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Not In Paris is back for its latest edition. Shop the collection on June 19 from the Highsnobiety Shop and iOS App.

Paris is still getting dressed. Roads are closed and scaffolding is up in the final months of a massive makeover for the Summer Olympics. Renovating and repurposing the city’s architecture for a global event is complicated and expensive, but Paris actually goes through this on a smaller scale four times a year. Every fashion week, brands and designers take over iconic spaces around the city, transforming Paris’s built environment into platforms for their visions. 

Architecture is an integral part of any fashion show. Buildings provide context for clothes to pop against – an effect that’s especially pronounced in Paris. Chanel at the Grand Palais, Rick Owens at the Palais de Tokyo, Balenciaga at some fringe convention center near the airport. Every show is an engagement with Parisian architecture that allows designers to tap into the city's style, heritage, and cultural power. As Gonzalo Herrero puts it, “If you miss the architecture factor, you miss half the purpose of the fashion show.”

Herrero is a trained architect, a curator at the Serpentine Gallery and a lecturer at Central St. Martins, where he teaches a course on the longstanding relationship between architecture and fashion.There’s a seriously impressive list of designers who transitioned to fashion after studying architecture: Tom Ford, Virgil Abloh, Pierre Balmain, to name a few. Balmain famously described dressmaking as “the architecture of movement,” and today we may look at the way a dress flows off the body and describe the silhouette as “architectural.” Architecture certainly influences how people design clothes. But  It obscures the very real capital-A Architecture—like, actual buildings—has an equally strong impact on how we consume fashion. 

That impact is especially potent in Paris, where fashion and architecture have been intertwined for centuries. Louis XIV has been credited as the inventor of the modern fashion industry. Here he is dressed to kill in 17th century bloody shoes. 

Portrait of Louis XIV, Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701, Wikimedia Commons

The Sun King invested heavily in turning France into the leading exporter of fashion and luxury goods, promoting French style at home and abroad. He also transformed Versailles from a royal hunting lodge into a lavish palace and France’s de facto seat of government. When he moved his court there in 1682, he brought fashion and architecture together by instituting strict rules of decorum. The Baroque style of Versailles established a hyper-opulent standard that courtiers were expected to meet, and Louis XIV was constantly changing up the dress code. This wasn’t a game—it was a calculated move to advance his commercial and political interests. Historian Sarah Barringer notes that the cost of dressing for Versailles literally bankrupted the French nobility—if you came to court, you had to come correct, no matter the cost. Forcing his court to spend oodles on clothes  weakened their ability to oppose him while gassing the French economy—one third of French workers were working in clothing and textiles under his rule. 

Two hundred years later, at the first Paris Fashion Week in 1973, the now legendary Battle of Versailles mimicked a similar spectacle. Five French and five American designers competed for clout while raising 1.2 million francs for the renovation of the palace.

“This was one of the first examples of using a space separate from the headquarters hosting a massive fashion show,” says Herrero. Celebrities packed the audience, Josephine Baker sang, designers brought extraordinary clothes and amped up personalities. And just like 17th century France, money and power were in the air.

The Battle of Versailles exemplifies the most straight-forward relationship between architecture and fashion in Paris, when brands tap into opulent, beautiful, and historical settings to lend the same aura to their clothes. But it’s not always about finding the most lavish palais with availability. There’s something of a spectrum between tradition and iconoclasm, and where a designer shows (and how their clothes interact with the space) can tell us something about where they stand.

At the classical end of the spectrum, we have the grand historical buildings of Paris, the shows in Versailles or the Louvre or the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Buildings like these allow designers to play with concepts of tradition and legacy. When Marc Jacobs showed with Louis Vuitton over the years at the Cour Carrée, he tapped into the historical power of the Louvre’s main courtyard and Renaissance style; when Raf Simons showed in the same space with Dior (SS15), he staked a claim not just to that aesthetic but to Jacobs’s legacy.

The Grand Palais and its long standing relationship with Chanel is the best example of this dynamic. Closed since 2021 for renovation, the building is reopening for the Paris Olympics, where it will host taekwondo and fencing. When it does, visitors will come into its spectacular nave through an entrance newly named after Gabrielle Chanel.

