PARIS — The cavernous Stade Jean-Bouin, the rugby arena in the 16th Arrondissement, was heaving late Wednesday night. Around 7,000 people were munching French fries, clutching drinks, waving their phones in the air and otherwise waiting for the third Balmain Festival to begin. Backstage, reached through a maze of hallways, the designer Olivier Rousteing was holding court, talking about inclusivity and how, to him, that meant throwing open the doors of fashion to let everyone in.
It’s turning into a trend this season, along with oversize trousers, lingerie dressing and acres of fringe.
In New York earlier this month, Marni held an open-air show beneath the Manhattan Bridge that allowed bystanders a peek at the decorative goings-on. In Milan, Moncler hosted a mega-experience in the Piazza del Duomo. And now Balmain: with a seemingly endless runway, an even more endless wait for the show to begin (welcome to fashion), and then a parade of more than 100 looks (women’s, men’s and couture) — and Cher.
Cher? Yeah. She popped out at the end, in a catsuit. Surprise!
It’s the right impulse, but the wrong realization. Because the thing that gets lost in the mayhem of these stadium shows is the thing that draws everyone in the first place: the clothes. The way, through detail and line and texture, great design can capture the ethos of the moment and how it shapes identity. Implying an intimacy — with bodies and emotion — that is impossible to achieve in a mass mosh pit. But which is turning into a hallmark of the best collections.
It’s reflected in the element of wabi-sabi, of brokenness survived and rendered beautiful, that is starting to surface. After the comfort-clothing explosion of COVID-induced lockdowns and the dresses-for-dancing-on-tables reaction, it may be actually be the most potent fashion expression yet of what everyone has, and is, experiencing.
It was captured, almost perfectly, by Jun Takahashi of Undercover, making his return to Paris after two and a half years with a show in the American Cathedral in Paris, and a series of pantsuits slashed here and there — at one calf, the thigh, the arm — as if from a knife fight.
Except the precise, gaping wounds that were left were lined in teeny frills, and sometimes adorned with a rose, tucked ever so gently into the hole. The result seemed to nod not just to what has happened to the working uniform (or the idea of work itself, for that matter) but the healing effort to go on.
So it went: with message tees and sweatshirts bearing words like “Love,” “Dream,” “Angel” and “Sweet,” slashed through the center and paired with slouchy chinos and jeans. With trenches ripped at the shoulders, and asymmetric knit shrugs so shredded it looked as if they were just old cobwebs snagged at some an abandoned house. At the end, a quartet of strapless, circular dresses appeared, like giant crumpled balls of tinfoil or leftover string.
In their imperfection was their soul. In the same way that, at The Row, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen opened up austere black jackets along the spine and spliced sleeves along the seams so they could be tied, like a hug, around the torso.
The way the designers trapped a simple white shirtdress under a net tank, so it was crushed into unplanned folds, or layered a wrinkled silk duvet dress over a button-up shirt and wrapped it at the bust, almost as if the woman within had been hibernating in her bed and then the doorbell rang, and she had to rush and pull the covers off to see who was there.
And in the way that Dries Van Noten, also holding his first show since February 2020, told the story of the last two and a half years.
He began in the dark, with all black — like Kazimir Malevich and his 1915 painting “Black Square,” the designer said backstage, he was starting from zero — in a series of simple pantsuits and dresses, secured here and there in great, galumphing bunches by glass stick pins. Gradually the surface treatments became more complicated, trailing fringe to the floor, swirling into stiff, cascading silk frills.
Then came a warm-up jacket encrusted in cobalt blue paillettes, which in turn gave way to blush pink, and then enveloping oversize cotton separates — jackets, shirts and pants — in mint green and butter yellow, caramel and dove gray, as though the clothes were coming back to life. Until they finally did, in an explosion of wildflower prints in crumpled, roughly ruffled silks of many colors, collaged organically together and climbing the body like vines.
Florals can seem cloying and sweet (and clichéd, especially when you’re talking about spring), but these were more like a glorious statement of faith and nature’s messy promise of renewal. Flaws and all.
Which was, it turned out, also Mr. Rousteing’s subject. If the Balmain show’s venue was about letting everyone in (or everyone who could get a ticket, via donations to (RED) and the global fund to fight pandemics), the show itself was, he said backstage, a reflection of his anxiety about the future and the climate crisis and “a love letter to my planet, to the world.”
“I think it’s really interesting to see everyone is so obsessed with the ’90s and 2000s right now and looking back at the past,” he went on, when they should be asking “will we be there tomorrow and what will we leave for the next generation?” It’s a good question.
Then he gave it form in an array of highly worked pieces that suggested the finery not of an army, as he likes to call his fandom, but of a nomadic tribe from a desert planet. In leather and raffia, dusty eco-linen and a faded patchwork of both Renaissance prints (da Vinci, Michelangelo) and African craft: heritage carried on the body.
Flames flickered on silk, representing both Mr. Rousteing’s own trial by fire — an explosion in his apartment in late 2020 that left him covered in burns — and the wildfires of the past summer. In the couture section, a bustier mini dress was sculpted from bark; a ballerina number from straw; a long, fluted gown from raffia, jute cord and twigs.
It (happily) left his own late-’80s obsession far behind, and represented a real step forward. Or it would have, if it had been possible on that bombastic runway to actually see the resonant constructs of the clothes.