What you missed from a Paris Fashion Week like no other – Screen Shot
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What you missed from a Paris Fashion Week like no other

In the context of a global pandemic as well as socio-economic and political uprisings and movements around the world, fashion week seems like the last of our concerns. Regardless, like every year and every season, the fashion world put its spotlight on the city of lights from the 28 September until the 6 October as fashion houses presented their womenswear ready-to-wear Spring/Summer 2021 collections.

This year’s edition was radically different: due to the sanitary requirements and the travel restrictions linked to COVID-19, only a dozen brands decided to proceed with a physical show or presentation. Most of them chose to either retrieve themselves from the fashion calendar completely or present digitally instead.

As some houses successfully resonated with 2020 (at large) with such grace and relevance, some presentations and brand initiatives seemed out of touch. Here’s what you missed from this last Paris Fashion Week.

An uneasy feeling of disconnection

The few big houses that were still left in this season’s calendar seemed (very) disconnected, from Chanel’s Hollywood-inspired extravaganza at the Grand Palais, to Isabel Marant’s dance performance, beautiful collections or not, shows felt inappropriate in today’s context.

However, a few brands such as Dior made a little more effort to resonate with the current social environment. The fashion house invited the artist Lucia Marcucci, known for her feminist collages to emulate stained-glass windows as a backdrop for the runway with visuals inspired by today’s global circumstances. Louis Vuitton also aimed to be slightly more ‘inclusive’ by creating a visually impactful superlative live streaming experience that could be enjoyed by ‘everyone’ online.

Paris as a muse

This Fashion Week highlighted the creativity of small and independent houses and younger designers who adapted to the pandemic-related restrictions and made an effort to engage in meaningful conversations that resonate with today’s realities. Brands abandoned the idea of creating costly, unsustainable set productions.

To mention a few, the duo behind Coperni, Arnaud Vaillant and Sébastien Meyer, presented their SS21 collection on the second day of Paris Fashion Week on the top of the Montparnasse Tower, Paris’s tallest skyscraper, which offered a spectacular view to their guests. The collection emphasised technological innovation and the use of smart garments that protect our bodies: the technical jersey fabric used in Coperni’s new collection is antibacterial, moisturising and offers UV protection.

The brand AMI decided to present its women and men’s SS21 collection during Women’s Fashion Week in ‘real life’ on a beautiful Saturday evening. “This season, more than ever, it is important for us to come back to our roots and bring everyone together,” said founder and creative director Alexandre Mattiussi, adding that “Paris is AMI’s hometown and an essential part of its DNA. For Spring/Summer 2021, I really wanted to highlight it, its beauty, its energy, its elegance.”

AMI’s fashion show took place outdoors on the Quai Henri IV by the Seine river. The models walked down the runway with minimal lighting and Paris by night as a backdrop. The collection was faithful to the brand’s aesthetic, featuring black, navy and neutral colours along with the brand’s signature well-tailored pieces with a ‘twist’. The show was perfectly uplifted by the extraordinary street casting executed by Ibrahim Tarouhit, which was an ode to Paris and France’s diversity. The show featured new faces and unprofessional models that were scouted specifically for this occasion from all ages but also included emerging French musicians and artists such as Ichon, Lala &ce and Le Diouck, putting forward the next generation of creatives.

Political but optimistic

A multitude of other houses decided to use Paris as their source of inspiration but instead reiterated and prioritised the socio-political discourse of their shows, tackling issues such as the industry’s lack of representation and sustainability.

Koché, for example, presented its SS21 collection in Les Buttes Chaumont, one of Paris’ largest parks located in the 20th district. With the brand already being notorious for its sustainable and socially-conscious narrative, Christelle Kocher insisted on doing a physical show as “an act of resistance,” particularity in this park and in this neighbourhood where she lives, not because of its recent gentrification but because of its socio-economic heterogeneity. This initiative delivered a strong message: that we should all be able to enjoy mother nature equally and therefore we should preserve it collectively, indirectly addressing the question of environmental racism, urbanism and territorial disparity.

