Written by Alice Pfeiffer, CNN
Each season, Paris Fashion Week closes a four-week marathon, suggesting future trends and providing an important look into France’s cultural psyche. Since fashion is one of the country’s most profitable industries (France is home to the LVMH and Kering luxury groups, and fashion attracts valuable tourist dollars), it is a reliable social mirror, reflecting the nation’s politics and priorities.
So it’s no surprise that this season offered the usual blend of pretty clothes, subtle politics and strong statements. Here were some of the key discussions from the Spring-Summer 2019 shows.
Celine Spring-Summer 2019 Credit: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Hedi Slimane’s first collection as creative director of Celine was bound to be a controversial one. Slimane, known for a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic that prioritizes youth and skinniness (which he championed while at Dior Homme and Saint Laurent), was replacing Phoebe Philo, a slick minimalist who created sophisticated, easy clothes designed with grown women in mind.
So it was no surprise, then, when Slimane sent out his usual wave-inspired tapered suits, babydoll mini dresses and bold leather looks. But still, fashion insiders and Celine devotees couldn’t help but mourn the loss of a certain aesthetic that so many aspired to.
In the New York Times, fashion critic Vanessa Friedman put it succinctly: To those who, upon hearing of Slimane’s appointment, “feared that the days when this brand defined what it meant to be a smart, adult, self-sufficient, ambitious and elegantly neurotic woman were at an end — you were right.”
Appreciation trumps appropriation
Koche Spring-Summer 2019 Credit: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
France has an especially problematic fashion history, one heavily interspersed with remnants of its horrific colonial past. The word “nègre,” which is used as an anti-black racial slur, is still used to designate a shade of grey, and designers continue to produce collections around stereotypical, non-specific African or “Oriental” themes. However, a new generation of designers is presenting a more multicultural definition of Gallic chic, in a respectful — and highly political — manner.
Take Christine Phung, creative director of Leonard Paris, who found her influences in the Maasai tribes of Kenya and Tanzania.
Adding a layer of authenticity to her collection, she collaborated with Maasai artisans to produce a series of traditional earrings and necklaces. Elsewhere, veiled model Feriel Moulai walked the Koché runway in a finely embroidered hijab and matching top. This was a bold move in a country that has passed a law banning face-covering garments, including niqabs and burkas, in public. (And remember the burkini fiasco of 2016?)
At Balmain, Olivier Rousteing, one of the few black designers leading a major fashion house, showed a collection that celebrated the visual impact of Egypt on the French capital (such as the Louvre Pyramid by Chinese architect I.M. Pei), suggesting that Parisian aesthetics owe more to other cultures than one might think.
Balmain Spring-Summer 2019 Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Speaking ‘Franglais’ in the shadow of Brexit
Savile Row tailoring met couture finesse at Givenchy, the Paris-based house helmed by British designer Clare Waight Keller. The lines, straddling garçonne chic and dandyism, could certainly be read as a sartorial rebellion against Brexit. This feeling also pervaded the fusion of London boho chic and French bobo (bourgeois-bohème) at Loewe, the Spanish house owned by French luxury group LVMH and designed by Northern Irishman Jonathan Anderson.
Givenchy Spring-Summer 2019 Credit: Dominique Charriau/WireImage/WireImage
Some, including Vogue critic Sarah Mower, also detected a sense of Brexit malaise at London brand Marques’Almeida’s Resort 2019 collection, shown in Paris for the first time. Portuguese founders Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida played a soundtrack of traditional Fado music, which often riffs on themes of loss, resignation and melancholy.
Reacting to Macron’s entrepreneur obsession
To many, French President Emmanuel Macron’s aggressively capitalist views clash with the country’s traditional socialist persuasions. To fight back, a number of small brands are working toward a slower, less competitive fashion world.
About a Worker is a label with no creative director, where each piece is made by a single textile worker. Its show this week consisted of a public street performance followed by a discussion about inclusivity and sustainability. Speaking over the phone, founder Kim Hou said this was “a sign of resistance against our individualistic consumer culture that pushes you to compete rather than (cooperate).”
Casa93, France’s first free fashion school, paired up with Manifeste011, a vegan concept store, to present a collection designed by students using recycled textiles. “We need to work horizontally to resist the irresponsible capitalist culture that has become a norm,” Nadine Gonzales, the university’s founder, said in a phone interview.
Dressing after ‘Balance ton Porc’
As women in the English-speaking world rallied behind the #MeToo movement, the French incarnation, “Balance ton Porc” (rat out your pig), was faced with harsh criticism from unexpected sources. Earlier this year, a number of key cultural figures, including Catherine Deneuve and author Catherine Millet, signed an open letter in the newspaper Le Monde, defending men’s “freedom to pester” women.
Mugler Spring-Summer 2019 Credit: Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
But on the runway, fashion has made it its business to support the movement’s message of strength and solidarity, albeit subtly. Think modernized “power wear,” as Mugler’s Casey Cadwallader put it.
For his first collection at the house, he decided to reinterpret founder Thierry Mugler’s fearless femininity: “Monsieur Mugler showed his support (for) women by creating blazers with large shoulder pads. Today this means making clothing with a sense of shielding, empowerment, self-expression,” he said in a phone interview.
Off-White Spring-Summer 2019 Credit: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
And at Off-White, Virgil Abloh, recently appointed head of menswear at Louis Vuitton, cast eight athletes to walk the track-inspired runway, providing a striking visual alternative to the omnipresent waif.