When the Power Dressing becomes personal

PARIS — “Inclusiveness, diversity, no gender binaries — he was the first,” said Olivier Rousteing, otherwise known as Balmain’s creative director, as he ticked off issues at the forefront of identity politics.

It was about designer Jean Paul Gaultier, who retired from his eponymous house in 2020. Since then, a rotating cast of guest designers have been invited to try their hand at reinventing the brand’s couture; Mr Rousteing was third in line, after Sacai’s Chitose Abe and Y/Project’s Glenn Martens.

“He was there to fight for all of us,” Mr Rousteing said of Mr Gaultier. The young designer was practically nervous over his giant platform shoes. The collection was, he says, “an open letter of love”, but also “a tribute to women, with all that is going on”.

Then he placed on his podium two molded leather breastplates in the shape of a pregnant woman’s belly.

Still, it has been a relatively free seam of politics. As the week drew to a close, there seemed to be general agreement among designers that the best thing they could do for their clients was to make them feel powerful by making them feel good. Although what that meant depended on who was doing the design.

For Mr. Rousteing, that meant mostly statement pieces with a self-conscious visual punch and a handful of insider references (spot the Gaultier-isms!). There were nods to Madonna’s 1992 appearance at an AMFAR gala in bare-chested stripes, as well as the designer’s signature sailor top rendered in a striped knit made from feathers and descending into a huge train, and a denim dress with feathers so elaborate they could only have been made by the workshop that services the Moulin Rouge. Also the menswear, which opened the show and was a mix of tattoo prints, Breton stripes and faded denim and was particularly cool.

Even the bottle and packaging of Mr. Gaultier’s famous perfume, Le Male, have become a striped glass corset and a mini aluminum can as well as a silver dress accompanied by an unfortunate hobble skirt (the metal, it turns out, can be great for entries and Instagram but not so much for walking).

For Kim Jones at Fendi, that meant lavish simplicity: a plush caramel double-breasted pantsuit with a bit of swing; a fully beaded tunic and pant pajama set to look like Art Deco denim; a floor-sweeping tank dress that looked earth-dyed but was actually encrusted with bugle beads. A turtleneck dress cut on the bias was glued together from slices of kimono silk, to create the most elegant patchwork. The overall effect was anchored in the best way possible.

And for Guram Gvasalia of Vetements, that meant getting very personal. Mr. Gvasalia co-founded Vetements in 2014 with his older brother Demna (now creative director of Balenciaga and no longer involved). But until recently, his official role was behind the scenes as general manager; this season’s physical show marked what he called his coming out party as a designer.

The collection was, he wrote in his show notes, “a summary of my childhood memories, war trauma, hidden desires and twisted imagination”. It was also ready-to-wear, rather than couture; think of it as couture-ish. Just as the result was autobiographical: the story of his family’s flight from the country of Georgia, their sense of displacement, and their attempts to squeeze themselves into (and then out of) acceptable social forms.

An old teddy bear became a plush coat with another coat taped to one side; Barbie dreams became a soft and squishy Malibu Barbie pink pantsuit and overcoat. There were zebra stripes inspired by her grandmother’s wardrobe and beautifully ripped jeans; supermarket plaid trench coats with matching trousers and boudoir ruffles. Some major edits. It had energy and the raw edges associated with the brand. Not just because the collection was showcased in a decrepit space in a notoriously tough part of town, but because it struck a chord.

Yet there was also familiarity. It is, after all, the Vetements vernacular established when it thumbed its nose at the fashion establishment, and which Demna has further publicly refined (and claimed) at Balenciaga.

Considering the two men share the same background, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they still share a similar aesthetic, but for Vetements to thrive on its own, it needs to evolve in its own direction. Now that Mr. Gvasalia has put his psyche on the line, it may be possible.

Otherwise, like Mr. Rousteing offering his take on Mr. Gaultier’s work, it risks giving the impression that someone else did it first.

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