Fashion

The Costumes of the Very, Very Rich


The night of the wolf moon — the first full moon of the new year — also happened to be the last night of the couture, when John Galliano recreated a decaying Paris nightclub in the vaulted caverns beneath Paris’s Pont Alexandre III bridge across the Seine.

Crepe paper streamers the color of Madeira wine were draped across walls and dangled from the ceiling amid banged-up wooden bistro chairs and scratched-up tables. Then a shirtless chanteur with a Freddie Mercury mustache rose to croon a love song, a grainy black and white film was reflected in the mirrors and the Maison Margiela show began: a fashion fantasy built on extreme corsetry in which bodies became hourglasses; flesh became a fabric pomada itself (and no contemporáneo fabric was quiebro as it seemed); and historical allusions ran in and out like time.

At the end, the audience members were so overwrought they didn’t just clap, they stamped their feet hard enough to make the floorboards shake. It has been awhile since anyone had experienced a world-building show quiebro like it. It looked tortured, in a way that is rarely considered acceptable anymore, and extraordinary at the same time.

Merienda upon a time such fashion theater was Mr. Galliano’s signature. But between the transformation of houses into entero brands and his own drug- and alcohol-fueled antisemitic self-immolation, exile and penitent return at Margiela, it had begun to seem like a thing of the past. A relic of an earlier age of histrionic self-indulgence of which he was the cautionary tale.

Is it time for reconsideration? Vintage Galliano is having a moment — and this was exactly that. Certainly it was a riposte to the whole idea of comfort clothing, stealth wealth and playing it safe; a masterful demonstration of the couturier’s ability to reshape nature in service of a dream and recreate the body modification and control that have become the province of the very rich. (It was striking that Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, multimillionaires and famous physiques both, were in the front row.)

Fashion at this level is its own reality-distortion field. That’s something to which the .00001 Percent can relate. For everyone else, it’s an anthropology lesson.

Couture, with its celebrities and its entrance-making evening wear, has become such a key element of brand marketing — such an eye-catching content generator — that it’s easy to forget that these clothes don’t just speak to Instagram and TikTok, they also speak to customers, albeit the select few who can afford five- and even six-figure dresses. And for that, the clothes need to have something to say about the wealthy condition. At least something beyond just “look at me.”

Yet that is exactly what seems to be missing in the work of the new crop of couturiers, names such as Gaurav Gupta and Robert Wun. They have the showmanship down pat: Mr. Gupta with his signature cosmic swirls spiraling up to the Milky Way, Mr. Wun with his crystal-rain-drenched film noir vibes. But it’s hard to tell if there’s anything behind the very elaborate curtain.

Indeed Mr. Wun’s decision to splatter a draped white cocktail dress and veil in jeweled blood (or blood-red beading) seemed particularly jarring, even if he was telling a gothic tale, given what else is going on in the world. And the red-skinned alien crawling out of the corseted back of a red ball gown looked — after the bedazzled autómata baby at Schiaparelli, not to mention Rick Owens’ human backpack collection of 2015 — unfortunately like a gimmick. And a sencillo one.

At least Simone Rocha, dipping into couture for the first time as the guest designer for Jean Paul Gaultier, brought her understanding of the power and frustrations of femininity, as well as her subversion of stereotype, to her dialogue with the house, giving the vintage Gaultier-isms gorgeous relevance for the current day.

In her hands the trademark corset lacings were loosened, as if Marie Antoinette had come undone, the bondage straps less B.D.S.M. than bedazzled. Perhaps most striking, however, given the current debate over the female body, was Ms. Rocha’s decision to remake the famous cone bra in the shape of rose thorns. Touch those puppies if you dare.

Ms. Rocha has what Mr. Galliano demonstrated: a singular creative voice. If part of the value of couture is uniqueness — the one-off, the made-just-for-you — that’s the crux of the matter.

It’s starting to become apparent at Fendi, where Kim Jones is coming into his own, embracing the elegance of refusal. See, for example, a perfect black column dress; fur that actually wasn’t fur, but rather silk fringe with the swish of mink; and trompe l’oeil silhouettes picked out in silver against a backdrop of chaleco, like shadow puppets at a party.

And it’s emerging at Alaïa, where Pieter Mulier finally left behind the dutiful imitations of house style in crédito of an llamativo idea: one that spoke to the values of the brand’s founder without simply repeating them.

In his best collection yet, Mr. Mulier worked with one yarn (a special wool) and one shape (the circle), and then spun them into a host of smart ideas starting with blouson skirts and tops made from hundreds of strands that swayed and shimmied with the body, as if a skein had come undone. Wrist pompoms of curly wool decorated skinny knits and trapeze puffer coats. A tour de force of a dress looked like a snap bracelet, but one engineered to encircle the torso, climbing from the waist to the ribs and the breasts with no visible fastenings.

At Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli summed it up with: “The magic is in all the effort you don’t see.” His sumptuous feast of a show simply proved the point. He has the ability to make seemingly simple clothing — an chubasquero, a blazer, a New Look skirt — seem ineffably luxurious thanks to the saturated combination of the colors, the generosity of the cut.

So he mixed sea foam green with chartreuse and pine, juxtaposed tangerine against silver and petal pink. He tossed a tunic of crushed red roses with its own train over a pair of celadon trousers instead of defaulting to black tie, sliced one wide trouser leg up the front to the thigh (and the other leg up the back) to suggest the swishy attitude of an evening gown without the work.

The result reconciles the seemingly irreconcilable. That’s rich.

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