At the end of London fashion week last month, I wrote about how this season was going to be all about the return of the party dress. People like me hold up fashion to be a kind of divining rod for the coming public mood, so I think it is best to admit that I called that one spectacularly wrong.
Just hours after Milan fashion week began, Russia invaded Ukraine. Coco Chanel once said that “fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening”. Great when the world is emerging from a pandemic and life is looking exciting again, and fashion can nurture feelings of hope and optimism by selling delicious new frocks as if they were chicken soup for the soul. Not so great once war breaks out. Military tailoring? I’ll pass, thanks. But it’s fair to say party dresses haven’t been flying off the shelves, either. Which made for a strange mood at fashion week. Tricky to pitch next season’s wardrobe as a fun thing to think about when the immediate future is quite so frightening.
After a slow start, the fashion industry has shown up for Ukraine. From Chanel and Hermès to Zara and H&M, most brands have shuttered stores and paused online operations in Russia. LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton and Dior, has pledged €5m (£4.2m) to the International Committee of the Red Cross, while Kering, which owns Gucci and Alexander McQueen, pledged an undisclosed “significant” donation to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The tone of Paris fashion week was, for the most part, sober and businesslike. Many of the collections were already scheduled to be shown in small presentations, because a catwalk show requires months of planning and only deep-pocketed luxury brands were in a position to take that kind of financial risk back in January, when the world was still spooked by Omicron. Paul Smith handed out cups of tea and cheese sandwiches as he explained how the new half-moon shaped shoulder pads he has developed for women’s tailoring offer a wearable take on the dramatic oversized tailoring that was all over the Milan catwalks. “It’s about respecting the female form,” he said. Having spent 16 weeks of 2020 working entirely alone in an office that usually houses hundreds – “just trying to keep the business going, which wasn’t easy, but we did it” – he enjoys the human scale of face-to-face walk-throughs these days. He has been working with stretch gaberdine to make suits more comfortable – which is what everyone wants now – but with construction that maintains the elegant line you get from tailoring.
Dries van Noten rented a Parisian townhouse of decaying grandeur, with a sweeping staircase that creaked and handpainted wallpaper flaking from the walls, and filled it with vintage mannequins, which he dressed in lean zebra-print skirts over giraffe-striped boots, or quilted coats with shoulders as round as haloes. He wore a kingfisher-blue scarf wrapped around his neck against the chill of a house unoccupied for half a century as he showed his audience around, proudly pointing out tailoring details and embroidery techniques. The clothes were treasures, collectors’ items, but the bones of the looks – skirts over boots, poshed-up puffer coats – were quiet trends that recurred through the week.
Quiet fashion might just be the next big thing. Not quiet as in dressed down and switched off, but quiet as in low-key. Perhaps this was coming anyway. Before this show season was overtaken by world events, the buzz was around the imminent return of Phoebe Philo, the British designer beloved during her time at Celine for her clothes, which were quirky enough to be cult and sophisticated enough to be chic. The likelihood of Philo’s own brand resetting the dial toward something cool-toned and subtle was somewhere in the field of vision of designers as they put together these collections over the winter, even if the sober mood of now was unforeseeable. Philo’s heralded return has not materialised, as yet; I suspect it’s on ice until the world is ready to care about such things again.
What does quiet fashion look like? It’s a slightly too big blazer over a small, vaguely skimpy top – which could be a bra top, but could also be a knit vest, or a lace-trimmed camisole. The big-jacket, small-top look is a “but make it fashion” version of the plain old blazer over a shirt. Quiet fashion is a knee-high boot with a skirt, as I mentioned before, or a quilted coat. It is baggy jeans, which look like the next Y2K trend to go mainstream. It is checks of any kind, and loafers with everything, because preppy is the new streetwear. The colour of the season is the quietest of them all: brown.
“This feels really strange, doesn’t it?” said Stella McCartney, one of the designers who did stage a proper show, backstage at the Pompidou Centre. “Doing a show when Covid was going on felt pretty strange, but this feels even stranger and sadder and more surreal.” Even though it is part of my job, sitting in front of a catwalk feels intensely uneasy right now, in a way that sitting in front of my laptop now does not. For many designers who were staging physical shows, it was their first time doing so since the pandemic began, and they were not minded, for that reason, to cancel, so they groped for some way of reaching across the chasm, to keep faith with the real world, with varying degrees of success. The mood of the show is about more than clothes, which is why many designers altered their soundtracks at the last minute. The Hungarian brand Nanushka played the Ukrainian national anthem; Valentino presaged the show with a voice note by its creative director, Pierpaolo Piccioli, saying that he went ahead with his show – where the venue was painted hot pink, a specific new shade that will be added to Pantone’s official colour scale – because, he said, the collection represented work, and love.
Rick Owens, who had been planning to play music by electronica artist Eprom, switched to the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. He said he would normally think it too sentimental a choice, but felt it was “better suited for the sobriety and search for hope in our current condition”. The inflated, off-kilter jackets and slinky keyholed hooded robes, which were somehow both monastic and a bit S&M, were deeply strange but very beautiful. “During times of heartbreak, beauty can be one of the ways to maintain faith,” Owens said.