The Best Show in Paris

PARIS — Going to a week of fashion shows can be like overdosing on any art form: going to art gallery after art gallery, Off Broadway play after Off Broadway play; reading thriller after thriller. A lot of what you ingest is derivative, some of it is staid, some just plain silly. But every once in awhile you experience something that, in its clarity and power, knocks you flat. That’s the high; the thing that keeps people coming back time and again.

And on Wednesday, when Haider Ackermann unveiled his collection for Jean Paul Gaultier couture, it happened in Paris.

Gaultier, as people may or may not remember, was the enfant terrible of fashion, the inventor of Madonna’s cone bra and the popularizer of men in skirts, and he retired in 2020. Since then, his brand has handed its couture to a series of designers, each producing one collection. They have been a motley, counterintuitive crew: Chitose Abe of Sacai was the first, then Glenn Martens of Diesel and Y/Project, Olivier Rousteing of Balmain, and now Mr. Ackermann, the Colombian-born Antwerp-trained designer whose own brand was famous for the high romance and rigor of its tailoring, but which has been off the runway for while.

Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture by Haider Ackermann, couture, spring 2023.Credit…Jean Paul Gaultier

Mr. Ackermann lost control of his name and his company a few years ago (he just got it back) and his most recent design stints have been a collaboration with Fila and the red carpet one-offs he makes for Timothée Chalamet, like that red halter top, and Tilda Swinton. He wasn’t an obvious choice for Gaultier. But he was a brilliant one.

On a runway bathed in icy blue, to the soundtrack of a thrumming heart, came tailcoats sliced with the precision of an etching over shirts abstracted into tabs of rough-cut white chiffon and cigarette-slim pants. A mid-calf sleeveless black sheath was cut to lap the floor at the back, the train lined with lavender and chartreuse, and its shoulders swaddled by a single strand of rhinestones tied by a silver filament just tracing the spine. There was a fire opal taffeta jumpsuit with a giant bow at one hip; a white swing coat with emerald leather opera gloves; an ovoid amethyst gown tapering down at the wrists and thighs.

Every detail had a point, sometimes actually so. A man’s coat and a woman’s lavender track suit were covered in hundreds of silver quills, like starlit porcupines, which turned out to be straight pins: an homage to the seamstresses who do the handwork of couture. Thousands of tiny, oily goose feathers had been trimmed into arrow heads and appliquéd to a T-shirt, paired with a skirt of even longer, spikier feathers. They looked not fluffy, but dangerous.

Viktor & Rolf, couture, spring 2023.Credit…François Durand/Getty Images

At the end, a series of black dresses transformed the models’ bodies into a cluster of modernist Brancusi sculptures. They were the kind of clothes that seemed not ahead of the curve, but beyond the curve. Wear them, and you would look invincible.

Mr. Gaultier’s name is most often associated with his embrace of showmanship and camp, but he could tailor a smoking so it seemed distilled to its essence. That was the seed Mr. Ackermann captured, and magnified.

Sometimes all it takes is a new perspective to make you rethink the familiar.

That was the idea of Viktor & Rolf’s needle-sharp show, anyway, in which the conceptualists riffed on the theme of a world turned upside down and sideways (sound familiar?) by taking classic couture ball gowns, all spun-sugar tulle and corsets, and turning them literally upside down and sideways, as if the earth had shifted on its axis.

The gowns looked as if they had been Photoshopped, except in three-dimensions, a technical feat that defied gravity — and went far beyond simple meme bait. Just as the underwater film by Iris Van Herpen, created in conjunction with the free-diver, dancer and filmmaker Julie Gautier, upended all notions of clothes, the body and the physical world to create a ballet of undulating forms and fabrics. They swirled not just up and down but sideways and all around in an ode to the freedom of self-expression that is one of the implicit values of the couture (and that is, Ms. Van Herpen pointed out, an increasingly precious commodity in many parts of the world).

Fendi, couture, spring 2023.Credit…Fendi

See the trompe l’oeil fabric treatments at Kim Jones’s terrific Fendi show, a parade of the lightest kind of lacy lingerie dressing interspersed with a series of metallic goddess gowns — the kind that dipped into the cultural whirlpool of both “Game of Thrones” and the 1990s — that turned out not to be lace or chain mail at all.

Rather they were slithers of material covered in thousands of tiny caviar beads; slip dresses made from the thinnest, supplest needle-punched leather; and cobweb knits that floated around the body like smoke: the purest examples of fashion alchemy.

It was this attempt to make the “impossible” actual that took Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino out of the familiar environs of the gilded salons of the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild and into a vaulted dance club in the bowels of the Pont Alexandre III, the bridge that links the Grand Palais on the Right Bank to the Invalides and Napoleon’s tomb on the Left.

That made him want to break the rules of propriety and good taste — “Good taste is the most boring thing,” Mr. Piccioli said in a preview — by smashing couture into club culture, taking the ball gown out of its comfort zone. Who says what you have to wear when and with what? These days, that’s a pretty loaded question.

Valentino, couture, spring 2023.Credit…Valentino

So sweeping taffeta and feather opera capes parted to reveal sparkling hot pants, and tuxedo jackets and ties topped bikini bottoms with a bow at the crotch. Highlighter green met tangerine met fuchsia met black; ruffles met nudity; one white wool column gown had holes cut out instead of polka dots. It was sort of like Cirque du Soleil and the House of Yes at the Bal des Débutantes. The opposites weren’t entirely reconciled, but at least they were having a dialogue.

Imagine that.

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