Shades of Gray Worth Watching

PARIS — Forget lapel pins or white roses or black; the Oscars drew a line in that sand, anyway. Sunday night in Paris, Thom Browne made an utterly convincing statement about female strength and sexuality. He may have been an ocean away from Los Angeles, but it was as theatrical as any film, and as potent.

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Shades of Gray Worth Watching
, New York Times

PARIS — Forget lapel pins or white roses or black; the Oscars drew a line in that sand, anyway. Sunday night in Paris, Thom Browne made an utterly convincing statement about female strength and sexuality. He may have been an ocean away from Los Angeles, but it was as theatrical as any film, and as potent.

It began in a vast ballroom of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ city hall, with a central island filled with canvases propped up on easels. Out came a procession of painters — imaginary doppelgängers of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette’s favorite portrait painter and a woman who made her way in a man’s world — in beige jackets and gray bloomers, the legs exaggerated to hoop-skirt size, their hair jutting back in towering cones.

As they began to daub, their visions appeared: women drawn in multiple shades of gray and an eye-boggling amount of detail; women whose bodies were both art and artifice, a wink and a smile, inscribed in strips of tweed and astrakhan, threads sketching the form beneath, pearls encircling nipples and fur rosettes at the crotch. Their corsets were visible under sheer scrims of chiffon set into flannel jackets, marbleized sequins monumentalizing flesh.

Half a jacket hung from a shoulder and met half a molded slip dress; suit jackets covered in minute ruffles trailed on the floor like a train. At the end, each model stood haloed in a square of neon light, and to Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out,” four men in (yes) dog masks, gray flannel suits and high heels appeared, leashed together and led by a figure in a long, gray rose-covered robe.

After circling the room, they arrived at a throne of sorts, and the attendants removed the robe, revealing the South Sudanese model Grace Bol in her own gray flannel pantsuit. She took the throne, the music changed to Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” the anthem at the end of the 1988 film “Working Girl,” and it was done.

It was less a fetishization of the female body (an approach that would be questionable at this point in time) than a demand for recognition of the feminist form with a touch of levity. There’s been some rumbling this red carpet season about women taking political positions in evening gowns while still exploiting their “assets” — as The Daily Mail says — in the classic cleavage-and-curves way. Browne backhanded that out of the room.

There’s a revolt of sorts happening at the tail end of a fraught fashion month. Designers seem increasingly unwilling to shut their mouths and just make pretty clothes. This is their soapbox, and they’re speechifying with their seams.

As Pierpaolo Piccioli said, leaning in with some unexpected urgency before a verdant Valentino show, held on the same day Italy went to the polls: “Very often if you make clothes you feel are doing something that is not really meaningful for society, but I feel you can use clothes to deliver a message. Italy right now is choosing whether to embrace discrimination, and I hate all forms of discrimination.”

That’s why he opened his show with the Sudanese model Adut Akech, and closed it with the Afro-French Assa Baradji, and used his work to prove that romanticism — not about relationships, but about life — could be a strength rather than a weakness. The clichés of the genre (flowers, pink), were turned into power symbols: Pansies in black and white and caramel appeared as intarsia on wool tunics and capes and knee-high leather boots with stacked heels, so instead of being merely decorative they were built into the structure of the garment.

Eschewing the stereotypes of strength that have been so dominant this season (big shoulders, ‘80s references), Piccioli chose instead to express freedom through ease, cutting flowing tunics in red and deep pink and leafy greens, scalloping the edges and pairing them with neat pressed trousers, allowing hands to be plunged deep in pockets, heads held high.

It’s hard to add this kind of dimension to fashion. You can easily fall over the edge into pretentiousness or fakery. And not everyone is comfortable with the idea: At Akris, Albert Kriemler’s liquid C-suite leathers, knits and silks in jade and lapis lazuli remained quiet in their confidence; at Sacai, Chitose Abe stuck to her usual cut-and-paste of forms and fabrics (school blazers, down jackets, tennis sweaters, chiffon), with her usual, if occasionally overcomplicated, aplomb. When she first introduced this “hybridization” approach, she was ahead of the curve. Now the curve is moving on a bit; so, hopefully, will she.

But when it works — as it did at Valentino wonderfully well, and as it did at Stella McCartney, where the suit linings became the stuff of slip dresses false-fronted onto velvet and knits, and portraits of women by British artist J.H. Lynch were revealed under sheer lace and tulle shirts, the normally unseen elevated and exposed to the light — it raises the bar for everyone. Even more so when the reintroduction of a house is at stake. The new life of Poiret, now owned by the South Korean fashion and beauty conglomerate Shinsegae International, should by all rights have been a major event: Paul Poiret was one of the most influential designers of the early 20th century; there was a retrospective devoted to his work at the Met in 2007; the house has been dormant for almost 90 years — and he was the designer who freed women from the corset, for goodness sake! He embraced multiculturalism before the word existed. The timing was perfect.

And yet somehow, despite many pieces that spoke to the history of the brand, especially puffer egg-shaped opera coats burnished in gold, and jumpsuits and day dresses made from two rectangles of fabric crisscrossed in front (plus some pieces that looked a lot like Lanvin used to under Alber Elbaz), there was nothing to love. The animating spirit of the house had not been adapted to the contemporary era, even if the designs were. Once upon a time it set off a revolution. Now it’s missing one.

Maybe next season.

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