Paris Fashion Week Offered Us Escapism. To All Different Directions.

This was undoubtedly a unique Paris Fashion Week. In the new post COVID- reality, designers chose to showcase their work in a mixture of physical and digital formats that included socially-distanced shows, show-in-a-box marvels, and digital presentations. In the noticeably quieter Paris streets, those fashionistas and influencers that have made it to the Paris capital were hosting their own style parade. Yet the true fashion drama was once more unfolding inside the shows’ closed doors. Creating a response to the global health crisis seemed to be in the show notes of almost every designer-their ‘concepts’ delved into the idea of overcoming the pandemic wiser and with a new wardrobe at hand.

Fashion has been attributed to an almost mythical escapism ability since forever; the medium to overcome every hard reality through imagination. In the past few seasons, designers’ collections reacted to the political upheavals and uncertainty created by environmental issues and protests of unrepresented minorities. Their runways showed their frustration and staged their protests. The belief that the fantastical experience of fashion can offer the wearer joy and provide an escape to colorful utopias was very much part of the equation. Then,  the pandemic stroke.

Fashion is a reflection of our times. The idea that vibrant escapism will always be a thing when things get darker and gloomier started to radically shift. In post-apocalyptic times, some designers are making references to an unsettling, harsh future lingering; a labyrinth from it there may be no escape visible. The SS21 Digital Paris Fashion Week season was an amalgam of attitudes towards a new reality that sometimes leaves us hopeless and angry. Escapism from the world health crisis took many forms, from going at the disco to dreaming awake.

Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior understood the previous codes may not be applicable now. At least, in the show notes; she evoked poetry and imagination as an escapism method that always works. The execution didn’t offer a radical shift from what Dior has been morphed under her creative direction: a combination of loose trousers, structured bar jackets, turbans, and a feminist essence that didn’t seem to translate well in actual design. We need poetry to escape. Instead, Dior offered well-crafted pajamas. It didn’t go well.

Olivier Rousteing decided he’d better react as if the pandemic had not taken place at all. The show had one piece of music playing on a loop – ‘Blinding Lights’ by The Weeknd while the Balmain army strutted in typical overly exaggerated Balmain tailoring (think exaggerated shoulders and bell-bottoms). Then, the eveningwear came. There were recycled Swarovski crystals on clothes that looked appropriate for a pre-pandemic great night out-or for the nights to come after new normality sets in. This was the kind of dreamy heaven that posed serious existential questions-to the viewers. In a fashion world that tried hard to reposition itself in those post-apocalyptic times, is this type of response adequate?

Demna Gvasalia tried to offer answers in that direction-but the execution was far away from what we’d call new. And while his statement largely followed the idea of “imagining how fashion will be in 2030”, the collection was very much Balenciaga 2020. Stripped off its great styling and video paraphernalia, the clothes looked very much last season’s hype. There were hoodies, oversized trench coats, and sunglasses worn at nightlight, you get the picture.

Just about when I’ve lost all hope, there came Rick Owens to save the season, once more. I am not an expert in his work but I could clearly see the designer’s ability to both be true to himself and create something radically new-one show at the time. His idea of reacting to doom was aggression and revolt-just not the gloomy type you’d normally expect. “I just might be leaning into a taste for the lurid; that an undercurrent of thread and dread can inspire bubble-gum pink and alarm red,” he explained. No escapism bubble here, just a sincere revolt towards those ugly, unprecedented times. His sum-up of the collection was telling. “Grim gaiety,” he replied, when asked by Vogue.

Perhaps the feeling of the season.