One morning this Paris Fashion Week, I found myself making some unusual plans. I was one of few editors on the ground during the city’s first shows post-lockdown. Unlike the traditional schedule I know like the back of my hand, everything suddenly felt like a first. That morning, I had a nonsensical realization: In order to watch the digital Balenciaga presentation and make it to my physical Givenchy preview, I had to get in my car an hour ahead of time, park outside Givenchy HQ, watch the Balenciaga film on my phone, conduct my usual backstage interview with Demna Gvasalia over email, and head straight into Givenchy. There, I saw with my own eyes a collection my colleagues largely experienced through previews over Zoom. I bet they couldn’t see the embroideries very well.
Obviously, I wasn’t solving quantum physics, but the planning required to navigate watching a show on a phone in a car still blew my mind. It was just one of many surreal experiences during a week filled with apocalyptic rain and this recognition: if you want to get down with this new “phygital” fashion world of ours, there’s no time to ease into it. Quite literally, there is no time! Between physical shows, distanced appointments, face mask changes, hand-sanitizer sessions, livestreams, 30-minute feature films, video calls and email interviews, the post-pandemic fashion industry hasn’t optimized—it has accelerated. After all that lockdown talk of slowing down the system, we’ve somehow managed to speed it up, at least as far as fashion week is concerned.
The normalization of video calls means that our typical 10-minute backstage chats with designers have now expanded into 30-minute in-depth interviews. It’s time-consuming, but it’s also amazing. After his show was live-streamed from Venice, Rick Owens FaceTimed me while walking home to his apartment on the Lido. We talked about the show (“Venice has a history of quarantine, a history of masks”), about his time in confinement (“Michèle and I did LSD and mushrooms”), and whatever else came to mind. Post-show interviews are no longer straight-to-the-point, but connective and cathartic. Similarly, my exchanges with Demna Gvasalia over email were unlike any backstage exchange we’ve ever had.
Gvasalia’s Balenciaga film was captured around the streets of Paris, literally showcasing the pedestrians he’s always celebrated in his work in their natural habitat. I had to ask him about the phenomenon of street style at Fashion Week, which, over the past 10 years, has played out in chaotic scenes outside show venues with outfits far removed from reality. “The street style that I have observed—specifically outside of fashion shows in the past—is probably the most uninteresting and vulgar street style, in my opinion,” Gvasalia told me. “I am much more interested in a grandma at a bus stop wearing her old shabby beige trench coat, meticulously buttoned and belted, than seeing someone wearing a boot on their head.”
Unsurprisingly, the street style chaos of seasons past was all but gone this Paris Fashion Week. It made it physically easier to get into show venues, which was convenient during a pandemic. Overall, I didn’t feel unsafe at the shows. The brands that organized runway shows largely did a good job at walking us through face mask changes and hand-sanitizing, before entering venues to find our socially-distanced seats. But for someone like me, who loves and lives for runway shows, the lack of guests inside those sprawling Parisian venues came with a certain tristesse. After a week of scaled-down shows, I can’t stress enough the emotional and—obviously—human value a fashion audience, and its fabled usual suspects, brings to the table. I missed my industry colleagues terribly. The community of fashion week should never be underestimated.
But our new circumstances made for ingenious ideas, too. Natacha Ramsay-Levi, Nicholas Ghesquière and Julien Dossena—friends who traditionally attend one another’s shows—must have had some interesting conversations around how they’d go about staging the physical runway shows they so believe in, but with a new digital angle. At Chloé, Ramsay-Levi took over the monumental courtyard of Palais de Tokyo (ideal for distanced seating), and filmed her models scattered in the streets immediately around the building, behaving like everyday pedestrians. They eventually made their way to the runway, beautifully fusing a digital experience with a physical one.
“The idea was to pick them up within their own intimacy of real life,” Ramsay-Levi told me. “It’s about showing something that’s more attentive, more spontaneous and more intimate, and taking time to look at a woman and the way she moves and acts in a much more natural way. Rather than just say, ‘Okay, you should walk like this.’” At Paco Rabanne, Dossena placed runway photographers outside his Espace Commines venue so they could capture the looks walking down the street. “I wanted to base it on this street realness,” he said backstage. “During lockdown we were all stuck at home, unable to go outside. I was missing it a lot. You know, you build the fantasy of what you miss.”
