AAt the end of London Fashion Week last month, I wrote that this season was going to be all about the return of the party dress. People like me look at fashion as some sort of divining stick for the future public mood, so I think it’s best to admit that I called it spectacularly wrong.
Just hours after the start of Milan Fashion Week, Russia invaded Ukraine. Coco Chanel once said that “fashion is linked to ideas, to our way of life, to what happens”. Ideal for when the world is coming out of a pandemic and life is getting exciting again, and fashion can nurture feelings of hope and optimism by selling delicious new dresses like they’re chicken soup for the soul . Not so great once war breaks out. Military sewing? I’ll pass, thank you. But it’s fair to say that evening dresses haven’t flew off the shelves either. Which created a strange atmosphere at fashion week. It’s hard to present next season’s wardrobe as a fun thing to think about when the immediate future is so scary.
After a slow start, the fashion industry has shown itself in Ukraine. From Chanel and Hermès to Zara and H&M, most brands have closed stores and suspended online operations in Russia. LVMH, owner of Louis Vuitton and Dior, pledged €5m (£4.2m) to the International Committee of the Red Cross, while Kering, owner of Gucci and Alexander McQueen, pledged an undisclosed ‘significant’ donation to the UN Refugee Agency.
The tone of Paris fashion week was, for the most part, understated and professional. Many collections were already meant to be shown in small presentations, as a runway show requires months of planning and only luxury brands with deep pockets were in a position to take this kind of financial risk in January, when the world was still scared. by Omicron. Paul Smith handed out cups of tea and cheese sandwiches as he explained how the new half-moon shoulder pads he developed for women’s couture offer a wearable version of the dramatic oversized couture that was everywhere on the catwalks of Milano. “It’s about respecting the female form,” he said. After spending 16 weeks in 2020 working entirely alone in an office that’s usually home to hundreds – “just trying to make the business work, which wasn’t easy, but we made it” – he appreciates the human scale of walking face-to-face these days. He worked with stretch gaberdine to make the suits more comfortable – what everyone wants now – but with a construction that maintains the sleek line you get from tailoring.
Dries van Noten rented a dilapidated grandeur Parisian townhouse, with a majestic creaking staircase and hand-painted wallpaper peeling from the walls, and filled it with vintage mannequins, which he dressed from skimpy zebra-print skirts to giraffe-striped boots or quilted coats with round shoulders like halos. He wore a kingfisher blue scarf wrapped around his neck against the chill of a house that had been unoccupied for half a century as he showed his audience around, proudly pointing out stitching details and embroidery techniques. The clothes were treasures, collectibles, but the bones of the looks – skirts over boots, chic puffer jackets – were quiet trends that recurred throughout the week.
Understated fashion might just be the next big thing. Not silent as dressed and unlit, but silent as discreet. Maybe it happened anyway. Before this runway season was overtaken by world events, the buzz revolved around the imminent return of Phoebe Philo, the British designer adored during her time at Celine for her clothes that were quirky enough to be cult and sophisticated enough to be chic. The likelihood of Philo’s own brand resetting the dial to something cool and subtle was somewhere in the designers’ sight as they put together these collections over the winter, even if the understated vibe of today was unpredictable. Philo’s announced return has yet to materialize; I suspect that’s on ice until the world is ready to care about such things again.
What does silent fashion look like? It’s a slightly too big blazer over a vaguely skimpy crop top – which could be a bra top, but could also be a knit cardigan or a lace-trimmed camisole. The big jacket and little top look is a “but fashionable” take on the old plain blazer over a shirt. Quiet fashion is a knee-high boot with a skirt, as I mentioned before, or a quilted coat. These are baggy jeans, looking like the next year 2000 trend to go mainstream. It’s checks of all kinds, and moccasins with everything, because preppy is the new streetwear. The color of the season is the calmest of all: brown.
“That sounds really strange, doesn’t it?” said Stella McCartney, one of the designers who put on a real show, backstage at the Center Pompidou. “Doing a show when Covid was going on was kind of weird, but it feels even weirder and sadder and more surreal.” Even though it’s part of my job, sitting in front of a podium is extremely uncomfortable right now, in a way it isn’t today in front of my laptop. For many designers who were holding physical shows, it was the first time they had done so since the pandemic began, and they didn’t mind, for that reason, canceling, so they sought a way to cross the chasm, to keep the faith with the real world, with more or less success. The show’s vibe isn’t limited to clothing, which is why many creators changed their soundtracks at the last minute. The Hungarian brand Nanushka played the Ukrainian national anthem; Valentino presaged the show with a voice note from its creative director, Pierpaolo Piccioli, saying he went ahead with his show – where the venue was painted hot pink, a specific new shade that will be added to the official color scale of Pantone – because, he says, the collection represented work and love.
Rick Owens, who had planned to play music by electronic artist Eprom, switched to the adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. He said he would normally think it was an overly sentimental choice, but felt it was “better suited to sobriety and finding hope in our current condition”. The puffy, off-kilter jackets and tight-fitting keyhole hoodie dresses, which were somehow both monastic and a bit SM, were deeply weird but very beautiful. “During times of grief, beauty can be one of the ways to maintain faith,” Owens said.