A protester disrupts the Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2022 show, holding a banner reading ‘overconsumption = extinction’ © AFP via Getty Images

On the final evening of Paris Fashion Week, Louis Vuitton, the world’s largest luxury brand by sales, took over a passageway in the courtyard of the Louvre, where dozens of crystal chandeliers were suspended above a double row of tall glass mirrors à la the Palace of Versailles.

Out walked the models to the chiming of a turret clock, dressed in wide, bouncing pannier skirts and boxy wool blazers with silk lapels, lace slip dresses layered over blue jeans and sporty lace-up boots in fluorescent satin. These were intricate and intriguing in their unusual proportions and fluid mesh of at least three centuries’ worth of clothing styles. Designer Nicolas Ghesquière called it “le grand bal of Time”.

Then came another woman carrying a cloth banner that read “Overconsumption = Extinction”. She initially appeared to be part of the show — until she halted at the end of the runway and was roughly removed by security guards. It cast a chill over the remainder of the event; the models did not make a second appearance for the finale, and when Ghesquière came to take his bow, he was accompanied by a bodyguard.

Though a shame for the hundreds of people who had worked on the collection, for a climate protest the choice of time and place was apt. There has been something deeply unsettling about the return of these lavish displays of brand power at fashion weeks; of the sudden reappearance of designers and buyers and journalists (myself included) who, just over a year ago, were calling for a “reset” of the fashion system — fewer shows, less creative burnout and a smaller carbon footprint.

At Louis Vuitton, creative director Nicolas Ghesquière mixed past and present references . . . © Giovanni Giannoni
 . . . such as embellished gowns in velvet and lace paired with open-toe satin boots © Giovanni Giannoni
Lanvin’s Bruno Sialelli presented playful dresses covered in daisy print . . . 
. . . alongside simpler, more sensual baby-doll pieces

Of course, commercially it makes sense. If anything, the past year and a half has proved just how well-oiled the luxury machine is, especially among the sector’s megabrands. Despite the resurgence of Covid-19 in China, shares in LVMH, Kering and Hermès are trading at near all-time highs. Shows are back because they drive sales and media attention.

Chanel fashion president Bruno Pavlovsky saw this coming. In an interview during France’s first lockdown last year, he said that he saw no reason for an overhaul of the fashion calendar; that six fashion shows per year worked well for Chanel before the pandemic, and would continue to perform for the company after it.

Column chart of market share of ‘soft luxury’ goods*, Europe and UK only (%) showing big labels tightening their grip

“We have the strongest local loyal customer base we have ever had at Chanel,” he says now, speaking before the brand’s spring/summer 2022 show. Though operating profits fell 41 per cent between 2019 and 2020, Pavlovsky says that travel restrictions have given the brand’s boutiques an opportunity to really listen to what local customers want — which, above all, is “to feel privileged”. Sales, which were already doing “very well” in China, the US and pockets such as Dubai, are also now picking up in Europe, where American tourists began flocking again to Chanel boutiques over the summer, he adds.

This season, creative director Virginie Viard revisited Chanel’s heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, erecting a catwalk above the audience and surrounding it with old-school photographers. Models smiled and twirled like ’90s supers in simple black bathing suits trimmed with white, glittering tweed skirt suits accented with chain belts, and floaty black chiffon dresses printed with butterfly wings.

It was elegant but unexciting, devoid of the irony and wit that once enlivened the house’s signature gold chains and tweed jackets under the late Karl Lagerfeld. Without them, such pieces read as merely nostalgic.

At Chanel, Virginie Viard looked back at the brand’s 1980s collections featuring swimsuits and sport bras . . . 
. . . alongside short pink dresses, multicolour jackets and denim suits
Hermès enlisted artist Flora Moscovici to create the show’s atmospheric, orange-tinted backdrop . . . 
. . . for a collection of refined leather pieces in black, white, yellow and earthy tones 

Not that it matters. The pandemic period excepted, Chanel’s ready-to-wear sales have continued to climb under Viard. The brand’s Chinese customers in particular appreciate her feminine approach, Pavlovsky says.

It was a similar story at Hermès, where Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski showed off the house’s savoir faire in a private-jet terminal via slick black leather suits and chiffon dresses delicately embellished with tiny glass beads, and petite cylindrical bags with luxuriously thick silver handles. There is little need for Vanhee-Cybulski to push boundaries on the catwalk; sales at Hermès have already surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

Givenchy designer Matthew Williams is very much feeling the need to push boundaries — or at least to define what the LVMH-owned house stands for in the wake of Clare Waight Keller’s departure last year. For his first physical show, held in an arena north-west of Paris, a giant and expensive-looking oculus was suspended from the ceiling, bathing in bright white light the female models dressed in black neoprene riding jackets paired with stretchy thigh-high boots, and men in utility vests layered over narrow-cut trousers.