XULY.Bët decided to present its SS21 collection at L’aiguillage, an old train station rehabilitated by the brand’s founder and creative director Lamine Badian Kouyaté located in Ivry-Sur-Seine, in the outskirts of Paris. The theme of the collection, which was made out of upcycled pieces and fabric from the brand itself was centred around unity and positivism. This idea further reverberated through the show with Angela Davis’ quote, who opened the show stating that 2020 is not worse than other years, but that “we open our eyes to society’s dysfunctions” and because of this, “everything will change.”

Personality and family being at the core of Kouyaté’s work, the casting of the show, which included friends of the house, an ex-Miss France, French rapper Kalash and foil fencer Ysaora Thibus, was a tribute to the brand’s essence.

Austrian-Nigerian designer Kenneth Ize, who joined Paris Fashion Week last season, presented his SS21 collection featuring his cult signature stripes and bold colours at the Palais de Tokyo. Parisian artist Maty Biayenda was also invited to live-paint a gigantic canvas alongside the 3-hour presentation. Ize’s work and Biayenda’s painting were both a celebration of blackness intended as a message of cheery defiance against opponents of LGBTQIA+ rights in Nigeria, where homosexuality is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

Some houses, like Balmain, decided to have a subtler yet powerful socio-political stand. The brand’s SS21 collection, which featured both women’s and men’s styles, was presented in the Jardins des Plantes. The ‘phygital’ event mixed a physical audience with virtual guests. Usher was digitally present as well as Jennifer Lopez, Cindy Crawford and Anna Wintour to mention a few who watched the show from the comfort of their homes while their faces were projected on big screens across the physically attending guests.

Olivier Rousteing presented one of his best collections to date by bringing back Balmain’s monogram.  Shoulder pads and neon coloured ensembles were the panache and liveliness needed to exhilarate such a gloomy fashion week. The show opened with an old interview of Pierre Balmain speaking in English, talking about “l’élégance à la Française” and then The Weeknd’s hit ‘Blinded by the lights’ was blasted while the models were walking down the runway. With the dynamism of his collection and his optimism, merging pop culture, French savoir-faire, heritage and the beautifully eclectic casting, Rousteing powerfully illustrated what is (and should be) French élégance today: inclusive and a representation of the diverse society we live in.

This year, Paris Fashion Week emphasised like no other in the past the growing dissonance within the industry. Not only did it highlight a new generation of young designers and professionals ready to rework their companies’ ethos and business models to build a better future but, contrastingly, it also shed light on a more ‘old-fashioned’ part of the industry that, despite the effort it put into this season, is not completely ready to do the same introspective work.

Love it or hate it, at least this Fashion Week was refreshing. It felt like a step towards the start of building a more inclusive, sustainable and socially-conscious fashion industry. But this concerned the few physical shows we were lucky enough to attend. What about the brands that decided to go for digital presentations instead? I’ll have a look at this very shortly.

What will the future of fashion in a post-COVID world look like?

One thing I’m pretty sure we can all agree on regarding the current global COVID-19 pandemic is that there is no way we are going back to ‘normal’ as, clearly, the norm was not working. COVID-19 is like the domino-effect that shed light on all our socio-economic and environmental problems and deficiencies, one by one. The ongoing global pandemic has also exposed the flaws of the fashion industry—a sector notorious for capitalising on cultural appropriation, engaging in implicit and explicit forms of discrimination and using unethical and unsustainable production methods to gain profit.

The present-day context obliges us to do more than posting a black square and inspirational quotes on Instagram. How can we solve the problems of the fashion industry, once and for all? The answer is quite simple: build a new norm, together. Screen Shot spoke to the new generation of designers and business owners in order to understand their perspective on the future of fashion.

Building a new ‘normal’

As an independent designer, Nicola(s) Lecourt Mansion used the lockdown to reflect on her recently founded business. For Lecourt Mansion, the “the foundation has to be set” from the early stages of a business and with time “move forward with better values.”

