PARIS – The importance of sticking to your guns, metaphorically and creatively speaking, was a takeaway of a resurgent men’s wear season in a tourist-mobbed and superficially booming Paris. As seemingly everywhere, prices in the French capital have skyrocketed. Hotels at all levels are sold out, and the cost of a takeout ham butter sandwich is nearly double that of just six months ago.
The challenges for actual men’s wear designers, as distinct from multinational groups using apparel as a loss leader for selling logo bags, include starting up a fresh conversation with consumers, reimagining the landscape of work and using the evolution of the ways we interpret gender as a creative tool.
Regarding the latter, this may be the place to note that, despite the prevalence of clutches, totes, murses, skirts and various other frilly things some designers have successfully drained of traditional feminine associations, men’s wear this season focused on those who skew masculine. Largely vanished from Paris and Milan were dual gender presentations, or much of the sexual ambiguity that marked prepandemic experimentation. Though gender fluidity is here to stay, this was not its moment on Paris runways. At least for now, designers defaulted to the good old, bad old binary: Men, evidently, are the new men.
That was great for designers like Thom Browne and Hedi Slimane, each of whom waited until the wind-down of three consecutive fashion weeks in Florence, Milan and Paris to mount shows that blew off the doors. In the salons of the Automobile Club of France on the second floor of the Hotel Crillon, the Thom Browne show was in one way an affectionate sendup of fusty couture presentations of the “Funny Face” era. Models carried numbered paddles and a gaggle of celebrity friends of the house – Marisa Berenson, Farida Khelfa, Amy Fine Collins and others – teetered in stereotypically “late” on heels and in hobble skirts.
They took their ballroom seats just in time to ogle a crop of guys wearing tweed dresses cropped so short you prayed no one had gone commando. There were button-downs in cropped organza; jackets of specially woven tweed with sleeve atop sleeve or cropped to bracelet length; coats with elaborate frogging and conservative flat loafers that, but for the bullion anchors embroidered on the vamp, looked suitable for the country club.
Much of it evinced Mr. Browne’s intoxication with and growing command of the materials and techniques of the haute couture. Yet what made the show memorable was a raunchy detour into Tom of Finland territory. To wit: codpieces with embroidered Prince of Wales anchor piercings and men’s skirts slung at sagger height and worn over red, white and blue jockstraps that revealed generous views of plumber’s… let’s say dorsal cleavage.
That none of it was the least bit erotic was no surprise. When Tom Ford let it all hang out in 1997 with an infamous Gucci G-string that now sells for $ 6,000 on eBay, you knew exactly what he had in mind. Mr. Browne’s relationship to overt sexual heat is more austere. Still, you can count on seeing those jockstraps next year on the beach at Fire Island Pines.
Barely three hours later and just over a mile away at the Palais de Tokyo, Mr. Slimane produced a real season finale with a Celine spectacle that was equal parts Glastonbury and “The Day of the Locust.” Untold thousands of fans had spent the night along the Seine outside the Trocadero and waited into the late northern twilight for a glimpse of the pop idol V from BTS, the South Korean actor Park Bo-gum and the Thai rapper and singer Lisa of Blackpink. Tsunamis of adulatory screams greeted the performers when at last they arrived, circa 10 pm, although few among the audience inside could have named the stars whom all the fuss was about.
Mr. Slimane, 53, and Mr. Browne, 56, is each a firebrand in his own way. Each has managed the feat of meeting the commercial demands by big houses (Celine is owned by LVMH and Thom Browne by Zegna) without yielding personal vision. Both draw extensively on American archetypes, whether of surfers, sailors, cowboys, tennis pros, LA punks or rockers. Being gay men with an intrinsically othered perspective on cisgender identity, they tend to queer what is mainstream by reflex. This contributes to what may be one of the least often remarked upon fashion trends of our times. It is not as if Mr. Slimane or Mr. Browne (or Alessandro Michele at Gucci, for that matter) is likely to be mistaken for Judith Butler. Yet they are unquestionably carrying on her work.
