From legendary gay culture homage to shocking racial insensitivity – this Summer’s Paris Fashion Week packed in both hits and awful misses. Calum Gordon unpicks a few of both…

Summer collections always present a difficult challenge to designers and this past week in the French capital was no different. With fall/winter, all manner of interesting layers can be employed to creature fuller, more fleshed-out looks. Summer, however, requires restraint – jackets can’t be too heavy, thick plaids and wools are generally out of the question and, no matter how much silhouette tweaking goes on, shorts will never allow as much creative freedom as trousers do.

And so, the narratives upon which each collection is built take on far greater significance. If the winter shows are about selling outwear, summer is about selling stories – and those were both abundant and varied over the past few days.

The majority of these narratives largely reflected the current dichotomy within high-fashion, as labels try to reconcile an increasingly street-led consumer aesthetic with the traditional luxury model. Some achieved this perfectly, while others seemed painfully out of touch with a world of fashion that’s becoming increasingly diverse – both in a sense of race and class, but also in terms of choice. When contrasted with the abundant youthfulness of London Collections: Men, much of the Paris old guard’s efforts at capturing that spirit felt limp and contrived.

Perhaps the most blatant example of fashion existing in its own little bubble, devoid of any sense of the wider world, was at Junya Watanabe’s show on Friday morning. The complimentary coffee handed out by venue staff had barely begun to take effect before fashion’s own Rachel Dolezal moment appeared on the runway. The collection itself was beautiful and no one can doubt Junya’s ability to draw on a broad range of reference points to create something familiar yet unique, but it was not the clothes that were troubling.

Well, not entirely, at least. The collection – infused with all manner of traditional African textiles and accented by an array of traditional headwear and accessories – was modeled by an entirely white cast. In his review, Tim Blanks warned against “knee-jerk negativism” towards this blatant act of cultural appropriation, but that’s exactly what it was. And in an industry which has had a long history of whitewashed runways, such a faux-pas cannot just be swept aside. The show was in sharp contrast to Watanabe’s last offering, which saw a predominantly black cast model his monochrome interpretation of African Sapeurs, which is perhaps what made this all the more jarring.

But the awkward appropriation was not simply confined to the collections of Paris’s more established exhibitors. While Watanabe may have carelessly blundered what should have been a celebration of the rich colorfulness of African textiles, Virgil Abloh’s OFF-WHITE provided an even greater wince-inducing moment.

Perhaps the designer may look back on his last-minute decision to attach “working class” badges to each of his models with some regret. The whole collection followed a well-trodden path, with Abloh even applying scraps of old British Royal Mail uniforms to his “blue-collar” creations. But the application of these badges crossed over from inspiration to fetishization, particularly when it’s being used to hawk $470 shirts. It’s actually a shame that we’re talking about this, rather than Abloh’s apparent progression as a designer, as overall this felt like his best-executed men’s collection to date.

Maybe such pitfalls were why Raf Simons – under the microscope more than ever thanks to A$AP Rocky and Travi$ Scott’s legions of followers – chose to eschew his typical points of reference, instead presenting an homage to his grandfather’s wardrobe over his usual youth-tribe tendencies. Or maybe Raf has simply moved on as a designer, realising the difficulty of staying in touch with youth culture while acting as the head of Dior. Either way, while even Dries Van Noten was toying with bold graphics and pop-culture narratives, Simons was decidedly sombre.

In arguably the most impressive – and maybe most wearable – collection, Chitose Abe drew inspiration from the famous “Paradise Garage” of the ’80s. Her sacai label riffed on the same concepts that skate label Bianca Chandon has done recently, but the outcome was entirely different. The label’s layered chaos was designed to be a celebration of everything from grunge to gender equality. And while such an array of influences may seem scattered and maybe even flimsy, it was all negated by the sheer beauty of the former Watanabe prodigy’s clothes. Abe proved that deep backstories often pale into insignificance when the actual clothes are so well crafted.

While so many seemed obsessed with conjuring up concepts to inform their seasonal aesthetic, Pigalle’s presentation carried far more emotive weight, and yet it was the most natural of them all. Modeled by the label’s youth basketball team, which is coached by designer Stéphane Ashpool, the presentation brought about the idea that fashion need not be aloof. The whole event evoked what so many others have strived for in the past week – that rare, authentic blend where fashion meets the real world.

For more on Paris Fashion Week, read about why Paris remains the fashion capital.

Written by Calum Gordon for

Words by Staff
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