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Fall 2023 Couture Week Day 3: Core Beliefs, Controversies, and Threads
Highlights from Day 3 of Fall 2023 Couture Week in Paris
Fashion has an amazingly short memory.
Maybe that’s characteristic of all of society right now given the pace at which content flows 24/7 across platforms. Perhaps brands are simply too busy to give much heed to controversy, no matter how enormous, because it’s all about the financial bottom line of converting audiences into consumers.
Whatever the impetus, it is somewhat amazing that the Balenciaga shareholders opted to keep Demna at the helm of the brand after the controversy that so dominated fashion news headlines in late 2022. Nevertheless, keep him they did and now we’re witnessing a partial reinvention of this heritage brand under his guidance. But … it’s awkward.
If haute couture is defined by its refined perspective and consummate artisanship, there’s no denying Demna’s talent. What does it mean that Balenciaga seems to have lost very little status in the eyes of fashion, especially since it’s among the highest ranks of the industry in couture?
It feels almost surreal to juxtapose the almost wholesome artistry of Elie Saab and Valentino with the darker, more rebellious, and understandably defensive force that is Demna at Balenciaga. Inasmuch as making you uncomfortable is a part of what makes art art, when it applies to a commercial business like fashion, we do have to step back and wonder what values we’re promoting as an industry. Is it a good thing that we’ve all given Demna a second chance? Are we just looking the other way or is it a sign of a more forgiving attitude?
Meanwhile, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the soft launch of Meta’s Threads, the new text-based Instagram sister platform that is set to take on Musk’s Twitter exactly where it hurts in terms of advertisers. The first 24 hours of any new social media platform is always chaotic. It was definitely interesting to see fashion magazines like Vogue jump in head first while fashion brands themselves seem to be adopting a more cautious wait-and-see approach.
The shiny-newness of Threads is attracting a lot of interest from people looking for an alternative to Twitter. But we have to wonder the why of behind social media for many of us, especially given all the brands jumping in to create salesy content right away. If we’re on social media out of a legitimate desire to connect and to be part of a community, then it is important to be aware of a bevy of focused micro-communities that offer like Discord and Mastodon that offer a similar experience without all the fuss.
Our team at FSW manages FashionSocial.host, the only Mastodon instance dedicated to fashion and luxury. It is an entirely unbranded, member-driven community focused on the fashion and luxury industries. (Here is the Vogue Business story about the origins of FashionSocial.) Yes, Mastodon is chaotic. Yet, it has an authenticity and a sense of real community that other platforms simply lack. Of course, we are biased. But, if you’re looking to move away from Twitter, we cordially invite you to join us on FashionSocial.
Balenciaga Fall 2023 Couture
To say that Demna is fashion’s problem child is perhaps an understatement. Surviving a year of controversy is not an easy thing for any designer, never mind one at the helm of a beloved heritage brand like Balenciaga.
From a brand strategy perspective, Demna’s vision for the Balenciaga Fall 2023 Couture collection felt like a deliberate attempt at self and brand re-invention. It harkened back to Balenciaga’s core brand values and Demna’s own creative roots while moving forward with a set of new ideas and new silhouettes. The very first look on the runway was a replica of a dress Cristóbal Balenciaga made in the 1960s that was once worn by Grace Kelly.
The show notes described the collection as a “tribute to pursuing perfection.” In execution, it was a contained set of looks that focused on solid tailoring and interesting but not overly exaggerated proportions. There were sharp shoulders, curved V necklines, and defined waists inspired by Balenciaga’s original designs. The most interesting look was arguably the bright blue, acid-wash non-denim denim that was in fact canvas brushed with oil paints.
This collection took a literal defensive posture, ending with a 3D-printed armor suit of galvanized resin that took 10 months to create. Was it a move from Demna towards self-protection or was it a kind of unapologetic apology that creative vision through its quest for open expressiveness always strives to protect itself?
Elie Saab Fall 2023 Couture
“Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!” (Harley MS 978, f. 11v)
Medieval themes, albeit fall ones, not summer ones, were in abundance at Elie Saab’s Fall 2023 Couture show, held Wednesday in the austere surroundings of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs near the Louvre in Paris.
The master of the couture princess look, Elie Saab excels at bringing the glitz and glam to his core evening wear styles. While there is a why-reinvent-the-wheel-when-beautiful-dresses-sell vibe to Saab from season to season, his brand consistency, his knack for dreamy storytelling, and his immaculate embroidery and superb craftsmanship always win.