Mr. Slimane’s show revisited motifs he has seldom abandoned: glittering sequined jackets and quilted silver bombers, spangled tunics and skintight jeans and all the raiment associated with a mostly fantastic breed of rocker. The clothes were worn, as usual, by starvelings with sunken chests and legs like pipe cleaners. Mr. Slimane hews to a very specific physical ideal. So if you plan to fit into any of this stuff you had better skip the pint of Rocky Road.
More than anything, though, the evening was memorable for its music, another Slimane signature. The propulsive bass beats of the Brooklyn group Gustaf’s song “Design” set the tone, filling a large chamber where distorting mirrors were raised and lowered from the ceiling as the lead singer barked the song’s dystopian lyrics. “People get used to terrible things,” she sang: Ain’t it the truth?
Overall, a jam-packed Paris Fashion Week marked the city’s return to its prepandemic state as one of the world’s leading tourist and style destinations. Masking was unfortunately rare, and many shows were what six months ago would have been condemned as superspreader events. Still the mood remained buoyant. Even collections that felt like expensively staged place-holders – Givenchy gave us elaborately ripped trousers and balaclavas; Kim Jones at Dior Men, his impeccable if prim tailoring; Junya Watanabe, an assortment of Warhol, Haring and Basquiat images on workwear that strayed into Uniqlo territory – were more than offset by jauntiness (as at Nigo’s sunny sophomore outing for Kenzo, which looked a bit like an Anna Sui collection of 40 years ago) or true poetics.
At Comme des Garçons Homme Plus, Rei Kawakubo’s models wore what looked to be pig snout masks, stiffened wigs and harlequin-patterned trousers beneath hoop-hemmed frock coats that inevitably evoked the run-up to the French Revolution. At Homme Plissé Issey Miyake, dancers from Chaillot Théâtre National de la Danse clambered down a scaffold to fly or race about a sunlit interior. Models moved about in pleated and curved-hem coats and jackets, culottes and shorts and trousers, some with silhouettes inspired by the leaf structure of lilies – serenely organic, all of it, and cool all over again since being discovered by pro athletes.
Tenuous humanity is always in play at Rick Owens, who claimed to have been inspired in his latest collection by a recent visit to Egypt. Watching the show outdoors in the blistering sun of an abnormally hot June, it felt as if even older civilizations may have been on his mind. You know, the ones populated by creatures from distant planets. The dragging hems, the iridescent oil-slick fabrics, the conical shoulders, the enveloping gossamer garments whose point of creative departure was a mosquito net all looked like what an alien might pull from the closet for a summer weekend with earthlings. Think of the three flaming orbs Mr. Owens suspended from a crane as hostess presents.
Like Mr. Owens, Craig Green has an occasional tendency to make the humans inside his designs seem almost provisional. Encased in one of Mr. Green’s exoskeletal constructions – kinky carapaces or rigs for ice boats – the models can look less like flesh-and-blood beings than vehicles for abstraction. Add such disorienting stuff as stirrups hung from belts and chokers with centerpieces resembling respiratory prosthetics, and things get eerie. Then suddenly Mr. Green presents a series of gently enveloping channel-quilted pieces in pale near pastels and draws you in. The push-pull tension between attraction and repulsion compels reflection on the ways in which fashion is inevitably about more than clothes.
Except when it’s not. Season after season, Véronique Nichanian at Hermès turns out tonally balanced, gorgeously fabricated and – spoiler alert – wonderfully wearable men’s clothes, specifically for those who never have to look at a price tag. With its measured proportions, mixture of shapes and patterns (shorts and long pants, deconstructed jackets over roomy schoolboy shorts, blurred checks and hazy grids), the show, held in the cobbled courtyard of the historic Manufacture des Gobelins, presented a Platonic ideal of men’s wear.
After 33 years on the job, and as the pre-eminent female designer in luxury men’s wear, Ms. Nichanian has never been better. And, whether intentional or not, her collection carried a potential stealth political message in its sea horses emblazoned on sweaters. A defining sexual difference between sea horses is that the males of the Syngnathid family possess a brood pouch. In it they fertilize and incubate eggs. It is the male sea horse that, eventually, gives birth.