Maybe the most curious contradiction about fashion right now is its status as a pillar of popular culture—something that anyone can follow or even participate in, like sports—and the simultaneous obsession among the culture at large with couture, the most rarefied (and arguably outmoded) niche of the industry. Right now, Balenciaga is trending on Twitter (in large part because celebrities like Nicole Kidman and Kim Kardashian walked in the show–but more on that later this week). And much of my Instagram feed has been dominated over the past few days by dissections of the couture collections showing this week in Paris—it’s the Fall 2022 season—by armchair fashion enthusiasts. Some of these commentators have likely never even been to a fashion show, and will never be in a position to acquire a couture garment. But there’s a real passion for, uh, fashion, in terms of inquisition, analysis, and sourcing reference material. So fashion right now is democratic in reach and yet snobbish in taste. Anyone, in other words, can be a snob!
At the level of clothing, this plays out in two different aesthetic approaches. The first is an exuberant, pop feeling dominated by references to previous couturiers, almost in the way that a hit song might take a throwaway line or chorus from a 1980s hit and, through the magic of autotune, make it into something you might enjoy listening to in a barre class. Schiaparelli’s Daniel Roseberry is the kingpin of these kinds of clothes (although houses like Viktor & Rolf and brands like Moschino were doing camp gowns when memes were but a twinkle in our eyes.) His show on Monday was packed with references to the work of Christian LaCroix–and the gambit is that his many fans can comb through the collection and electrify themselves finding these callbacks, like the pouf skirt, and wide but flat-brimmed hats, and little bolero jackets with schmancey scrollwork. It’s similar to the way that television shows are created now, with bread crumbs sprinkled about to reward vigilant viewers. Everyone used to give Virgil Abloh a hard time for copying (which was misplaced criticism, I always thought), but now the point is not only to copy but to spot the reference, and celebrate it. This creates a sense of snobbism among what you might call couture’s digital spectators.
But what makes Roseberry’s work important—beyond merely interesting, which, with all those birdies and bare breasts and trompe l’oeil glamour, it certainly is—is that he has also cultivated a group of eccentrics to wear and embody his clothes, much in the way that Elsa Schiaparelli did, as the new show at Paris’s Musée des Arts Decoratifs confirms. Roseberry’s clothes may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but as attendees dressed in Schiaparelli, like Hunter Schafer, Jeremy O. Harris, Janicza Bravo, and Natasha Lyonne demonstrated, a little unsavoriness can be incredibly powerful. It also reminds us that there is creativity pulsing beneath all this business, all this capitalist claptrap. And that not everything (or every famous person) should be for everyone, and celebrities who dare to be out there, whether in the way they dress, the way they think, or the projects they pursue, deserve a wardrobe that celebrates that.
On the other hand, the bigger players at Paris Couture have taken a much quieter route. Over the past three or so years, Virginie Viard, at Chanel, and Maria Grazia Chiuri, at Dior, have made subtler and subtler collections. The most obvious logic here is that clothing that resists the algorithm, that doesn’t scan bombastically on social media, is the most rarefied stuff of all. You had to be there! But there’s something else going on here, too—at Chanel, certainly, Viard has doubled down on her pursuit of daywear. Viard seems to believe that made-to-order clothes comprise an entire way of life, which is why her collection included so many coats styled simply with boots, skirt suits with easily accessible pockets, and trousers with slightly clashing jackets. She’s not really about gimmicks; she’s about a woman’s real life. A very rare kind of woman, but her life and her needs, nonetheless.
For sheer beauty, and the sake of making an argument that beauty matters as much as anything else in the world, Dior’s show was the best of the week so far. Maria Grazia’s work is strongest when she is doing the most seemingly simple things. And while this collection was rich with texture, like floral embroideries on a creamy gray cropped jacket over a beige dress with a skirt of guipure lace, or layers of lace intrigue on a gown. Some of the pieces were so straightforward that their attentive handwork was achingly, glorious plain, as on a putty colored skirt and piecrust shirt both braided with onion-shaped smocking, or a scoop neck gown with delicate lace and beadwork. Even the diaphanous chiton-like dresses that Maria Grazia does nearly every season feel like a special, possibly sacred code of femininity.
The designer has slowly and steadily built a case since 2016 that craftsmanship is an almost divine female art form, tapping into a larger (and centuries-old) conversation about the value of pursuits deemed lesser because they are performed or embraced by women. What I like so much about a collection like this one is that it doesn’t merely exist to provoke and point out that this unfortunate standard exists–it disproves it, through a demonstration of total and absolute beauty. How can you say something like this beautiful handwork is unimportant, small, or irrelevant?
What’s really interesting about couture and its place is in the fashion conversation, I think, is that it truly is about lifestyle. When most brands are doing their own take on the same handful of products—I noticed during a jaunt around New York’s Soho late last month that almost every luxury brand is making a market basket bag, a leather flap bag, and a beige and brown logo print fanny pack—hyper-individualized clothing is one of fashion’s few remaining statements. The question becomes not to whom you are loyal, whether you’re a Demna head or a Slimaniac, but what kind of life you want to live. It is truly a domain where luxury is synonymous with freedom.