"A freak to me is something rare and sensational," Rick Owens said after his epic spring/summer 18 show on a Thursday in Paris that saw Louis Vuitton seeking out rare destinations and a rarely simplified Dries Van Noten.
Elevation is a term you hear a lot in fashion these days: 'elevating the basic', 'elevating the normal'... 'they really elevated that white t-shirt'. Streetwear now comes in limited edition en masse, but as avant-garde as raising the mundane may feel, is it really that uplifting? Fashion is fantasy and no matter how much you fetishise it, it's hard to believe a white t-shirt gives anyone wet dreams. With prophetic panache, Rick Owens turned his protests of seasons past into his dreamiest statement to date on Thursday afternoon in Paris, literally elevating fashion to its highest point. He covered the monumental courtyard of Palais de Tokyo in skeletal scaffolding and let his couture-like spring/summer 18 creations descend from the roof of the building -- his favourite in the French capital -- on an epic path towards a runway crossing the fountain.
"I need a freak," his Sexual Harassment soundtrack demanded. "He says, 'In this time of hate and pain, we need a remedy. I need a freak.' And a freak to me is something rare, sensational, inspired by the unusual," Owens said after the show, which took the codes of formal menswear to princely heights in extravagant duchesses, gazarres and cloqués, the stiff and majestic fabrics glistening proudly in the Parisian heatwave. "I'm seeing this normality in the world that's kind of being lionised and deified, and personally that's my refrain: I need a freak in life. I need to be surprised. I need effort. And I need things to be rare and not banal," Owens pontificated. "Celebrating the prosaic and conventional is amusing but it's not the spirit of my spirit. It's a little mean-spirited. A little snotty."
You needn't search long around the shows this men's season to see what he's referring to. The coolification of normcore that's taken over fashion in recent years is so intoxicating you now have people swooning over collections, which essentially look like high street casuals. The Emperor's New Clothes comes to mind, Hans Christian Anderson's story of a king so pretentious he paraded himself around naked in the end. As covetable as streetwear can be, fashion is design, not a pair of jeans, a white t-shirt and a Members Only jacket. "Clothes are aspirational, and putting mannequins on the highest level, it makes it more heroic. I'm not saying my clothes deserve that but I'm just saying that it's a moving thing to come together as a community, to have a moment that's aspirational, and that's what runway shows are. That's what I try to do, something positive," Owens proposed.
In recent seasons he's had people palpitating over couture-like giants, the sculptural works of art that have roamed his runways like the ultimate contrast to normality. This collection was different: it was easily 'wearable', it was even a summer collection, which we haven't seen much of amongst the winter coats this spring/summer season. And in that transition, Owens offered fashion something concrete: a more refined way of dressing where artisanal might, heart, soul and thought have gone into each garment, eons beyond the integrity that could ever go into elevating a wardrobe basic. This, Madame, was Versailles! A more civilised version of the real world.
"And when I was thinking about civilisation I thought about men's blazers and how I don't really want to wear a bomber anymore," Owens reflected. "I wanna wear something a little bit more disciplined and a little bit more formal to counterbalance this kind of sordid discord and chaos that we're experiencing. If my clothes are any kind of answer to that, it's just a little more formality. Blazers are really about being polite, and I don't see a lot of that being emphasised enough right now." His show wasn't just the most epic this season. It was one of the most epic shows ever. And in his respectable, sympathetic, and above all decent way, Rick Owens -- who was awarded the CFDA's Lifetime Achievement honour last month -- just went from fashion icon to cultural messiah.
Sitting there inside Palais de Tokyo's parvis looking up at those creatures descending from the skies in their regal tailoring, some of us definitely felt saved from normality. And as Owens reminded us, nodding to his freaky soundtrack, "I like a little bit of sleaziness. You can still be polite and sleazy!" Rarity had been on Kim Jones' mind at Louis Vuitton, too. "Someone gave me the book Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will. And I realised I'd been to about all of them," his show notes began. Fusing elements from extreme island sports like scuba leggings and trekking dusters with cliché tropical island motifs such as exotic floral prints, Jones brought his audience to lands far away -- something a little more unknown than our usual humdrum. A different kind of civilisation.
It was fashion for the fashion-thirsty; clothes for a social media generation looking for something rare and covetable. And you could literally pick out the statement pieces as they paraded in endless stream: the LV Hawaiian shirt, the LV scuba leggings, the LV bucket hat. This was instant fashion -- just add water. Hydration, of course, has been a hot topic here in Paris where temperatures reached record highs this week (37C to be precise) and designers have had to water their guests like never before. Rick Owens handed out black sun hats and fans, Dries Van Noten motorised mini fans and trolley-loads of ice cold drinks.
They were there, the snack trolleys, to cement his mundane office theme, framed by the surroundings of his venue, the high-rise former offices of French newspaper Liberation. If the businessman has been a recurring theme in menswear lately, Van Noten's incarnation was perhaps more quirky than corporate. He said he wanted an optimistic mood, which was easily detectable in the sunny colours that characterised his otherwise muted and stripped-down collection -- stripped-down for the normally so opulent Dries Van Noten, that was. There were still floral prints and the patterns you expect from the designer, but continuing last season's quieter point of departure this collection was loud in its silence.
"I wanted to see how far I could push colours for men, but I didn't want to do bright colours. I wanted to do terracottas and curries and pale yellows and put them together in a way that was attractive, even for a navy addict like me," he quipped. It was about shapes - "very simple shapes" - moulded by the colour combinations that made them fluid. "Clothes you know," he explained. "Coats, jackets, shirts, pants. Nothing's unexpected." Was this simplicity Van Noten's new normal? "It's not normality, but if you want to do colours you have to do rather normal clothes because otherwise you go to far."
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Mitchell Sams