At around peak rush hour on the penultimate day of the couture shows a line of black cars snaked out of Paris, past grassy fields and factories 30 miles north to the 16th-century Château de Chantilly. Guests in brightly colored plumage were disgorged to teeter down a long stone walkway that opened to a vista of reflecting pools and manicured lawns set around a central fountain surrounded by a labyrinth of benches. That was where, as golden hour set in, a magic Valentino show began — with Kaia Gerber in a pair of jeans and a white shirt.
Granted, they weren’t just any jeans: they were made from silk gazar entirely embroidered in micro beads dyed 80 different shades of indigo to resemble denim, but still. Abracadabra.
They looked like jeans.
Jeans — or their very fancy doppelgängers — have been the biggest trend of the week. Aside from those opening jeans, the Valentino collection also included upcycled Levi’s from the 1966 rare big E edition appliquéd in gold, worn with a plunging sleeveless white shirt and a nubby knit coat in deep sapphire blue shrugged off to the elbows so it slithered behind like a train.
There were more jeans, likewise made from trompe l’oeil beading, in the Jean Paul Gaultier collection guest designed by Julien Dossena, and lots of jeans in all stages of distress at Balenciaga, which also were not denim at all but oil-painted canvas that took two and a half months to create.
Couture in jeans, from left, Valentino, Jean Paul Gaultier by Julien Dossena and Balenciaga.Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times (Valentino), Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images (Gaultier by Dossena), Balenciaga (Balenciaga)
The idea of high-luxury faux jeans is not exactly new — Matthieu Blazy transformed leather into denim for his Bottega Veneta debut a year ago — but it may represent, more than any mega ball gown, where all of this is heading. It sounds bizarre, like a desperate couture attempt at streetwear, or worse, like a Marie Antoinette playing-at-shepherdess scenario (both of which are not out of the realm of the possible). But, in fact, what the jeans really signal is a shift back to a more essential way of approaching couture.
Which is to say less as a look-at-me crystal-bedecked attention grab, and more as an inside story; clothes that are like a secret only the wearer would know, because only the wearer knows how much work it took to make something so apparently simple. Something that is literally impossible to make, except by hand. In the advent of the age of A.I., that may be the most precious thing of all.
Indeed, “casual couture,” as Demna called it backstage after his Balenciaga show, or “couture you don’t see,” has been a hallmark of the season. Given the real civil and economic unrest outside the couture bubble, that’s both a strategic move — this is not a time to be a walking advertisement for wealth and privilege — and a creative one.
At Chanel, Virginie Viard set her show on a cobblestone bank by the Seine, and sent her models strolling out (as at Valentino, many of the models wore flats, or semi-flats), carrying straw baskets of flowers as though they just happened to pop out to an open air market in their bouclé. As one does!
One model in a red jacket was walking the designer’s sister’s dog. There were some frumpy proportions — skirts that ended just below the knee — but the best looks were embroidered in jeweled fruits and flowers, like a picnic in the park.
And at Gaultier, while Mr. Dossena (otherwise known as creative director of Rabanne, formerly Paco Rabanne) referenced a number of familiar Gaultier-isms such as marinières and cone bras, he also leaned into lesser-known collections like the spring 1988 Concierge show for inspiration. The result combined chain mail with floral aprons, layered sheer embroidered frocks over transparent trompe l’oeil bodysuits (complete with beaded merkins), decorated rabbinical greatcoats and generally created a bricolage version of a “crowd of characters.” Like the kind you see every day, like the world outside the window.
There were holdouts, of course, most notably Giorgio Armani, whose Armani Privé show was a long ode to the rose in velvet, shimmering sparkles, sequins and chiffon. Though even there one plain, long-sleeve black velvet gown, backless save for a string of red roses down the spine, was so compelling, it served as the exception that proved the rule.
A Vaccine for Fashion
“If I can give the idea of fashion and equality in the setting of a castle, then the medium and the message have collided,” Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli had said during a show preview to explain how he had ended up at Chantilly, and why, instead of leaning into the royalty of it all (which would have been the obvious choice), he was subverting the surroundings with clothes that were gorgeously lush and tactile, but still seemed as shrugged on as a pair of sweats.
Valentino, couture, fall 2023.Credit…Top: Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times; bottom, Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Like you just woke up one morning and pulled on a white dress, knit on the bias and covered in matte sequins, that slouched off one shoulder like a workout top, to make your coffee. Or tossed on a ruby cashmere coat like a bathrobe to run out and fetch the mail.
Oh, this old silver-beaded tank top? This feathered frock? I just grabbed what came to hand! Dresses were made from a single piece of fabric, twisted at the waist. Everything seemed weightless. The point was to change the hierarchy of aesthetics.
That’s part of what Demna has been doing since he arrived at Balenciaga, and certainly since he restarted the brand’s couture three seasons ago. This collection dutifully continued that work, rather than moved it dramatically forward, with a focus on silhouette — funnel-shaped necklines in tuxedo dresses and suits narrowing down to a point at the ankle — and trompe l’oeil used not only on denim but on faux fur coats that only looked like lynx or sable.
Balenciaga, couture, fall 2023.Credit…Balenciaga
Overcoats and scarves were molded to appear frozen mid-gale (buffeted by the slings and arrows of public opinion?). Two dresses were made from thousands of loose silk threads, like a curtain; another crimson lace gown was sculpted into a bell shape, though there was nothing underneath to keep it in place. The final look was an armored dress 3-D printed in galvanized resin, coated in chrome and lined in flocked velvet. Hello, Jeanne d’Arc.
The obvious connection was “life is a battle,” or to the brand’s own battles of late last year (celebrities, at least, seem over the issue: Cardi B, Offset and Michelle Yeoh were front row; Isabelle Huppert walked in the show). But then Demna also said after the show that he believed couture was a sort of “antivirus” for fashion; for the “fake creativity” and “endless marketing and selling and all this blah, blah that has cannibalized, I think the whole industry.” Then he compared couture to the Moderna vaccine, come to save the day.
The problem is, there’s nothing easy about that: not to make, or to wear. Is it enough to inoculate everyone against the move toward fashion-tainment that seems inexorable? Doubtful. But when it works, it’s a gorgeous reminder.
As Viktor & Rolf put it — literally — in a 30th anniversary collection that featured a whistlestop tour through their past show concepts, all remade in the form of bathing suits: “Dream On.”