Before the Olympics, the Fabulous French Fashion Flex


When is a fashion show not just a fashion show? When it is a vehicle for cultural diplomacy.

At least this appears to be the case with the cruise (or resort or pre-spring or whatever you want to call them) destination extravaganzas that have taken place over the last month. These events increasingly serve to position the big five brands that hold them less as mere fashion houses and more as national ambassadors to the world: billion-euro avatars of influence on unofficial state visits.

Once upon a time, back when this interstitial season was invented to bridge the gap between the fall and spring runway shows, cruise collections seemed to contain clothes that were more wearable or practical than designs shown during the regular seasons. Now, at least in the hands of the mega-brands, the clothes (or at least their wearability) are almost besides the point. The point is the spectacle, access and power they represent — of all kinds, including that of celebrity and social media. Indeed, the front-row stars are as much an attention-grabbing part of the shows as the shows themselves.

In a world of fashion micro-trends, that may be the biggest trend of all.

This was especially true this season, as the shows of the five big heritage French brands — Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Dior and Balenciaga — served as de facto calling cards for the Paris Olympics, which is being touted as the most “fashion” Olympics ever.

It is no coincidence that two of those brands, Louis Vuitton and Dior, are owned by LVMH, which is a top-line sponsor of the Olympics. Nor is the fact that Bernard Arnault, the mastermind of LVMH, has explicitly stated that he sees his mega-brands not as selling luxury, but selling “culture.” And it is worth noting that this was the first time Balenciaga had shown in China, and, for Hermès, the first new collection show held outside of France.

“Hermès has always had a strong connection with New York,said the brand’s designer Nadège Vanhee, before her New York debut, held on Pier 36 and complete with hanging yellow traffic lights and a Gallic cocktail boîte.

“It’s the same spirited woman: taking in the sounds and energy of the city,” Ms. Vanhee went on, though her clothes looked more fitting for someone taking the city on, not just in; the slick black and caramel leathers telegraphed an active, rather than passive, vibe. The brand’s signature scarf prints and fringe were still there, but the overall effect was more haute night crawler than equestrian, down to the leather paperboy caps. And more alluring for it.

Fashion, as much as anything, has been part of France’s patrimony and identity in the world. These shows simply expand the territory.

It started with Chanel in early May, just after the Olympic flame arrived at that port city.

On the rooftop of the Le Corbusier-designed MAMO, in front of Kristen Stewart, Tessa Thompson, and Lily-Rose Depp (among others), the designer Virginie Viard offered up a parade of athChaneleisure: long-line bouclé jackets over bike shorts, tweed hoodie skirt suits and little cocktail frocks with double C-branded plackets. There was even a pair of evening sweats.

If the combination of sports and brand semiology was awkward rather than inspiring, at least the lacy takes on tank top dressing were cool. And the setting was spectacular, even viewed remotely, via livestream, which is how this critic watched since New York Times reporters do not accept free trips (most of the media that attends, like the celebrities and some Very Important Clients, do so as “guests” of the house). Indeed, it was more memorable than the clothes — perhaps a harbinger of the fact that a few weeks after the show Ms. Viard announced she would be leaving the brand.

Next up was Vuitton, where the designer Nicolas Ghesquière continued his pursuit of time-traveling architectural grandeur in the multi-columned Hypostyle Room of Antoni Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona and in front of Sophie Turner, Cynthia Erivo and the sisters Haim.

There, under a ceiling of mosaic domes, he sent out a parade of wardrobe building blocks with just as much structure. The triangular 1980s jackets with jutting shoulders, and precisely angled gaucho hats were weirdly galactic, while the puffballs of evening taffetas had go-go-decade references in their swirls.

Then came Balenciaga, at the Jean Nouvel-designed Museum of Art Pudong in Shanghai, where the city’s jutting skyline served as both a backdrop and a starting point for the equally towering boots that went down the runway. They were stacked on 18-centimeter soles and made in the shape of skyscrapers, their height allowing for elongated floor-sweeping trench coats. And that was just the start of the meme-baiting, which continued through trench and puffer coat bags (literally slung over the shoulder) and more duck-billed sneakers.

For a brand that has made a signature out of combining show and social commentary, the statement felt less like food for thought than fodder for social media. It was also a distraction from the power player pussy-bow day silks, fit for an ironic Margaret Thatcher, and the even smarter evening gowns made in upcycled materials.

See, for example, one strapless white look made from Tyvek, a strapless sheath crafted in gold foil, and a candy-floss pink cocoon dress adorned with what looked like feathers (but turned out to be strips of pink plastic garbage bags). In a country where luxury is a subject of increasing tension, it was a canny representation of mood.

As the artistic director of Dior women’s wear, Maria Grazia Chiuri, said before her show, held in the elaborate gardens of Drummond Castle in Perthshire, Scotland: “I think it is very important to explain that fashion is not only a brand; that fashion is a territory where we are speaking about many different aspects that are political, economical, cultural.”

Hence her decision to devote her cruise collections to both highlighting the global history of Dior and marrying it to local artisanship. This time, the focus was on a 1955 collection that Christian Dior showed at Gleneagles, as well as on the history of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her passion for embroidery and its semiology. Throw in the work of the Scottish specialists Harris Tweed; Johnstons of Elgin, the knitwear company; and an independent brand called Le Kilt founded by 30-something Samantha McCoach in 2014 to make kilts contemporary, and you get clan Dior.

The result positions Dior as a tastemaker, bestowing its seal of approval and aura of chic onto others, and gives the collections a reason for existing in a world that can often seem crammed with too much stuff. Ms. Chiuri’s interpretation of local aesthetics can be eye-rollingly banal — Scotland! Tartan! Bagpipes! Argyles! — but it also reflects the curiosity of an outsider.

Sometimes that combination works very well, as it did with the softened New Look silhouettes crafted from purple and black tartan shawls and the chain mail evening gowns; sometimes less well, as in the faux-punk postcard pastiches of old Dior-in-Edinburgh photos and the cocktail frocks and corsets embroidered with words such as “bossy,” “hysterical” and “nag.” (Ms. Chiuri can’t quite abandon her yen for a feminist slogan.)

One shawl with a map of Scotland on top was so literal that you expected a Google maps dot pointing to the show’s location. But the sheer commitment of 89 such looks ultimately has a sincerity that is undeniable and more interesting than what often appears in her regular runway shows.

It makes cross-border collaboration look awfully good.



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