Bethany Williams, whose eponymous brand core business-model is already primarily focused on social and environmental issues, had time to reflect and challenge her own work by thinking of repurposing her business and production channels in time of crisis. Williams has created the Emergency Designer Network (EDN) along with London-based designers Phoebe English and Holly Fulton to manufacture PPE garments for health workers. The initiative is “a volunteer-led endeavour created to galvanise local level production offering positive solutions.” According to Williams, fashion should evolve in the future towards contributing and empowering local communities.

For Parisian-based casting director and talent agent Ibrahim Tarouhit, in order to promote diversity and social and environmental consciousness in the fashion industry, it has to rethink its internal organisations and emphasise the role of HR departments and industry leaders to recruit people from diverse backgrounds in different roles. Only preaching diversity “on catwalks and in editorials” is not enough, Tarouhit claims.

The democratisation of fashion through digitalisation

The new normal should include making fashion accessible to everyone and to reorient the industry to focus on sharing creativity and empowering new and different voices rather than promoting and capitalising on privilege and social acceptance.

There were already a few initiatives launched prior to the pandemic aimed at breaking down the elitism of fashion weeks. The British Fashion Council (BFC) allowed people to purchase or win tickets to attend London Fashion Weeks. The BFC was also the first fashion council to digitalise June’s 2020 fashion week into a genderless, digital-only platform accessible to everyone. The platform features podcasts, short films and live performances.

However, the uncertainty of COVID-19 has pushed designers, event producers and the industry at large to rethink the current format of the traditional ‘runway plus online streaming’ format to create ‘phygital’ experiences. Phygital experiences are not new—the entertainment and gaming industries have already merged physical and digital interactions.

Examples of this include Animal Crossing and the partnerships Nintendo has developed with fashion powerhouses as well as digital fashion houses like the Fabricant, which collaborated with emerging designers such as Marques Almeida on creating digital-only clothing that can be worn in the game.

The digitalisation of the fashion industry is making it more accessible and democratic but, most importantly, it also allows us to consume fashion differently. Gaming product placements and virtual fashion both allow brands to build a new form of customer loyalty from a very young age and talk to a whole new audience in a way that never existed before. It’s a win-win situation.

The empowerment of independent fashion designers

Surprisingly, the pandemic also helped to put the spotlight on emerging and independent designers who, for a large majority, have already established their businesses based on social and environmental ethics. COVID-19 led to heated debates around climate change, social reform and after the global social uprising supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, the work of emerging independent designers was made more visible as their core values and initiatives organically merged with what people were (and still are) fighting for.

This context allowed emerging and independent brands to reach a more mainstream audience of sociopolitical and environmentally conscious consumers that are not necessarily fashion ‘avant-gardes’.

After the announcements that Saint Laurent and Gucci decided to present their collections off-schedule at least until the end of 2020, fashion councils like the CFDA and the BFC shared their concerns and urged advertisers to not desert official calendars as their absence could drastically impact the visibility of emerging and independent designers that heavily rely on advertising brands and houses paid trips of editors, stylists, celebrities to showcase their work.

This fear doesn’t seem to be shared by some independent designers who feel, on the contrary, that the pandemic has been and might be a great opportunity long-term to empower their businesses and separate them from the traditional fashion spectrum. “New talents don’t need to align with structural organisations of the fashion weeks to become successful,” because “being a young designer or an independent designer means that you are already existing without following the system,” explained Tarouhit.

Lecourt Mansion emphasized on the importance of fashion weeks but added that the absence of powerhouses might be beneficial to young and independent designers that are too often overshadowed. “As utopic as it may sound, [maybe their non-attendance will push fashion institutions to empower a new generation of creatives to] rise together and find better ways of creating, consuming, and have a positive change day by day.”

The fashion industry needs concrete, long-term actions, as words are just not enough anymore. Instead of trying to fix a broken system, maybe we should focus on building a new one from scratch to finally shift from that overwhelming and redundant one-way perspective and evolve towards an intersectional conversation leading to real change.