22-Mar, 04:59

12:30, January 23 125 0

2018-01-23 12:30:05
Fashion Review: Designs on Female Empowerment at Chanel and Dior

PARIS — Not quite two weeks after Catherine Deneuve, Catherine Millet and more than 100 other women set off a firestorm in France with an open letter in Le Monde suggesting the #MeToo movement had gone too far, two days after the second annual women’s marches around the world, and the day after the Screen Actors Guild Awards and its all-female cast of presenters, the couture shows began in Paris.

The most expensive, exclusive clothes in fashion, all made to order and off limits for most, do not necessarily seem like the kind of thing you’d wear on the ramparts (unless they were red-carpet ramparts). But there was no way the question of what empowerment looks like in 2018 wouldn’t be the core subject on designers’ minds. It’s simply one of the dominant conversations of the day.

Is it about owning your sexuality and displaying it any darn way you please? About balancing fantasy and reality? About rewriting the rules of dress?

Maybe all of the above. They’re working it out. Some more successfully than others.

Put it this way: In September 2016, for her first ready-to-wear collection, Maria Grazia Chiuri, artistic director of Dior, sent out a T-shirt emblazoned with the message “We Should All Be Feminists.” And though, increasingly, that message seems to be universal, sitting in the Dior studio the day before her show with a pair of crutches leaning in a corner (she had broken her leg over Christmas but fashion stops for no injury), she was ruminating on the idea that proselytizing should be left to the ready-to-wear, and that philosophical exploration was the province of couture.

She still took a woman as her inspiration (Ms. Chiuri loves unearthing a new heroine). This time around it was Leonor Fini, an avant-garde painter of the early 20th century whom Christian Dior showed in his early stint as a gallerist — and Ms. Fini’s statement that (as Ms. Chiuri put it) “nothing is more fake than to be natural,” which got her thinking. That the mask, or clothes, we choose is what reveals the person inside. Which was kind of about Surrealism but also, hey, Instagram!

Under a ceiling hung with plaster body parts — an ear here, a torso there — she sent out a collection largely in black and white: gowns with an optical illusion checkerboard twist; long, narrow-shoulder princess coats sprinkled with polka dots; a trail of white feather butterflies tracing their way down a halter-neck frock. There were pristine suffragist tuxedo suits and sweeping, severe Grand Bal capes, and luckily very few overt visual puns, apart from some silly net masks over the models’ eyes and some tulle cage corsetry under it all. Get it? Time to break out.

That might have been a piece of symbolism too far. But butterflies (time to take wing!) also appeared at Schiaparelli, in a collection inspired by, the show notes said, “nature, Nubian tales and Moorish legends.” That translated into clothes that combined high workmanship — belted jackets made from patchworks of brightly colored snakeskin, raffia and silk fringing — with Cinderella flou and tribal detailing that seemed oddly out of step in a time of heightened cultural sensitivities.

It wasn’t as heavy-handed as Ralph & Russo’s fringetastic exploration of the Far East by way of Vegas, though also not as considered as Giambattista Valli’s decision to pair his trademark 1960s little lace dresses, embroidered in three-dimensional peonies, black bows and diamanté, with over-the-knee vinyl boots — the kind made to walk all over you, as Nancy Sinatra once sang. Or to preface his usual finale of titanic tulle gowns with a trio of silk dresses that were sumptuous in their simplicity.

There’s power in the pared-down, but if you stick to traditional rules, there may be only so far you can go. Which is why it’s so exhilarating to see Iris van Herpen break them.

Ms. van Herpen uses technology — laser-cutting, 3-D printing and heat bonding — to create a new morphology of the body, bringing it into a realm somewhere between the digital and the divine.

This season she took a long view (literally: of the earth from above), twining iridescent vines, draping perforated leather and liquid fabric bonded to Mylar into cloudlike gowns, picking out new bone structure in parametric patterns, all within a frame of an almost medieval silhouette. It is genuinely original work, with a strength all its own — not least because, though the base was nude, there was not a breast in sight thanks to matte bodysuits. If only someone would wear it to the Oscars.

Given the idiosyncrasy, that’s unlikely — far more probable would be any number of spun-sugar confections from Chanel, where the designer Karl Lagerfeld built a French garden complete with trellises, climbing roses and a working fountain in the Grand Palais, and then decorated it with a bouquet of pastel bouclé suits with matching bouclé bootees (also some bouclé knickerbockers, but let’s forget those), berry-hue cocktail dresses twinkling with flower fairy lights and feathers, and little sheaths that shimmered under the airbrushed scrim of a silk chiffon overdress, but that allowed an easy stride.

It was a sly demonstration that the unabashedly pretty could also be liberating. For those who didn’t get the message, however, the show ended with a flower boy scattering roses before a bride in a long, extravagantly feathered skirt, short cape — and waistcoat plus trousers. In case there was any doubt about who he thought was going to wear the pants, going forward.