Harvey Weinstein Casts a Shadow on Dior and Saint Laurent

PARIS — Anyone walking into the Christian Dior show on Tuesday morning — the day after a New York jury delivered a landmark verdict in the sexual assault charges against Harvey Weinstein that was also a landmark moment in the #MeToo reckoning — would have been forgiven for thinking they were about to experience one of those magical moments when fashion and reality collide in the best possible way. A way that can redefine identity and women’s reality, and how both are expressed through what we put on our bodies.

After all, hanging over a floor paved in newsprint pages from the last few weeks was neon sign after neon sign proclaiming “When Women Strike the World Stops,” “Women’s Love is Unpaid Labor” and a blinking series: “Consent,” “Consent,” “Consent.” And sitting in the front row, a whole series of Hollywood actresses: Andie MacDowell, Sigourney Weaver, Demi Moore.

Yes, Ms. Chiuri is an Italian designer at a French house; Mr. Weinstein’s trial may not have resonated quite so far. It is possible the collision of scene setting and current events was really just a coincidence. But if so, a lucky one, right?

Well ….

Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first female designer to run the house, has deliberately, and loudly, put feminism and amplifying other women’s voices at the heart of her work since she joined Dior. This time she enlisted an artist, Claire Fontaine (actually a couple who work under the assumed name), to create the signs and the floor, as a sort of installation based on the manifesto of the Italian art critic Carla Lonzi’s Rivolta Femminile collective.

That was written around the same period as Ms. Chiuri’s childhood feminist awakening in the 1970s, when she saw women come to her mother’s atelier because they wanted to dress differently as a way of expressing their new, liberated identities. Hence the connection between past and present.

And hence the collection, a parade of relatively relaxed throwback mini- and midi-skirts and long vests in blanket plaids, often worn with jackets and skinny little ties (also a reference to Marc Bohan’s tenure at Dior, in the same period); knit Bar jackets and jumpsuits (those were good); faded denim and branded puffers; and slipdresses confected out of hairy silk fringe.

Also the now-de rigueur at Dior message T-shirt: “I say I.” And some visible Dior-branded bras. All of which looked easy to wear, although why we would want to dress in the uniform of second wave feminism when we are well into the fourth is not entirely clear. In the end, it was unsatisfying. What’s going on is major. These clothes were minor.

Despite her window dressing, Ms. Chiuri has never really tried to expand her concept of what female empowerment in fashion could be by forcing Dior beyond its own borders; despite her literary touchstones, she has never tried to rewrite the terms. And to miss that, especially now, is to miss a very, very big step.

ImageSaint Laurent, fall 2020
Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

It’s not that fashion should stay away from current realities; it should embrace big ideas and big events.

It’s not better to seem so blind to the nuances of the moment that, like Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent, you build an entire collection on one idea — the dominatrix in the C-suite; the fetish fantasies of the bourgeoisie — and then express it in endless iterations of latex leggings (in oily black, lipstick red, nail polish blue), latex pencil skirts and matching latex thigh-high boots. All of them so tight they look as if you would have to scrape them off with a knife; all paired with big-shouldered gold-buttoned tweed blazers in YSL shades of brown, mustard, brick red and purple.

There were some latex halter tops too, and sheer lace bra tops, some leather and feather chubbies, and then more latex in push-up bombshell dresses and halter ruffle-necked cocktail numbers, the dichotomy between sex and self-conscious stolidity leavened only a little by a terrific periwinkle chiffon cocktail frock, a ruby velvet dress and the occasional culotte-and-sheer-pussy bow-blouse combo.

Still, it wasn’t enough to erase the memory of all that latex. A fabric that smacks not just of clichéd ideas of sexuality from a time buried at the end of the last century (Helmut Newton was there; we have the photograph) — a time that we now know was not exactly empowering for many women, who are only now speaking up — but which also seems directly attached to the male gaze. (Also an era before climate awareness in fashion became a core value, especially at YSL’s parent company, Kering. Though maybe all that PVC is recyclable, if not biodegradable.)

In his show notes Mr. Vaccarello said: “For Saint Laurent, elegance is mandatory but it also goes with perversity; one without the other would only be plain bourgeoisie or vulgarity.” As a designer, Mr. Vaccarello has often proved himself talented at walking that tightrope. But both elegance and perversity get redefined as eras evolve. Show me the woman — other than Kim Kardashian West — who wants to live her life in latex (because, as with Dior, this collection was heavy on the day wear) and I’ll show you a bridge for sale.

If you are going to step into the arena, you need to get beyond lint-picking through your own archive. As President Emmanuel Macron said at a dinner in honor of the French fashion week and its designers that was held on Monday at the Élysée Palace, fashion can — and should — engage in a dialogue with the world.

Though the conversation needs to be coherent, unlike Bruno Sailelli’s somewhat headspinning discourse at Lanvin on poetry, perfume, childhood, tailoring and the 1960s in the form of neatly constructed bandleader coats and capes, flyaway trapeze frocks, ruffled Toulouse-Lautrec high-low hemlines and bejeweled jersey sheaths set among fairy tale Gobelin tapestries.

That is why Felipe Oliveira Baptista’s Kenzo debut, an elegantly bush-wacking parade of nomads in desert hats and boots, rose-print camo parachute dresses, tiger knit tunics, leather and sleeping-bag skirts, was promising. It had shed the extraneous babble, and begun to rebuild from the rubble.

And it is why Marine Serre’s multidimensional Divine Comedy, a narrative in fashion form that imagined a “a futuristic wormhole … way beyond Euclidean space” (excerpts from the short story that was the show notes) and then provided the clothes for it, was so compelling. It didn’t just look at where we have been, or even where we are, but where this all might lead.

Populating her runway with characters — a “reverend sister-hoodie;” a “black ball-skirted messenger;” “a clan of regenerated knitwear” (which probably sounds silly but looked great) — she chopped up the past and present (often literally: half of her fabrics are now upcycled) to create a visible future. Gray jersey was spliced into lacy tablecloth linens in bias lines; houndstooth checks formed floor-sweeping double-breasted princess coats; puffers swallowed the head like a turtle retracting into its shell; Fair Isle knits of all kinds were patchworked into regal robes.

There were jeweled face masks and down-filled sleeves with slots for a phone (or a tracking beacon — it wasn’t clear), tribal faux furs and finally, ruffled explosions of fuchsia going every which way, like the promise of a new day. Which is also, at its best, the promise of fashion. It was weird and beautiful, unsettling and also familiar.

What’s next? This is. The word that came to mind was: yes.