One can only think that Eleanor of Aquitaine herself would be bowled over by this collection’s Medieval-inspired looks, which frankly are of much finer quality and vision than any noblewoman of the Middle Ages ever wore in real life. While the silhouettes with long capes, trains, and detailed bodices with open décolletages were reminiscent of Medieval paintings, that is where the similarities ended. This was an opulent but not ornate collection.
There were capes and veils a plenty, often paired with a matching dress in heavy velvets that were trimly cut to fall neatly, rather than dramatically away from the body. Extravagant bodices with intricate floral embroidery gave structure to airy chiffon dresses; and the almost endless succession of capes made of crystalized crepe and velvet dentelle added an air of classic sophistication.
The color palette was varied. First, there were floaty soft-pink chiffon evening dresses with intricate beaded overlays and Saab’s signature floral embroidery. But these lighter looks were offset with rich blacks, reds, and plums studded with gold and silver embroidery, pearls, or floral motifs.
Jean Paul Gaultier Fall 2023 Couture
Ever since Gaultier retired in 2020, couture shows under his name have featured a rotation of designers who each bring their own aesthetic and interpretation of Gaultier’s work as well as their own perspective. The effect is that the Gaultier show always stands out as a surprise. For the Fall 2023 edition of the Gaultier show, we are treated to the designs of Rabanne’s Julien Dossena. After introducing a new energy into Rabanne, Dossena is not only a great choice for the guest designer slot, but with his experience in working with metal he gives a new perspective for translating a Gaultier collection on the couture runway.
So let’s talk about the use of metal, which Gaultier used very sparingly. Dossena gives metal dresses, armor adornments, and extensive applications of gold and silver. We see them paired with some of Gaultier’s key themes such as a corset with a cone bra draped by a silver liquid metal skirt. We have a marinières cropped and set off by a row of textured gold buttons.
A discussion of this collection would be insufficient without the collection’s true nod to Gaultier and the enfant terrible image. Dossena gives us a transparent, silver chainmail-type dress over a bodysuit featuring faux pubic hair. This gives us a look through a different facet of the prism of fashion created by Gaultier.
Valentino Fall 2023 Couture
Pierpaolo Piccioli brought nothing short of a true tour de force to this Fall Couture experience. He engaged with the current events in France, delivered a collection that will endure as an epitome of elegance and masterful complexity expressed as simplicity, and touched all of his audience’s senses in an extraordinary setting at the Chȃteau de Chantilly. Is it too much to identify the collection as gesamtkunstwerk? We think not. As Joelle Diderich noted her review of the collection in WWD, Piccioli has deftly shifted the axis of Valentino away from the privileged and elitist image preferred by Valentino Garavani towards something more open, fluid, and community-oriented. To that end, canceling this show amid the protests across France was never in question because Piccioli is, “..witnessing my times through fashion.” The press release for the show expounded further by noting that the fundamental ideology of couture (its expertise, craft, and the power of the individual) is channeled into the designs to reflect contemporary sensibilities and modern realities.
So what does witnessing our times through fashion look like for Piccioli and the team at Valentino? This is a collection that nests a complex story into clothes that appear simple. Kicking away the ladder and scaffolding that were used to create amazing designs so that little trace appears of the true effort required to produce them is true mastery. In this 76 piece collection we have color, waterfalls of crystal jewels, t-shirts turned into ball gowns, and truly august pieces such as a dress with ermine references accompanied with black feathers.
A cross-cutting and unifying element across the collection is a breezy flow to represent the expressiveness of human feeling and emotions. This is not only an important nod to our emotion-charged times but it results in looks, modeled by men and women, that are free flowing and elegant. Standing out for us was a green, perhaps evergreen, look modeled by man that consisted of a plunging rounded neckline silk shirt paired with wide leg slouchy trousers topped with a wool jacket-cum-robe set with wide lapels. It was at once easy and casual and regal and powerful. Also notable were green flats that permitted free and liberated movement, which was a general theme across much of the collection.
Our favorite was a white button-up shirt paired with jeans that exemplified the way the collection infused complexity into simplicity. Piccioli gives us vintage Levi’s 501 XX Big E jeans entirely embroidered with beads dyed in indigo to recreate a denim texture. For us, this was the perfect expression of the collection’s successful message, to paraphrase the line sheet, of turning the quotidian into the exceptional. Given the exceptional times in which we live, perhaps it is ironic to see complexity masked in the beauty of the commonplace.
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