There were some decent looks here — the slashed trouser suits and painterly separates created in collaboration with Josh Smith especially — but for the most part this collection seemed to be treading territory already occupied by other designers. Perhaps that will develop as Williams begins to experiment with haute couture for his debut in January.

Givenchy’s creative director Matthew Williams mixed corsets and peplums in tulle . . . 
. . . with traditional tailoring fabrics and thigh-skimming clogs
At Miu Mui, Miuccia Prada revolutionised preppy style by lowering waists, exposing logoed underwear . . .  © Monica Feudi
. . . and cropping sweaters and shirts to reveal the models’ bare midriffs © Monica Feudi

Miu Miu’s identity has sometimes been obscured by its sister label Prada, but that is beginning to change now that Raf Simons is co-designing Prada. “Before, I could have half of me in one place, half of me in the other one,” Miuccia Prada told the FT earlier this year. “Now, all myself, it is in Miu Miu. That should be good for Miu Miu.”

It was a very good collection, full of the beloved Miuccia signatures that have lately been missing at Prada: pleated schoolgirl skirts with thick V-neck jumpers and neat single-breasted jackets, slim floral-appliqué cocktail dresses with grey ribbed socks and loafers. These were shown with bare midriffs and the shortest skirts this season, but their purposefully awkward proportions elevated them above conventional sexiness.

It was also reassuring to see such a wearable collection from Stella McCartney, whose curvilinear bodysuits, mushroom-print dresses and vibrant, easy trouser suits were accompanied by small black bags crafted from mycelium, a lab-grown leather alternative. While pricier than her typical range, “it’s certainly cheaper than exotic skins”, she said. “And it’s not killing any animals, it’s not cutting down any trees, it’s incredible technology that really is the future of fashion.”

Stella McCartney paired up bodycon, cut-out tops and dresses with relaxed trousers, knits and blazers . . . 
 . . . and launched the Frayme Mylo, a handbag made of mushroom leather
Models and guests paraded on a Hollywood-style red carpet at Balenciaga . . .
. . . before entering a theatre to enjoy the premiere of ‘The Simpsons I Balenciaga’

Not every show marked a return to business as usual. A red carpet and a throng of photographers greeted guests outside the Théâtre du Châtelet, where Balenciaga held its show. All standard stuff, until guests took their seats inside, where the “show” turned out to be the red carpet itself, livestreamed on stage. Here, in unrelenting high-definition, a mix of real celebrities — Cardi B, Elliot Page, Isabelle Huppert — assumed camera-friendly poses alongside unwitting journalists, to laughter and cheers inside the theatre. Soon, looks from the collection began to appear, fitted on actors, Balenciaga staff and various “friends” of the house.

It was a neat dismantling of boundaries between performers and audience that was also cleverly choreographed this season by Marni’s Francesco Risso and Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli. The latter took his show to the street, where students and the public could drink in the beautiful mix of jewel- and citrus-hued separates and sweeping silk-shirts-turned-gowns. Guests were free to stay and dine at the restaurants afterwards, courtesy of Valentino. “Inclusivity and humanity is what I want to deliver today,” he said.

Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli reinterpreted classic tailoring in extravagant volumes and acrylic colours . . .
 . . . and paired feathered looks with practical combat boots
Paris Fashion Week closed with a tribute to AZ Factory’s Alber Elbaz, who died in April. The show featured pieces by a variety of fashion houses, including Valentino . .  © imaxtree
 . . . as well as designs by Elbaz himself © imaxtree

The sense of community was palpable too at AZ Factory’s memorial show for the late Alber Elbaz, where 47 designers created looks for an audience that included his partner, Alex Koo, and the first lady of France, Brigitte Macron.

Back to Balenciaga. Just as the show appeared to end, the lights dimmed and on the screen appeared Homer Simpson, desperate to secure something — anything — from the label as a birthday gift for his long-suffering wife, Marge. The tongue-in-cheek film culminated in a Balenciaga show in Paris, modelled by the residents of Springfield. The company described it as “the latest in a progression of activations that push certain boundaries set up between fashion and other forms of entertainment, culture and technology, shifting the brand away from an easily definable category”.

I’m not sure the experience took Balenciaga out of any “easily definable” categories, but it was fun, clever and surprising. Everything one hopes a physical show should be. Because for now, they aren’t going anywhere.

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