I didn’t attend the European collections this season but I have in the past, and I don’t pretend to be an expert since I was not there. But reading the reviews I can’t help imagine how it must have felt to be in the close quarters of fashion shows—spindly gold chair to gold chair or thigh to thigh packed into front-row benches. The fashion crowd likely kept anxiety well hidden with polka faces and were torn between their own safety and obligations to their respective media outlets. No one could have imagined what the future would hold.
Italy’s COVID lockdown began on Feb 21 in the northern regions of Italy where 2 Chinese tourists were found to have the disease. The fashion brigade of journalists, buyers, and influencers were already in Milan for show week at that point, which started on Feb 18th and would last until Feb 24. Despite the looming threat, most Italian brands continued with their plans to present their fall shows—except for Emporio Armani. That show went on to an absent audience.
By Feb. 24 the fashion army headed to Charles de Gaulle for Paris Fashion week while the outbreak in Italy continued. Fashion must soldier on, as did the army of attendees. But by March 3, Vuitton ends Paris fashion week with a live simulcast of the show without an audience.
That is the backdrop in which the fall 2020 European collections took place. So it’s no surprise that many of the shows took on an ominous tone even though the concepting was done months before, changes to reflect the new reality were likely made.
The theatrics in Paris brought out the most menacing tone. None evoked the gloomy mood more than Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga who cast a sinister group of fashion walkers— Dracula capes, Monastic robes, oversized graduation gowns, with models in black contact lenses had a chilling effect. Face coverings and masks were seen at Marine Serre (the 2017 LVMH prize winner) and foretold our current facemask reality. The feeling of an apocalypse was strutted before the audience’s wide eyes.
Stuart Emmrich from Vogue.com wrote this about the Elie Saab show on Feb 29th;
“For the past few days, Paris has been cold and gray, with intermittent bouts of rain. And with reports of the coronavirus continuing to spread globally and Parisians wary of its possible arrival here, every sniffle is viewed with suspicion, every cough greeted with horror. There is not a lot of joie de vivre.”
Other earthly fears and issues played into the negative runway vibe. At Christian Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri told Nicole Phelps (Vogue.com) that growing up in the ’70s and the victory for women based on the verdict of the Harvey Weinstein trial were some of her points of inspiration. But through the 70’s headscarves and plaid one could see ominous looks.
Nicole Phelps from Vogue.com wrote:
“Since arriving at Christian Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri has used her runways to amplify feminist discourse, but this show resonated more powerfully than some of the others. Yesterday, Harvey Weinstein’s New York rape trial ended in a guilty verdict. This afternoon, as we sat assembled underneath the flashing neon signs made in collaboration with the anonymous artist collective Claire Fontaine, it was impossible not to feel a twinge of vindication—the righteous fury of the #MeToo movement replaced temporarily by satisfaction. “
Watching a fashion runway show can be the grandest theater where models are actors playing out the designer’s innermost thoughts and creative ideas. I was in the audience for Marc Jacob’s final show for Vuitton before the announcement was made, which in the end was not necessary because it was played out right there in the dark apocalyptic set, the black clothing, the music, the lighting, and the models. Mr. Jacobs was an open book at that point and expressed his ambivalence for his future even though it was also a reprise of his past collections. It was dark.
I watched spellbound at Alexander Mc Queen’s Rain, Fire, and Ice shows, in the late 90’s, and felt the stirrings of his tortured soul as impassioned models played his script. One can’t observe this kind of passion play and not get a glimpse of the designer’s psyche. It’s not just clothing design, it goes way beyond.
Fashion shows at its best, are an intense and impassioned articulation of the designer’s frame of mind. They also serve to bring cultural or environmental issues to light as with #metoo and climate change. A good fashion show is an experience that transfixes and is unforgettable—when it’s less than that, it’s as shallow as it gets.