The Paris Air Show (Salon International de l'Aeronautique et de l'Espace', held at the Grand Palais in Paris, circa 1909., Chanel Fall/Winter 2017-2018 Haute Couture collection on July 4, 2017 in Paris, France.
Getty Images / Royer / Paul Thompson / FPG, Getty Images / PATRICK KOVARIK / AFP

The Grand Palais is a sprawling, 77,000 square meter blend of styles designed by four architects at the turn of the 20th century. The nave, designed by Henri Delgane, boasts the largest glass roof in Europe and has hosted some of the most important cultural events in French history. Chanel is the chief sponsor of the renovations, donating 25 million Euro to the effort. But while it may be Coco Chanel’s name on the door, it was Karl Lagerfeld who turned the Grand Palais into a fashion playground. Under his direction (with help from set designer Stefan Lubrina), Chanel turned the Grand Palais into a supermarket, a forest, a rocket launch, and more—15 years of spectacle. “I was always expecting that show,” said Herrero. “The Grand Palais has everything. It has the character, it has the location. It’s a blank canvas that you can transform.” 

Though it will host the Olympics, the Grand Palais won’t fully reopen until next year. When it does, Chanel will have a bigger space to play in. Francois Chatillon, of Chatillon Architectes, one of France’s few “Chief Architects of Historical Monuments” (a selective French certification for architects approved to protect, preserve, and promote architecture of national significance), has modernized much of the building while tripling its capacity. “We demolished more than we built,” Chatillon said, “The middle part of the building was totally divided and no one had been able to see it since 1937. Now you can see the beautiful structures of the building.” 

More importantly, an essential piece of the city will be back. Paris isn’t Paris without it. That’s what drew Lagerfeld to it. The Grand Palais, like his clothes, were rooted in a deep appreciation for the history of Chanel and Paris. As William Middleton puts it in Paradise Now, his biography of Lagerfeld, the choice to show in the Grand Palais meant “Chanel was now a national monument and it deserved to be shown in a national monument.”

On the other end of the spectrum are designers who reject Paris’s more traditional architecture for modern buildings or lesser known spaces. Consider the Centre Pompidou, the cultural center designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. Whether you call it structural expressionism, high-tech architecture, or simply postmodernism, the building is defiantly bulky and colorful. The building’s plumbing and heating are famously visible from the outside. When it was completed in 1977, it was a confrontational statement. 

Fashion designers have since tried to harness the disruptive energy of the Pompidou to reinforce their work. The most famous example is Yves Saint Laurent, who showed his final collection there in 2002. Choosing the Pompidou over a more traditional building like the Grand Palais suggests a look to the future rather than a glance in the rearview (and makes for a nice contrast with the sensibility of his rival Lagerfeld). When Stella McCartney shows at the Pompidou (SS23), the functional, industrial aesthetic of the building pulls forward the technical aspects of her fashion, giving a boost to the sustainable philosophy that undergirds the making of her clothes. And when Nicolas Ghesquière recreated the Pompidou inside the Louvre for LV (AW19), you got a big messy mashup of tradition and contemporary color.

However, the most disruptive architectural work of Paris Fashion Week in recent memory barely happened in Paris: Balenciaga’s SS23 show at the Parc des Expositions de Villepinte. You know, the one where everything was covered in mud? This was a bizarre location choice, an exposition center closer to Charles de Gaulle than Rue. st. Honore, likely chosen because it’s the only place where Balenciaga could dump 275 cubic meters of dirt. 

This kind of work, whether you call it an activation, an experience, or an intervention lands directly at the intersection of fashion and architecture. It’s telling that Balenciaga tapped Berlin-based architecture studio Sub to execute its muddy collaboration with conceptual artist Santiago Sierra. In his show notes, Balenciaga creative director Demna wrote that the show was about “digging for truth,” but the location and concept are more about separation. Balenciaga insists on its difference through literal distance and nontraditional architecture.

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But not every show sits at an extreme end of tradition or disruption. Sometimes the most powerful synergies between fashion and architecture emerge from the tension between new and old. That’s especially true today at two particular buildings: the Bourse de Commerce and the Palais de Tokyo.

“There’s always a new cool building in the city,” says Herrero. Right now, that building is La Bourse de Commerce, the former stock exchange that now serves as the Paris home of the Pinault Collection. The circular structure, designed by Nicolas de Mézières and opened in 1767, was hailed as revolutionary and has proved enduringly popular for centuries. But the buzzy new addition is a massive concrete cylinder designed by Tadao Ando. Ando is a modern master, a minimalist just as likely to show up in a university lecture as he is in your Instagram feed or Vampire Weekend lyrics. He was introduced to Francois Pinault by Karl Lagerfeld in the ‘90s, and has since worked on several buildings for the billionaire. In the Bourse de Commerce, Ando’s structure reinforces the layout of the building, playing to its historical strengths while maximizing the natural light pouring through the glass ceiling. The concrete looks paradoxically soft. 

