This season, escapism took new forms in the City of Light.
What is fashion’s role during times of social unrest? It’s a perpetually tough question to answer, and it resurfaced yet again this week as the couture Fall 2023 shows took place in Paris.
Across the French capital, celebrities came dressed to the nines as designers presented elaborate craftsmanship. At the same time, nationwide protests were raging following the police killing of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old boy of Algerian and Moroccan descent. Some thought the shows shouldn’t have even taken place. Couture, after all, represents the highest levels of wealth, privilege and excess in fashion. At the same time, as the greatest form of clothing expressionism, it reliably reflects the culture. Perhaps that’s why this season we saw a theme of subtle, understated artwork as opposed to flashy over-the-top spectacles. From an emphasis on artificiality to a shocking amount of deceivingly casual designs, this season’s couture collections — whether intentionally or not — took on a deeper meaning. Below, FASHION rounds up the most noteworthy moments from the week.
Chanel: The French girl has entered the chat
Is any fashion figure more aspirational than the archetypal Parisian woman? Her streamlined tailoring, casual pairings and perfectly tousled hair have long been the subject of admiration. And no entity captures her essence better than Chanel. Effortless Frenchness pulses through the brand’s identity, and its latest couture collection was an ode to that image. Models traded luxe handbags for straw baskets of flowers and strolled around cobblestone streets with seemingly nowhere to go. Wearing flats or Mary Janes, they sported classic silhouettes with tweed separates, floral patterns, and the je ne sais quoi coolness that defines the French girl aesthetic.
Thom Browne: Now that’s a power suit
Known for his ability to deconstruct and reimagine the elements of a classic suit, American designer Thom Browne marked his first couture show by leaning into what he does best: theatricality. In front of an audience of 2,000 cardboard cut-outs, Browne sent models down the runway in clown-like makeup, swollen sleeves and optical illusion jackets. Each look was accompanied by an equally astonishing headpiece, from hoisted-up hairdos to a Carrie Bradshaw-esque pigeon hat.
Balenciaga: Time to armour up
It’s been a difficult year for Balenciaga. After undergoing a viral controversy in November 2022, the brand has been slowly making its return by moving away from gimmicks and turning its focus to craftsmanship. Case in point: For the house’s latest couture collection, creative director Demna presented oil-painted canvases that resemble denim and coats that look permanently caught in the wind. The pièce de resistance? A 3D-printed metal-looking dress inspired by Joan of Arc. That’s one way to communicate hardened sensibilities.
Dior: Less is more
In an industry that’s racing for newness, there’s power in simplicity. Just ask creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri, who presented a pared-back interpretation of couture at Dior. Models walked in a sea of neutrals, with sophisticated silhouettes and modest tailoring. That’s not to say it wasn’t extravagant. The collection — which honed in on goddess imagery — was full of floor-grazing capes, intricate beading embellishments and shimmering sheers. A majestic take on minimalism, the collection gave refreshed meaning to quiet luxury.
Alexis Mabille: The glass half full
The image of a woman fluttering about a party armed with a cocktail evokes freedom, flirtiness and a certain non-commital charisma. This was the energy at Alexis Mabille’s couture collection, aptly titled “Mondaines,” a French word which can be loosely translated into “socialites.” The clothing was appropriately romantic, brimming with dramatic cutouts, all-exposing sheer dresses and slender silhouettes. To complement the grandness of the garments, models held champagne flutes, coup glasses and delicate goblets as accessories. Because, really, what’s more luxurious than walking around with an elegant drink in hand?
Viktor & Rolf: Most petty
Viktor & Rolf is not one to mince words. The avant-garde house is known to spell out sentiments, be it through literal phrases or theatrically staged designs. This season’s couture collection gave us both. Models walked with fake men in suits perched on their shoulders or straddling their torsos. Bows — big and small — adorned outfits like unwrapped gifts. Best of all was the series of swimwear with worded messages, including “Dream On,” “No,” and, to borrow the phrase used by Gwyneth Paltrow after winning in ski court, “I Wish You Well.”
Schiaparelli: Are you for real?
If last season’s viral faux animal head debacle taught us anything, it’s that Schiaparelli creative director Daniel Roseberry likes to push the envelope on what looks real. Roseberry is known to lean into Schiaparelli’s surrealist roots, and his Fall 2023 collection was yet another indication. Ensembles were full of enchanting fantasy, from spray-painted torsos to bronze body-part-inspired jewellery. And this time, by trading fake lion heads for fake arms, he avoided contentious confusion.
Valentino: Casual Friday
Opening a couture runway with a pair of jeans is certainly… a choice. Herein lies the genius of Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino. Because upon closer inspection, these pants are actually made of silk gazar, hand-embroidered with intricate beadwork. Evoking the classic visual of day-off denim, the trompe l’oeil design skillfully juxtaposes the formality and prestige of couture. Model Kaia Gerber wore the look with a white button-up shirt and opulent chandelier earrings, which were a staple of the collection, along with floor-grazing gowns and airy fabrics. It was enough to warrant a standing ovation from Anna Wintour — an honour she’s reportedly only given five times in the past decade.