Should Fashion Be Escapist?

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Photo credit: Courtesy Dries Van Noten, Saint Laurent, and Dior.
Photo credit: Courtesy Dries Van Noten, Saint Laurent, and Dior.

None of the designers showing this season could have anticipated that they would be presenting their clothes in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some have adapted to the situation by making statements. Giorgio Armani staged his show in Milan on Sunday without music, for example, and Balenciaga, whose designer, Demna, is from former Soviet Union constituent republic Georgia, has wiped its Instagram and posted an image of the Ukrainian flag with a link to donate to the United Nations World Food Programme. Others are proceeding with business as usual, perhaps demonstrating that in a period of crisis, it’s hard for designers—like many of us—to know what to say or how to say it.

Of course, the fashion industry has spent the past two years reeling from the financial effects of the pandemic and rallying itself back to normalcy, and its tenacious spirit is often at odds with the impulse to pause and reflect. Fashion, by its very nature, both reflects the times and attempts to predict what will come next, but this is almost always done subconsciously; a good designer is part prophet, part historian, and part seducer. The urge to make deliberate statements about the wider world is a pretty recent phenomenon. Still, the chaos of the last few years has motivated designers to mull over questions about the purpose fashion serves, or should serve, in these times. When the future feels grim, is a designer’s job to make you dream of a better world, or provide escapism for the moment? To convince you that what’s to come can only be positive, or make you feel that somehow today’s reality is not so bad?

Those thorny and compelling questions were at the heart of Maria Grazia Chiuri’s fall 2022 Christian Dior collection, and she investigated them primarily by experiments in technology developed in tandem with an industrial clothing company, D-Air Lab, which makes personal safety equipment. Designers from Hussein Chalayan to Alexander McQueen to Iris van Herpen have harnessed technology to push themselves creatively, though Grazia Chiuri’s motives were more pragmatic, deconstructing Dior standards and turning them inside out, turning their construction into armor. She made her Bar Jacket, for example, out of material that responds to the wearer’s temperature, cooling down when she is warm, and putting the padding that gives it its signature shape on the exterior of the jacket.

I don’t necessarily think of Grazia Chiuri as a conceptual designer, though I admire the notion that the architecture that creates “feminine” clothing, like corsets and the hourglass Bar Jacket, are actually scaffolding that protects us, spiritually or physically, or both. Still, the combination of technology and fashion somehow always feels like a gimmick (especially after Dior’s moving couture show in January, which celebrated the beauty of artisanship and handcraft in India). Grazia Chiuri is at her strongest with her goddess gowns that float high above the Instagram fodder much formalwear has become, like the almost raw, sensuous pleated looks at the end of the show.

Two designers, Anthony Vaccarello of Saint Laurent and Dries Van Noten, took on these questions from completely different angles. Vaccarello produced a spectacular bunch of clothes you just want madly, maybe so much you can just forget trying to deal with anything and just get to fantasize for a few minutes: pointy-shouldered peacoats, big gloating fur coats, and a spiffier, more masculine update of the signature Le Smoking. The swaggering outerwear and stacks of bracelets made me think of Loulou de la Falaise, the longtime right hand to Saint Laurent himself, and also of Nan Kempner, the sharp-shouldered brassy American dame who was one of the designer’s best customers. You could just feel yourself becoming a bit more of a glamorous eccentric in that oversized, V-shaped jacket over a silky column dress, dashing off from one cocktail party to the next. In fact, Vaccarello actually had in mind the singular heiress (and artist and anti-fascist activist) Nancy Cunard, who died in 1965, before Saint Laurent invented the tuxedo and the bohemian romance that attracted women like Kempner and de la Falaise. But it doesn’t really matter, even though that adds some nice texture. Vaccarello doesn’t transmit deep messages like a Miuccia Prada or a Demna, but he does something that is equally important, which is just to make you want something, to make you envision a different reality for yourself and smile.

Dries Van Noten seems occupied with creating a special kind of utopia for his customers. Nostalgia del Futuro, “Nostalgia of the Future,” he called the collection, offering just a few evocative paragraphs in explanation: “Proust said that a true paradise is a lost paradise. But what about those dreams of paradise that we have not yet encountered because, perhaps, they await us in the future? What about the places and adventures that we glimpse in front of us, like mirages shimmering on the horizon?” The clothes, which spun out the ideas of gritty decadence he presented in his men’s show in January, were rich and fabulous, thick silks and satins, and animal and surf prints, with 1930s finesse that resisted the retro.

Van Noten has been especially sensitive about the pandemic and its effect on his team and the fashion industry too. Remember that he was one of the first designers to say that we should seize the pandemic as an opportunity to slow down and make less with more intention, and he has doggedly refused to stage a show since then (at least for now). What touched me in particular about the swankering couture-ish coat shapes, the Charles James–inspired white puffer (there it is again!), and screen siren gowns is how much dignity they would offer their wearer. They were grand and playful (thank God, womenswear is getting playful again!) and might make you feel a little better about your rotten day. That seems to be an emerging theme this season—I clocked it at Bottega Veneta, too—and you can see why designers would find that appealing after the swaddling, at times dejected, comforts of sweatpants and other soft materials. Dior offered armor. But Van Noten’s was equally a kind of protection: something to give you a small reason to get up and go.

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