"Bourse de Commerce - Pinault Collection," the New Foundation of the Art Collection of Francois Pinault on May 14, 2021 in Paris, France.
Getty Images / Luc Castel, Getty Images / Luc Castel

“When I saw it, I knew there would be a fashion show there,” Herrero said, and so there have been. Anthony Vaccarello has shown his last two menswear collections for Saint Laurent at La Bourse de Commerce. Ando’s structure is undeniably distinctive, but the concrete is subtle so that the clothes pop. The cylinder makes for an interesting route, with all the models visible as they make their way around. Most importantly, the fusion of old and new inherent to the latest iteration of Bourse de Commerce reflects Vaccarello’s updated Saint Laurent and the way he blends silhouettes across mens and womens lines. In short, it’s a perfect fit.

Still, Saint Laurent has only shown at the Bourse de Commerce for two years. While it’s reasonable to expect the brand will show there for years to come (Pinault founded Kering, Saint Laurent’s parent company), the most powerful interplays between fashion and the architecture of Paris build over time. When a designer returns to a space again and again, their style develops against a constant backdrop. In some cases, a brand may even leave its own mark on the space. Chanel and the Grand Palais are a great example of this—a run of ever-more elaborate shows, culminating in a name on the door. But today, the best example of this dynamic is a 15 minute walk west at the Palais de Tokyo, where Rick Owens has been showing since 2017. 

Built in 1937 for the Exposition internationale, the Palais de Tokyo is home to two museums, the Paris Museum of Modern Art and the “site for contemporary creation,” an exhibition space with no permanent collection. The goal was to create something that was modern but not too modern—four young architects were chosen over a design by Le Corbusier. The resulting structure was a concrete Art Deco building oddly connected by a Neoclassical colonnade and fountain plaza overlooking the Seine.

Unlike the Bourse de Commerce, the Palais de Tokyo was decidedly not a hit. People hated it. They found the floor layout confusing and complained about the staircases; they hated that it was two museums in one. The Centre Pompidou was designed and built in no small part because people wanted to see modern art someplace else. 

People were wrong, though. The Palais de Tokyo is one of the most striking spaces in Paris, and its weirdness is its greatest strength. That’s even truer today than it was 90 years ago thanks to renovations by Pritzker Prize winners Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, who didn’t so much transform the building as open it up, peeling back decades of additions and renovations to reveal the foundational materials. The result is a space that feels both alien and inviting, like you’ve stepped into a Tarkovsky film.

The highlights, however, remain the grand staircase and the fountain of the southern plaza where Rick Owens stages his fashion shows. There’s some major theatricality to the massive reliefs by Antoine Bourdelle of the nine muses, which makes all that concrete feel alive. It’s a little rundown—you’ll spot graffiti tags and cracked pavement—which somehow adds to its allure. Looking at it from the street, you forget there’s practically a postcard of Paris behind you—a view of the Eiffel Tower from the river. It’s a fine realization of the building’s original intent—something new and old, classically French but globally relevant. 

That’s why it’s the perfect place for Rick Owens. An American in Paris, he bridges traditions. He’s one of those designers whose work is often described as “architectural” for its pronounced sense of structure—tellingly, he does sculpture and furniture in addition to fashion. The clothes are black and brutal, which makes a stark contrast with the faded concrete in and out of the building. And crucially, unlike Lagerfeld’s over-the-top activations at the Grand Palais, his shows have relatively little production. The building is the set.

The fit is so good that you can feel Owens’s influence in the air when you visit. The fountain serves as an impromptu skate park. On a Saturday afternoon, you’ll see kids there who look like they wish they were wearing Rick. There’s a youthful defiance matched with a sense of taste—not everyone likes the Palais de Tokyo, but everyone there knows it’s the place to be.

So striking is Owens’s relationship with the Palais de Tokyo that we asked him about it. He graciously responded, in his trademark caps: “THE PALAIS DE TOKYO IS AMONG THE TOP ART DECO ARCHITECTURAL FANTASIES OF PARIS, ALONG WITH THE TROCADERO AND PALAIS DE LA PORTE DORÉE……(WHICH HAS AN ALBINO ALLIGATOR LIVING IN THE AQUARIUM UNDERNEATH IT…!). ATTEMPTING TO LIVE UP TO ITS GLORIOUS VALHALLA SYMMETRY AND SCALE HAS BEEN ONE OF THE JOYS OF MY LIFE.”

Glorious Valhalla symmetry—damn straight. But what really jumps out in this quote is a sense of respect. Owens isn’t using a building or renting a space—he’s living up to a legacy. That appreciation, whether it’s the historical awe of Chanel or the impish provocations of Balenciaga, is what really brings fashion and architecture together. A real love for the hard, built reality of Paris makes fashion and the city better. That relationship has shaped France for 350 years, and you can see it from the street any time you’re there.

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