In 1955, the idea of the gray flannel suit as a symbol of the sleeping corporate drone entered the American lexicon thanks to Sloan Wilson’s novel, making it virtually impossible to look at this particular garment in a neutral fashion again. It has become the substitute for our skewed work-life balance, the triumph of business over imagination. He had, it is fair to say, a bad reputation.
Over the past two decades, New York designer Thom Browne has tried to change all that: first, by reducing the proportions of his men’s suits to demand a reappraisal; then, by erasing gender boundaries, and then creating so many variations on the theme, he effectively turned the little gray suit into a Rorschach test that contained multitudes.
On Monday in Paris, however, he took it to a new level: couture. To actually suggest that the gray suit deserved the same mythical status as the Chanel curly suit or the YSL tuxedo or the Dior Bar. And that American fashion (not fashion by an American, but fashion with its roots overtly in American culture) deserves its place on the couture scene.
It was quite a radical proposition.
The broadcasts began in Paris in the shadow of national unrest following the police killing of a teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent which sparked accusations of racism and discrimination. For a while, there was debate about whether the collections were going to – or should – happen. There are few events, after all, so symbolically tied to the country’s history of privilege and insularity as tailoring: handmade, made-to-order, styles for the .001 Percent. Hedi Slimane has canceled his Celine menswear show, originally scheduled the day before the official start of tailoring. Bulgari canceled a cocktail party.
The others held firm, monitoring the situation and noting, questioned, that there were few industries as representative, overall, of the economic and artistic strength of France as fashion. And that sewing is a celebration of this profession at the highest level. But it was shocking to pass protests in front of one set of historic buildings (the National Assembly, the Palais de Justice) on the way to seeing extraordinarily elaborate dresses in another (the Petit Palais, the Rodin Museum).
This tension may be the current human condition, but it has also raised the bar for the shows that have taken place. Yes, they offer escapism and beauty – and, thanks to social media, escapism and beauty for everyone to watch, rather than just the elite to buy. At best, however, they should also offer something more. And not just the flat ballet flats that Giambattista Valli paired with his taffeta and lace ball gowns. Although it is a welcome addition.
Artists and goddesses
At Schiaparelli, for example, Daniel Roseberry offers an exegesis on the virtue of dialogue: between art and fashion, past and present.
The collection was supposed to have been part 2 of a trilogy of shows inspired by the Divine Comedy – part 1, which took place in January, was based on “The Inferno”, so it would have been “Purgatorio”. But at the last minute, Mr. Roseberry changed the title to “…And the Artists” to avoid misinterpretation in light of current events. Rather, he said backstage before the show, he was looking at “the earthly realm, which is the human experience, which is the act of creation, and the desire to decorate and express yourself, which is fashion”.
Which led him to thoughts of washed silk, draped like a cloud around the shoulders, as well as Elsa Schiaparelli’s penchant for artists, which led him to his own artistic pantheon: Yves Klein and Lucian Freud and James Whitten. Which, in turn, led him to one of his most relaxed and thoughtful collections of the seasons: black collars swirling around the shoulders of perfectly cut white coats; wooden accessories stacked on bronzed body parts draped over a jewel-toned base; plush down jackets and opera costumes covered in mirrored mosaics.
Mr. Roseberry’s work became increasingly exaggerated as he delved into the house’s surreal history. Last season, it led to a social media meltdown after a trio of life-size fake dresses from the Wild Kingdom sparked an animal rights outcry. This time the costumes and the clichés have been toned down, and the imagination kicked in. The result was one step closer to the divine.
As was Maria Grazia Chiuri’s meditation on Greek and Roman Antiquity at Dior. The goddess in every woman is one of his favorite subjects, no matter how overused, but this time there was a fierce rigor in his expression that evoked an armored high priestess rather than a new age patter. In a palette of neutrals – ivory, sand and black – she layered capelets cut short in the front and back but reaching floor-length at the sides above peplo-like dresses; woven wire mesh that remotely resembled macrame; and peppered microglitter with tiny seed beads, like glamorous miniature ball bearings.
And although Iris Van Herpen was able to show off what looked like the royal court wardrobe on a distant moon, with bionic mini-dresses and iridescent chiffon that floated around the body like soap bubbles (why Marvel has yet to hire her as creative director is a mystery), it turned out to be based on reality: Oceanix, the planned floating city for South Korea.
The idea of a city on water was once a utopian vision that today, given climate change, may become a necessity. It could easily have led to thoughts of dystopia, but Ms. Van Herpen’s genius is her ability to imagine her way to an extraordinary future, down to the shards of silicon-coated abalone embedded on the bodice of a sea- green dress. This makes his work a leap of faith.
Shades of gray
Yet she wasn’t, in fact, the only one thinking about aquatic life. In his early days as a tailor, so was Mr Browne – or so he thought he was drowning his sorrows. He is one of fashion’s greatest impresarios and each collection tells a story.
This time, it took place on the stage of the Palais Garnier, today the headquarters of the Paris Opera Ballet, in front of an audience of 2,000 cardboard gentlemen in gray suits ranging from the orchestra to the Chagall ceiling (the IRL audience was seated backstage). As fake pigeons roosted here and there, a tale began based on the 1980 song “Fade to Grey” by British new wave band Visage, of a man (actually model Alek Wek) alone at a train station , watching his life pass through 58 iterations of gray and prepster suits, each more intricate and referential than the last.
They came in quilts etched into gold bars that painted images straight out of Cape Cod: jellyfish and seagulls, clams and dolphins; in stripes and checks enhanced with pearls or shimmering transparent micro-sequins; in Irish knit woven from strips of tulle. They came in most of the same simple silhouettes – small shoulders, rectangular, skinny – plus some exaggerated molded bell shapes and two puffy cream dresses. At the end, there was a bride wearing a simple white chiffon shirt dress with a very long train. Well, there had to be a train in there somewhere.
Mr. Browne may be too enamored with his own skills; hence his continued penchant for putting his models in impractical shoes in which they plod and plod. His dramas can veer very close to top camp charades. But there’s no denying her achievement in taking a garment once synonymous with anonymity and reinventing it as an expression of individuality. Couture may be a holdover from fashion, but it’s a thoroughly contemporary idea.