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Comme des Garçons Homme Plus AW16
Comme des Garçons Homme Plus AW16Photography Virginie Khateeb

How Paris’s designers paid tribute to a city still mourning

What can fashion do in the face of political crisis? In Paris this week, menswear designers showed that there’s one thing it can definitely do: comment

Arriving at the Gosha Rubchinskiy show last week in Paris, some guests had to cross beneath a bridge in order to make their way up to the venue’s entrance. It was a place where a group of men, presumably migrants, had erected a temporary camp – surrounded by rubbish, they reclined on mattresses in the cold, peering their heads out of tents at the well-heeled walking through their miniature neighbourhood. Oblivious to the irony of the backdrop, the street style photographers descended on the attendees like magpies, their beady lenses drawn to the promise of expensive clothes. You imagined they might have captured the kind of images that would win a Pulitzer, a tableau contrasting poverty and wealth, those who had fled their homes in search of a better life and those who were living it.

The moment was brief, but emblematic. This menswear season, particularly in Milan and Paris, designers have been grappling with the state of the world today, placing political, social and environmental issues at the fore of their collections. Miuccia Prada’s washed up sailors called to mind images of stormy seas like the ones which have dominated newsreels of recent months, while Rick Owens called his collection “Mastodon”, a tribute to its themes of extinction and ecological destruction. These shows were a kind of answer to the question of how luxury fashion, an industry with profit-making at its heart, can seek to comment on a world in crisis, and successfully tread the line between the authentic and the disingenuous. Two months after Paris was shaken by terrorism, the discussion of how fashion and politics can meaningfully coexist was certainly a timely one – how would one of the world’s fashion capitals respond to such violence on its own soil?

The November 2015 attacks were less a dark cloud than a kind of ghost that hung in the city – you could feel their shadow in the polite, letterheaded cards slipped in envelopes with invitations, firmly requesting that guests bring ID (which no-one actually checked). Or in the way security guards whizzed metal detectors over designer coats outside every show, asking people to empty pockets and open bags. And then there was the makeshift memorial that still remains around Place de la République, where flowers and flags and graffiti champion an unbroken spirit. In the shows themselves, references to the attacks varied from the explicit to the implied, as designers navigated the terrain of just how political or sentimental they could (or should) be.

Perhaps the boldest statement came from Belgian eccentric Walter Van Beirendonck, who this time last year revived an old phrase from a past collection as a response to a post-Charlie Hebdo Paris. “Stop Terrorising Our World” made another comeback this season, in a collection the designer called WOEST – or “furious” in his native Flemish. “I’m angry, furious about what’s going wrong in the world,” he said backstage, discussing both the migrant crisis and threat of terrorism, and explaining that things had gone from bad to worse since AW15’s statement. His show was a call to action, a way of using his platform to push an agenda. “I miss that in the fashion world, for example, there are fewer people who are standing up and who are saying, ‘Please do something about it’...I think that we should unite and try to find solutions.”

At Comme des Garçons Homme Plus, Rei Kawakubo offered less of a solution or rallying cry and more of a tribute to a world divided by violence – although she naturally stayed silent on the show’s inspirations. In looks that referenced suits of armour thanks to shoulder pads and articulated sleeves, her models were warriors of peace, with shiny silver metal replaced by finely embroidered silks. The boys wore elaborate floral headpieces in their hair created by the inimitable Julien d’Ys, which wove flowers with girlish plaits in contrast to the battle attire. For the show’s finale, they walked out holding bouquets of brightly coloured fake flowers in their arms, walking the space as if offering them to their audience. As the music swelled, it felt like a moving gesture to a city in mourning, the place where Kawakubo first broke into the mainstream back in the 80s, forever changing the fate of fashion.

Kim Jones also created something of an army for Louis Vuitton, with his show acting as an ode to the City of Light and the house’s home. Models donned greatcoats and army greens, with dogtag-style necklaces, and to top it all off, military berets, complete with a Louis Vuitton patch. “When we first looked at the berets, we were like, ‘Oh we can’t do that,’” said Jones, speaking backstage post-show of the dangers in dabbling with such a Parisian cliché. “But it worked.” His reference to the attacks was veiled in comparison to Van Beirendonck’s, but it was clear they were on his mind. “(With) all the things that happened in Paris…we should celebrate it even more,” he explained.

“These shows were a kind of answer to the question of how luxury fashion, an industry with profit-making at its heart, can seek to comment on a world in crisis, and successfully tread the line between the authentic and the disingenuous”

Finally, there was Balmain. Olivier Rousteing was his usual self in terms of design – dressing his male muses as Prince Charmings, they sparkled in Swarovski crystal-coated jackets and strutted in jodhpur-like sweatpants and equestrian boots. There was also a clear militaristic influence, translating the #BalmainArmy a little more literally. Towards the show’s end, the music turned more solemn, the orchestra at the foot of the catwalk performing the instrumental to Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” as a procession of black looks closed out the proceedings. It felt like a subtle, very Rousteing nod to the city he loves. “This singular eagerness to embrace a diversity of creations, cultures and ideas has, of course, continued over generations and centuries, lasting up to our present day,” read the show notes, describing Paris – “a fact that enrages intolerant minds both here and abroad.” The message was clear.

Through each of these shows, there was a common thread. Van Beirendonck discussed wanting to create a new subculture for today, and while he didn’t want to call them warriors, he spoke of how his gang were united by their differences. Kawakubo’s men were soldiers of peace, united not by war but by beauty, while Jones’ models were an army that paid tribute to the history and culture of Paris. Rousteing has always defined his vision by inclusivity, diversity and community, and this season was no different. When asked backstage what fashion, from its ivory tower, can do about the violence faced by the world today, Van Beirendonck was clear. “We can talk about it...I think that all people who have a voice who are creative, who have the power to say something, should do that.” With designers speaking not only through words but with clothes, music, and the theatre of fashion, that’s just what happened this week.