paris goes decadent
“It’s decadence as a lifestyle,” Dries Van Noten said on the second day of Paris Fashion Week, as Maison Margiela and Rochas joined him on a Wednesday of spectacular collections where opulence came with scratches in the surface.
Decadence is defined by a great love of opulence, but also by deterioration and neglect. In an ego culture of reality TV and social media often based on boasting about our glamorous experiences and possessions, the term has new and amplified meaning. We know the political climate isn't all diamonds and pearls. Ten years on, the global recession still casts a cautionary shadow over our material lives, and in Europe especially we're now constantly reminded of those destined to live their lives in devastating contrast to our own. Sometimes fashion has to be an exaggerated reflection of the zeitgeist, and on the second day of autumn/winter 16 women's shows in Paris some of the industry's best commentators flexed their pensive muscles. In what has to be one his finest and most impressive women's collections ever, Dries Van Noten put decadence on a pedestal and tested how far he - and we - could push it.
"It's decadence as a lifestyle," he said backstage, noting that the collection of regal leopard print, sumptuous red velvet, majestic faux furs, and more diamonds and pearls than you'd unearth at the Elizabeth Taylor residence, was a reflection of the stormy Edwardian relationship between the flamboyant Italian writer General Gabriele D'Annunzio and the eccentric socialite Marchesa Casati, so over-the-top she kept cheetahs as pets. "They really pushed each other, but they were never happy because they always wanted to go to the extreme and even more extreme. With this collection we wanted to translate that passion and just go for it," Van Noten explained. "D'Annunzio was really the ultimate dandy—for every situation he had a lot of outfits. It was fifty percent the Marchesa and fifty percent him." Launching into a big hug backstage, one formidable fashion critic clutched Van Noten's shoulders, locked eyes with him and told him resolutely: "This… was phenomenal."
It was the handsome woman, in tailcoats and ties and all the historic power those things represent—a kind of Marlene Dietrich character recognisable in so many swooning female guests at the show, who had turned up in Van Noten's menswear, or others in oversized camel coats or Vetements blazers. He got it so right. It was the perfect balance of everything he does best. But most importantly, it was rooted in something much deeper. Not even the eventual tones of Stravinsky could ease the unnerving throbbing of a woman's heartbeat on the soundtrack, recorded from the real heart rhythm of a model walking the show during rehearsals. For every look that came out - there were 65 - the decadence increased another notch, topping itself off again and again with more splendour: more bullion embroidery, more pearls, more fur, more more—until the tension in the room reached the point of overflow.
It was no doubt Van Noten's intention: how lavish can you get? In a time when we all seem to live like royalty of an era long gone, our decadence is striking and there are scratches in the surface. After his Maison Margiela show, John Galliano instagrammed a picture of look seven: a tarnished military tunic where every possible component had been replaced but the front canvas itself. The sleeves where swapped for what looked like Aran knit covered in white paint, the cuffs were now made of fur, the collar was knitted in teal blue, and white flounce peplums spouted out of the waist and sleeves. He hashtagged it simply "#synthesizedheritage", and it felt exactly like one of those derelict stately homes of old-old-old-money aristocrats, who hold on to their family seats but can't afford to refurbish them and instead try to piece old things together to make something appear new.
Some of us couldn't help but think of Port Eliot - the Cornwall castle of the Earl of St Germans, so tied to the fashion scene throughout the past decades - with its perfectly decadent interior, dilapidated but never abandoned. Likewise, the spirit of Isabella Blow - who'd be borrowing money from her housekeeper to take the train from her country estate to London, but would do it in a full Alexander McQueen look - was often in the air at the Grand Palais for Maison Margiela. Once again, Galliano had his audience in awe (the Wednesday of shows in Paris is really something these days), pondering just what was on the mind of this reclusive genius. It seems perhaps too obvious to automatically relate the season to the terror attacks that occurred in Paris last year, but for a designer like Galliano, who lives in the heart of Paris, his collection read like the image of a perfect world in pieces, something crumbling behind its gilded façade.
It was the notion of keeping it together: insisting on decadence, or possibly not being able to let go of a decadence so embedded in our minds and lifestyles in this age of too much excess. If there was more than a little escapism to that notion, it was echoed at Rochas where Alessandro Dell'Acqua changed things up with a cleaner, more casually chic look for the 20s fashion house. The new Rochas socialite seemed rooted in that ambiguous idea of 40s wartime glamour, but hints of 70s flower power and elegant whiffs of rock 'n' roll snuck their way in, similarly to Galliano's idea, synthesizing a sense of heritage glamour and creating a new expression, as romantic as the two shows that preceded it but with the same undertone of something a little bit melancholic. One shouldn't gush, but for a day of shows the Dries Van Noten-Maison Margiela-Rochas combo of decadence was pretty damned astonishing. You couldn't help but feel special getting to experience it.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Mitchell Sams