Gold Medal Looks in Paris


The question of inspiration has always been a little cringey when it comes to fashion: Designers offering up “mood board” collages backstage to turn even the genesis of their collections into content and connect them to some deeper meaning that can often seem either ridiculously convoluted or drippingly banal. Hence Miranda Priestley’s famous “Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking” moment in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

It was a moment that came to mind at the beginning of the Paris couture shows, when guests entered the Dior tent at the Musée Rodin to see the walls covered in 32 mosaic murals of sprinters and surfers and soccer players, recreations of works by the American artist Faith Ringgold (who died in April, at 93). And again, at the beginning of the Thom Browne show, when two teams of white skirt-suited men picked up a long braided rope and engaged in a theatrical tug of war, encouraged by a coach whose head was swathed in a golden laurel wreath.

Sports? During an Olympic summer in the city hosting the Games? Groundbreaking.

And yet the result, at least when it came to these two collections, actually was. Welcome to the age of athcouture.

It’s one way to take fashion’s most hidebound art — the made-to-order styles for the .001 percent; the laboratory of fashion, where a lucky few designers get to play to their hearts’ content — and make it relevant.

The whole idea of athletics got Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior, for example, thinking about freedom: the freedom of the body that comes from sports wear (as opposed to sportswear), the freedom that cycling granted women in the late 19th century, the freedom that not focusing on the New Look could give her. And that, in turn, got her thinking about jersey, a material with industrial overtones that she had never used in couture.

This time she did, using silhouettes derived from ancient Greece, draping the jersey peplos-like over the base of a gold mesh tank top, so it had the vibe of competitive statuary. A tank dress, seams picked out in athletic tape, was covered in elaborate crystal embroidery. Tank bodysuits glinted with more crystals. Skirts had been transformed into sarongs for greater movement and layered over pants. The juxtaposition of the very fancy and the very functional gave each piece a piquancy, and a modernity, that vaulted it forward.

Ms. Chiuri has toyed with sport references before, most notably in her first collection for Dior, in 2016, which focused inexplicably on fencing, and again in a pre-collection shown in Athens in 2021. She has often hammer-thrown home the feminist undertones. But she has never done either as effectively as she did here. Even her medal references — gold, silver and bronze metallic jersey and Lurex gowns swathed and tacked around the body, like the memory of a sash — which could easily have come across as hokey instead had a seductive ease.

Like Ms. Chiuri, Mr. Browne, himself a collegiate swimmer and back in Paris for his second couture collection, has flirted with sports in his work before, most notably in his own Olympic collection in 2021, which involved imagining a futuristic Games in 2132. Like her, he also seemed to find the allure of medals impossible to resist. Well, everyone wants to be a winner and to that end he also offered up a finale panorama of gold, silver and bronze — though in his hands that took the form of encrusted jackets. But it was what happened before the podium that was really interesting.

Specifically the way sport got Mr. Browne thinking about equality: the way everyone starts with essentially the same basic equipment — the body — and then develops individually from there. That led him to think about fashion’s great equalizer, raw muslin, the toile or starting material for every couture pattern, which made him wonder: What if you could elevate muslin itself to compete with silk, satin, and brocade? So he did.

He made muslin into yarn that he then crocheted into cardigans that looked like raffia cocoons, and muslin into tweed that he transformed into mini skirt suits that looked like bouclé. He pieced together enormous muslin coats out of piles of coats, exaggerating the shoulders and hips. He even made muslin mousseline that was stirred and ballooned into a courtly gown with a gold-embroidered bodice, and attached a bouquet of cascading muslin blooms to the back of a bridal gown

Then he added in the Olympic references: a sheath painted with a trompe l’oeil bikini and another with a trompe l’oeil brief for the swimmers; a sheer shirt dress embroidered with lacy figures of wrestlers and weightlifters and archers; an Edwardian gown with dozens of tiny buttons down the front, which was half-beaded in glinting blood-red musculature. Even the lace-up ankle boots were cantilevered over a platform sole, itself elevated by a bed of mini gold spikes, to create the arched silhouette of a runner’s foot in the starting blocks.

It turned out Mr. Browne had gone to the 1976 Montreal Olympics when he was 11, and seen Caitlyn Jenner (then Bruce) win gold in the decathlon and Greg Louganis dive and Nadia Comaneci get the first perfect 10 in gymnastics, and he had never forgotten it.

“I really do feel like sport brings people together,” Mr. Browne said. Like couture itself, which Mr. Browne called “the Olympics of fashion,” it offers a moment of communal escapism in even the most fraught, anxious time. Let the games begin.



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