Balenciaga AW18 was staged before an enormous “snow mountain” covered in branded graffiti. It marked a “new chapter” at the Kering-owned house, which was cited as having the fastest growth in the group’s annual report in February. Balenciaga revenues are buried within its “other brand” category but, considering that Gucci grew by 42 per cent last year, we should assume the Balenciaga designer Demna Gvasalia is shifting a lot of those triple-soled sneakers.
This next phase had involved combining men’s and womenswear and developing new techniques. Taking “extreme-weather dressing” as his cue, Gvasalia had used 3D body scanning to create a foam-bonded velvet, tweed and wool that sat smoothly on the body. It had an eerily perfect appearance: a velvet top with a gloved hand gave a male model the appearance of a mannequin; an outfit combining the house’s familiar “Basque” jacket, with its distinctive nipped sculptural waist, and a “tucked-in” trouser lent its female wearer the look of a corporate android. The clothes were real and wearable, but the lines were so tidy and wrinkle-free they seemed to lose their human features — except for the key fob and locker-tab belts.
From business formal to weekend casual — the looks became more layered and extreme. There were lots more branded sweatshirts, hoodies and denims — a cool acknowledgment of the brand’s broad demography of consumer, and a good way to raise awareness for the World Food Programme. The charity’s name was emblazoned over hoodies, and Balenciaga had donated $250,000 to its cause. The last looks were like giant cocoons, as models walked in piles of outerwear, leather and wool. The music was angry. The models had menace. The looks were mesmerising. Balenciaga’s next act was less a turn of direction than a subtle recasting of the story so far. It makes for compelling drama.
Many brands have offered added entertainment this season. Vivienne Westwood, now under the direction of her husband Andreas Kronthaler, offered us male goth-punk dancers who gyrated and stamped around on little stages while male and female models walked in a collection so derivative of the British designers Louise Gray and Rottingdean Bazaar, the brand has already apologised for what it described as a “celebration” of their work. Vanessa Seward invited the French singing troupe Catastrophe to perform a madcap a cappella ditty midway through her “glam gaucho” AW18 show.
At Sonia Rykiel, a show of grinning models with super-crimped hair culminated with a live performance by the 1980s girl band Bananarama, a bang of silverised streamers and a stage full of dancing girls. Watching front-row children sweeping shiny streamers into their arms while the grown-ups bopped away to 1980s classics, I was struck by how much the scene recalled an English wedding just before it starts to get messy. I beat a path for the exit.
Theatrics are all very well and good at the shows: they break the monotony of the endless schedule, they sear themselves on a mind that is usually addled with content. Oftentimes, they lift the spirit. Sadly, they cannot disguise a paucity of ideas, or the thinness of a collection, or the weakness of the clothes.
Comme des Garçons opened with an empty catwalk, a thrust stage that cut through the audience over which two theatre lights were suspended very low. We waited. And watched. And waited.
After around a minute or so of silence I wondered if, like John Cage’s “Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds”, we might be invited to stare at an empty spot for the duration of the show. Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons’ 75-year-old designer, is just about belligerent enough to do so. And how deliciously anarchic would that be? Kawakubo’s label, which she founded in 1973, has built a $260m business based on the sales of perfumes, accessories and sneakers (as well as a highly successful commercial range). Her catwalk has lately meant the presentation of an idea. How marvellous if the woman so associated with her one-time assertion that “the void is important” showed us nothing at all.
And then the show began. Kawakubo had wanted her space to be a theatre: she had asked Adrian Joffe, her business partner and husband, to find curtains just before the show, but had then jettisoned the idea at the last minute. Instead, Kawakubo finds her theatre in the materials she works with, and this was a drama in 16 acts. A white dress opened the show — a confection of lace worn with golden glitter baubles on the head. Then a hot-pink dress covered in basques, of the kind worn by burlesque dancers. One dress was made with crimson tulles, recalling dancers’ skirts at the Moulin Rouge, another in polka-dot quilts. A huge millefeuille of tulle and tutus followed a look in 1950s-style lingerie silks.
It was joyful, and pink, cocoon-like, conceptual and camp. Kawakubo had taken a line from Susan Sontag as her inspiration. “Camp is not something horribly exaggerated, out of the ordinary, unserious or in bad taste,” she offered in a note. “This collection came out of the feeling that, on the contrary, camp is really and truly something deep and new and represents a value we need.”
Kawakubo usually only offers two words about her thinking. This was her at her most expressive. The note continued: “There are many so-called styles, such as punk, that have lost their original rebel spirit. I think camp can express something deeper and can give birth to progress.”
Was it a commentary on modern femininity? Or sexual confidence, or gender fluidity? Maybe. Like the best dramas, it offered food for thought.
Just as beautiful, though a little less jolly, was Noir Kei Ninomiya, who presented his first full show in Paris on Saturday morning. A former pattern-cutter at Comme des Garçons, Ninomiya’s arrival on the schedule has helped identify the first day of the weekend as “Comme” day (another alum, Junya Watanabe, showed a savvy collection of floral dresses, oversized blazers and Buffalo trainers earlier that morning). Ninomiya’s debut was an accomplished and elegant study in black. Here were gorgeous things — a simple black trouser, a neat leather biker, a voluminous trench, a cropped blazer. Other pieces were more conceptual: a dress bloomed with fabric to resemble a bouquet of flower heads, woollen skirts were hooped in rings like giant crinolines. The techniques were dazzling and the effect quite breathtaking.
Many of the models wore full-face flower masks, designed by Makoto Azuma, that obscured their vision. From my seat near the exit, I watched them as they made their way backstage. Turning the corner, each trailed their hand along the wall to guide them around the turn without tripping. Later, at Comme, the models held hands to make their bow. It was very touching. To see such human instincts amid these strange, unworldly shapes made for the most poignant spectacle of all.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.