Paris Fashion Week at centre of Instagram racism row

A model presents haute couture designs for Armani Priv� in Paris. Picture: Valerio Mezzanotti/The New York Times
A model presents haute couture designs for Armani Priv� in Paris. Picture: Valerio Mezzanotti/The New York Times
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The spring couture shows came to a close in Paris with a giant, bubble-bursting reality check, thanks to an Instagram post that went viral, provoking rage and debate far beyond the confines of the gilded Parisian salons.

Soon after the three-day marathon began with Schiaparelli’s ode to nature and Nubian tales in marbled organza and tribal embroidery (which already had some people shifting in their seats), Ulyana Sergeenko, a Moscow-based designer, sent a personal note to her Russian friend Miroslava Duma that read, “To my niggas in Paris” – a reference to a 2011 Jay-Z and Kanye West song, and a concert they had attended together at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Duma, a media entrepreneur and fashion tech investor, posted the card on Instagram, and the public reaction was swift and furious. Charges of racism flew.

By last Tuesday, when Chanel day dawned, apologies were made, but badly. Then a video of Duma making homophobic and transphobic statements six years ago during an internal business meeting was released. Cue more apologies. But by last Wednesday and the Valentino show, both women were metaphorically gone from the front row.

It was a potent reminder that while fashion likes to consider itself part of the front lines of social consciousness, it is still in many ways a hidebound industry. And nothing symbolises that like the couture: stratospherically expensive clothes made by hand for the ivory tower few, just as it has been for decades.

Even though Violet Chachki, winner of the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, was the ubiquitous celebrity guest of the week; Clare Waight Keller added a powerful female designer voice to the mix; and there was more diversity on the runways, the shows can still resemble the inside of a snow globe, like scenes from a soft-focus fairy tale, frozen in place.

Or, in Chanel’s case, the inside of a French garden. Karl Lagerfeld had recreated one in the confines of the Grand Palais, down to the trellises twined with climbing roses and urns spilling blooms. A burbling fountain in the midst of it all provided background music for a bouquet of pastel bouclé suits with matching bouclé bootees (also some bouclé knickerbockers, but let’s forget those), berry-hued cocktail dresses twinkling with flower fairy lights and feathers, and little sheaths that shimmered under the airbrushed scrim of a silk chiffon overdress and allowed for a bigger stride.

It was awfully pretty – and his bride did wear the trousers – as were Giambattista Valli’s trademark little lace 1960s dresses embroidered in three-dimensional peonies, black bows and rhinestones. But is that enough? For the red carpet, absolutely.

Yet in a world in which even Giorgio Armani seemed to be chasing the youth vote in his Privé collection with a 50 shades of evening shorts collection (in watercolour silk, paired with elaborately swagged bustier tops or single-button jackets; in cumulous organza, with matching camisoles and anoraks speckled with sequins; in paillette-covered bloomers and sequined biker shorts), it seemed more reactionary than revelatory.

Perhaps that’s why Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior found her inspiration in Leonor Fini, a surrealist painter of the early 20th century who espoused the belief that, as Chiuri put it, “nothing is more fake than to be natural” – an Instagram mission statement if there ever was one, and one that at least tied the prejudices of yesteryear to the issues of today.

She didn’t entirely follow through. The collection, largely in black and white, was notably conservative, despite the net masks over the models’ eyes and tulle cage corsetry under it all. Think gowns with an optical illusion checkerboard twist; long, narrow-shouldered princess coats sprinkled with polka dots; pristine suffragist tuxedo suits; and sweeping, severe Grand Bal capes.

But at least it wasn’t as mired in the clichés of the past as Jean Paul Gaultier’s homage to Pierre Cardin and op art, or Elie Saab’s bedazzled fantasy of Paris in the 1920s. (Gertrude Stein would never recover.)

Still, the shows that broke through were the ones that attempted to address at least one of the cultural crosscurrents reshaping the world outside.

The empowerment of women, for example, as at Givenchy, where Keller, in her first couture show, mixed menswear tailoring – sharp and sleek of line – with fringe and fancy, tossing military greatcoats faced in dégradé feathers over gowns dripping in silver; transparent latex trench coats over tiers of rough-cut silk; and leotard tops with square shoulders and exposed backs over swirling rainbow skirts. Hems were long, and body parts mostly covered, which didn’t make it any less sophisticated or alluring. (She even threw in some couture for men to create equal wardrobe opportunity.)

Also, technology and connectivity, both given an electric treatment at Iris van Herpen and Maison Margiela, van Herpen using laser-cutting, 3-D printing and heat bonding to create a new morphology of the body, bringing it into a realm between the digital and the divine; and at Margiela, John Galliano going on a trip down the synaptic highway.

With a special holographic fabric developed in China that looked like oily black nylon when viewed with the naked eye but turned iridescent in the light of a smartphone flash, Galliano layered references and eras in a masterly meditation on the sartorial net of things. Silvery oversize parka layers shadowed ornate brocade; a long spaghetti-strap gown was veiled in lace and trapped under a PVF bustier; an apple green cable coat was actually constructed from moulded rubber; and a skirt was made entirely of clacking multicoloured plastic tags.

Perhaps most effective – and affecting – of all, however, was Valentino. It began with a slouchy ivory tank top over brown wool trousers and a billowing amber silk faille cape edged in oversize ruffles under an umbrella hat covered in aquamarine ostrich feathers trailing jellyfish fronds. Dresses came in truncated, tented taffeta beneath coronas of quivering leaf hats and as silver-embroidered lace tank gowns under slouchy matching cardigans, as easy as a nightgown and robe. Luscious though it all was, the stuffing had been let out; couture for the casual everyday era, without pandering or gimmicks. Oh, this old (extraordinary) thing? I just threw it on this morning.

With every look named after a seamstress from the Valentino atelier because, creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli said, “I wanted to dignify their work and give them recognition,” it was an acknowledgment that there’s no hiding behind history or “the dream” anymore.

© NYT 2018

London Fashion Week starts Friday 16 February, www.londonfashionweek.co.uk