designer Daniel Roseberry made the poignant statement, “There is something very irrelevant about what we bring to the table right now. Fashion shows don’t have to be relevant right now. There (are so) many other things that are more important.” We see his point, but fashion is never irrelevant, which means fashion shows, by their nature retain relevancy. Fashion is, simply put, the most humanistic art form available. Full stop. It is what we cloak ourselves in for both functional and fantastical reasons. In our clothes, we become who we secretly wish to be. How could anything so vital to the human experience ever truly be irrelevant? And furthermore, the communication of that experience will always be relevant. It’s the execution that needs reworking.

Human beings, the you’s and me’s of this world, are still searching for realistic solutions for the uncertain road ahead. Does a better tomorrow await us all? Let’s cross our fingers, and toes, just in case.

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