For his Louis Vuitton show, Ghesquière unveiled the interior of the spacious La Samaritaine building that LVMH has been doing up for the past 15 years. To give the digital audience an experience his live one wouldn’t get, he painted its walls like green screens and projected the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire onto them. It was an example of a show where the real-life show-goers were essentially props for a digital audience, a live-streaming camera aimed at us from every angle. “A lot of new windows and perspectives are opening,” Ghesquière told. “It’s another step towards globality, and I guess that’s absolutely necessary. We’ve sometimes made people feel excluded. So probably, it’s a way to include more people in what we do.”
As someone who doesn’t even own an iPad, often this Paris Fashion Week I felt like an 18th-century person transported into the future, ever so jumpy in my silken culottes at the shock of the new. That’s not to say technological opportunities aren’t invigorating. I loved Olivier Rousteing’s idea to film some of the famous front-rowers of fashion and line them up on screens on the actual front row of his Balmain show. When I posted pictures of it on Instagram, a friend sent me a text, musing: “The evident importance to humankind to insert hierarchy even where there isn’t any needed, to feel order…” Maybe my friend was right: Fashion loves its ideas of establishment.
But Rousteing’s gesture was also one of community. “For me, without the physical experience, without having you to talk to, it’s really hard. It’s hard for a designer to create without an audience,” he told me backstage. “All the editors you see on those screens have supported me historically. As a designer, fashion critique is important to me: growing and being challenged. I was so happy that everyone wanted to be a part of it.” Inventing ways of inclusion was a big theme this Paris Fashion Week. No one did it better than John Galliano (an oft-used sentence), who gifted us with his second feature film since lockdown. This one was a ravishing 40-minute moving collage, comprised of making-of-the-collection footage and a beautiful short film centered around his season premise of tango.
“Connectivity: the primal, instinctive connection,” Galliano said on his seasonal podcast. Tango, he explained, is a generational thing: “That sense of community: communicating, bonding, rejoicing, celebrating; it’s all tango. And I felt it’s something we all hunger for at the moment; this connection. I don’t talk about co-dependency but interdependence.” Galliano is a master at capturing a collective emotion and translating it into dressmaking and imagery. When I say he gifted us with this film, it’s because it goes so beyond the target audience of a fashion show that it’s literally a gift to anyone interested the arts (i.e. everyone).
Speaking of emotions, you get hit with them from every conceivable angle in this new “phygital” fashion landscape. It’s a cliché, but the emotional value of a real-life runway show can’t be denied. Christian Dior was my first show since March, and I’ve rarely been so excited to sit on a chair and watch clothes waft by. A fairly traditional setup, Maria Grazia Chiuri’s show didn’t reflect on the fashion show format, but was instead a statement on how lockdown may change the way we dress. “For a long time, there was a moment in fashion when clothes had to have a dialogue with other people; to express your opinion to other people. At this moment in time, I think it’s more about a personal relationship with ourselves,” she told me. “You want to take care of yourself. I feel that, so I think other people need that feeling, too.”
While Chiuri’s collection portrayed the Dior silhouette through the newly-coined lens of “comfort wear,” at Hermès, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski came at the limitations of our time through a different approach. Her show—also a somewhat traditional format—expressed a hankering for tactility, which added a more sensual dimension to the designer’s aesthetic. “I wanted the fantasy of touching. I think it’s important to keep that, somehow,” she said backstage. Fantasy was also the word that came to mind at Chanel on the last morning of Paris Fashion Week. Inside the Grand Palais, for a split second—when you forgot about your face mask and your distanced seat—everything felt like it was back to normal.
Virginie Viard erected a life-size Chanel version of the Hollywood sign, and dedicated her collection to the actresses who have served as muses to the house over the years. Bruno Pavlovsky, the fashion president of Chanel, told me it hadn’t been easy to put on a show like this in pandemic times. “It’s quite challenging to organize a show today, and you have to be convinced of how important it is. It’s not easy, not easy at all.” It didn’t, however, affect his ultimate belief in the runway format. “A collection is about a show. You can organize shoots and videos, but it’s about the show. A show is a spectacular vivant. It’s a way to understand what the collection is about – what the brand is about – and that’s the best way to express fashion today.”