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How A Fashion Critic Mentally Catalogs Fashion Week Shows


If fashion is a storytelling business, it should follow that runway shows are narratives.

Yet they can’t be. For starters, they lack a plot. True, designers can be relied upon to spiel about inspirations, travels or philosophies as a listener’s eyeballs roll back in his head. The truth is that most fashion shows are best consumed, as everything else now is, in fragments. They are elements of an ongoing internal scroll, as continuous, algorithmic and addictive as Instagram reels.

That, anyway, is how this critic began viewing the collections in Milan and Paris this season, with the result that the following is best thought of as a mixtape, not anchored to specific nationality or geography or context, random and in some sense impressionistic and probably also solipsistic in the way everything is fundamentally forced to be in an attention economy.

Take Hermès. The designer Véronique Nichanian is anything but a household name, probably not even among those in the economic stratosphere this label was created to serve. So what? She’s as consistently fine as — and in many ways better than — other fixtures in the pantheon of men’s wear, people like Giorgio Armani or Helmut Lang. There is a reason you don’t know her.

“We don’t do marketing,” Axel Dumas, the Hermès chief executive, said at the company’s show. “We don’t even have a marketing department.”

Why bother when you are producing jaunty collections for those people whose own initials are enough, as the old Bottega Veneta tagline once held. So-called quiet luxury generally tends to make a racket. Ms. Nichanian’s is a muffled version and whispers wealth.

If money were no object, and if this were some fantasy exercise in personal consumption, I would readily click on one of her feather-light leather field jackets in pale lavender, possibly also a pale pink varsity jacket or definitely the cardigan with subtle color blocking at the hem.

Despite the prevalent horrors of the world, the season just past was one in which designers leaned on the poetic. Maybe it is precisely because things are so ugly that beauty has become a haven. You would think so based on the collection the designer Satoshi Kondo created for Homme Plissé Issey Miyake. Notes from the show pointed out various tricky harness details that allowed a wearer to slip off a coat in one of the house’s proprietary pleated fabrics and roll it into a little carry pack.

What this viewer took away from the collection was a fervent wish to have been invited to the upcoming Ambani wedding in India just for the opportunity to wear a Miyake cargo shorts outfit in sea-foam green or a jacket cape over lilac pleated trousers or a stark white gossamer layered look that was a corrective to the stiffness that characterizes most wedding garb.

If Indian wedding fantasies became a kind of subconscious leitmotif this season, it could be because designers like Junya Watanabe and Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons Homme Plus riffed so wonderfully on formal wear. Mr. Watanabe did it by radically recasting tuxedos as patchwork suits of frayed black or blue denim, then ornamenting them with white thread machine patches, and scraps of tartan. Memo to celebrity stylists and also groomsmen everywhere.

Ms. Kawakubo delved into formal frock coats, by no means for the first time. Hers were ruffled at sleeves and hem and tails and were shown against a soundtrack featuring Erik Satie’s music for “Parade.” Cue sirens, typewriter clatter and gunshots. Gruesome headlines came to mind.

Yet such is Ms. Kawakubo’s elegance of thought that the designs also evoked an era different from our own, that of post-Edo Japan: formal, courtly, simultaneously stylized and yet naturalistic. It is amusing to imagine wearing stuff like that to join one of the firefly-watching parties depicted in Junichiro Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters,” one of the literary monuments of the 20th century.

Rick Owens also hearkened to what was essentially the same period — 1920s and ’30s — though as embodied by early Hollywood. The show, held on the steps and plaza of the glorious Art Deco Trocadéro complex, was monumental, fantastic and one of this observer’s highlights. It was also bombastic and utterly camp.

Possibly only an oddball kid growing up with no television in Porterville, Calif., in the 1960s could arrive at the affection Mr. Owens feels for the sword and sandal spectacles of Cecil B. DeMille. Why else would anyone stage a fashion show featuring 10 looks repeated 20 times, each on phalanxes of models, more than 200 in all. Against the booming cadences of the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the models marched out in battalions: four models, five lines, dressed in wrapped knit shirts, side-split shorts and Geobasket sneakers, almost all of it uniformly white.

The show was epic as intended. Yet, putting aside the theatrics, the clothes themselves were commercial: biker jackets with a variety of coated treatments; drifty cowled chiffon coats; hooded capes; and boiler suits. Even a deflated leather version of pumped-up knee boots he showed last season looked less freaky now that the eye has gotten used to them.

The designs Pharrell Williams showed at Louis Vuitton — a show with universalized “It’s a Small World (After All)” thematics that, one could be forgiven for thinking, looked a bit like a market play dressed up as inclusivity — were more assured and commercial than his last foray into the cliché American West. We accept that Mr. Williams isn’t Virgil Abloh, whose design explorations, though sometimes nutty, were always approached in earnest. Still, Mr. Williams’s Vuitton merits a spot on my mental shopping list if only because many of the looks featured a style of luggage created for the pan-continental airline Air Afrique in the 1960s.

Lately the look — a multicolor check pattern — has been repopularized by creative types like Lamine Diaoune, Amadou-Bamba Thiam and Jeremy Konko, each of whom collaborated with Mr. Williams on the collection. Seldom do I come away from a Vuitton show with an itch to buy anything. Yet this time I could indulge a fantasy of strolling through an airport concourse with one of those bags, perhaps on my way to a seminar on Aimé Césaire.

In a personal playlist for the season, mellow grooves would be the outro. Top among them is a slow jam of Grace Wales Bonner’s tailored and elevated take on Afro-Caribbean streetwear. I’d take a “tuxedo” that appeared near the finale. Its top was a patterned hoodie based on the archive of the Afro-Caribbean artist Althea McNish, elegantly paired with dark trousers and a cummerbund. Funnily, the throwback qualities of Ms. Wales Bonner’s collection unexpectedly called to mind that of Giorgio Armani, who also evoked tropical atmospheres in what was something like his 350th collection over 50 years.

Sometimes it is fun to play human resources games while watching the clothes go by on a runway. Mr. Armani turns 90 in a few weeks, and in a wild-card imaginary succession scenario, it is wonderful to think what Ms. Wales Bonner would do with a global behemoth whose design codes — think suede blouson bombers, rib-knit sweaters, stuff that still resembles the ’80s men’s wear pictorials the photographer Peter Lindbergh shot and that have influenced designers ever since — are fundamentally close to her own.

A shrunken version of similar looks from the ’80s turned up at Prada, where the designers Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons share a taste for torquing retro references and making stodginess look cool. Here it took the form of V-neck knits, cardigans, super-snug crew necks and high-waist trousers with trompe l’oeil belts, worn on the requisite starvelings. Those same clothes on men with average waistlines would look pretty different and a whole lot more conventional.

On the other hand, the printed tops — the ones featuring sad faces drawn by the execrable French painter Bernard Buffet — if worn unironically by some skate rat barely old enough to shave would be really punk.

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