Paris Fashion Week ends today with no strong consensus about where post-pandemic clothing is going but my reading of the tea leaves is that dressing up is not coming back. Like, really not coming back, in the way that shopping at malls when you need a new pair of sneakers is not coming back.
There was a sense in the middle of the pandemic that when fashion returned to some version of its pre-pandemic self it would be super-glam, an infusion of sparkle into our wan complexions and sweatsuit-swaddled souls. After all, this is what we expect after economic downturns. However, economic downturns and their effects on fashion are arguably more predictable. We would turn to our lipstick index — the idea that women buy lipstick as luxury items when the economy is poor — draw some headline-worthy conclusions and plan accordingly.
However, the problems weighing on shoppers are so much greater than not being able to afford a certain handbag at a particular moment. There’s the pandemic and its resulting economic impact, the changing culture of work, climate change, Facebook’s evilness, fashion’s main social network Instagram being even more corrosive than we previously assumed, and myriad social justice issues ranging from the assault on reproductive freedom to systemic racial and economic inequity.
In 2021, when we buy something, we want it to be something we can use, but also “sustainable,” and made by a company that does good in the world or at least isn’t perceived as doing bad in the world, given how much bad we are currently confronting. And the fashion industry has decided it must now powder its nose with social justice each morning, which is good in theory but looking to a for-profit industry like fashion to solve the world’s darkest societal ills feels off at best. After all, this is a business that has no choice but to pay significant money for marketing to Instagram, the very same platform that has recently drawn justified ire for worsening body image issues and suicidal thoughts in teens, particularly girls. Meanwhile this season marked a major house’s second time sending a noose down the runway in two and a half years, this time in the form of a necklace. Givenchy didn’t even feel the need to issue an apology for it, instead telling the Guardian, “The house do not have an official response on this.”
With so many troubling issues forming the backdrop to our daily lives now, it seemed like certain brands were really working overtime to justify their participation in fashion week. You had Hermès ferrying ticket holders in private cars an hour each way to a private jet airport, where the finale was… a private jet landing on a runway. Meanwhile, some reviews of the clothes, by designer Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski were quite good, so it’s perplexing that they felt the need to belabor the experience with such a garish carbon footprint. (But the runway-storming climate change activist showed up at Louis Vuitton, the same way anti-fur protesters used to, instead of Hermès, so I guess the inconvenient location served a purpose.) There was Loewe, where models emerged onto the runway, Cathy Horyn reported, “through an opening in the floor.” Balmain had an audience of 6,000 and performances by Doja Cat and Franz Ferdinand, in the vein of a music festival.
And then of course there was Balenciaga, with a number of novel ideas: first, certain guests appeared on a red carpet, footage from which was fed live into a movie theater; second, the collection itself then appeared on the very same red carpet, streamed into the theater with chyrons reading “Look 01” etc.; third, guests got to watch a genuinely funny Simpsons episode where Simpsons characters are flown to Paris to be in a Balenciaga show; fourth, people were laughing. Horyn wrote, “As for the ‘red carpet,’ I never laughed so much at a fashion show. What a novel concept — I mean, laughing.” After the year and a half we’ve all had, isn’t that what we want? A few lolz?
(Have you watched the Simpsons episode? You should.)
But the collection itself also happened to be good? Unlike the ridiculous Instagram bait that is the one-piece skintight bodysuits we saw at Saint Laurent, these were clothes you could really wear somewhere (well perhaps except Look 1 which I’ll be buried in, thanks). There were also creative director Demna Gvasalia’s usual suspects: sweatshirts, loose pants, robes, oversized jackets, track pants. Only pop on a stiletto and throw a handbag over your arm and you’re suddenly our post-pandemic fashion ideal, like you just went from watching the Simpsons to deciding to go to a bar in the era of vaccine mandates and you’re going to do it in an outfit that makes you look rich but doesn’t demand thong underwear, goddammit.
I popped over to FWRD to see what by Balenciaga you can actually buy on a site like that. And I was surprised to see page after page after page of merchandise while many brands just have one or two. Much of it is T-shirts, sweatshirts, track suits, sneakers, and handbags, a lot of it bearing the Balenciaga logo. Gvasalia seems to have figured out what much of the rest of the fashion industry is either struggling or unwilling to arrive at: This is dressiness. This is luxury. This is splurging.
Of course we will have to dress up from time to time, but those events will feel even more occasional than they have, and consumers will likely stop paying a lot for those clothes, instead turning to secondhand items on Depop or eBay or rentals. Rather, they’ll invest in their home-to-work wardrobes and sweatpants-matching handbags, as traditional red-carpet glamour becomes a farce.
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