It’s a massive brawl to get into some of the top fashion shows in Paris, or anywhere for that matter. Pushing, shoving, pecking orders and who’s sitting where. The crowds are no longer just the fashion flock but hangers-on, fashionistas, celebrities, plenty of ploucs—and a few customers who might buy. Then there is the gauntlet of the paparazzi, hungrily scanning the crowd for “stylish” women, who often are in get-ups so outré they look like clowns. And the cameras go wild over them—and even wilder when one of the top fashion editors makes her entrance after she’s changed into a new outfit and had her hair beautifully coiffed.
Once inside comes a monumental shock. Chanel, in the Grand Palais—one of the most beautiful buildings in Paris—has built a stage set with a huge globe in the center. It must have cost a fortune, and comes only a month after it transported all its followers to a castle in Scotland for a magical show.
Chanel isn’t the only one. Louis Vuitton literally built a train for its March 2012 show, while Dior used a million flowers—peonies, roses, dahlias, goldenrod, orchids, delphiniums—for its fall 2012 couture show. Fashion’s new megasets can cost up to $8 million apiece, which is almost terrifying when you think that this is simply to show clothes, not art.
What are these brands trying to do? Is it the ego of the designers to have these big shows? Is it to increase sales? Please the customers? Or is it just plain ordinary fashion-show business?
As I fight my way to my seat I imagine that Karl Lagerfeld has pulled out his bullwhip and is the Circus Master getting the crowd, his staff and the models ready to parade. And the crowd is like circus animals: There are lions, tigers, a few bears, some peacocks and, of course, an elephant (there’s always an elephant in the room).
The models march out and Gott im himmel, there’s a major problem: I can’t see the clothes. The audience is so far away from the models I feel like I’m in the upper tiers of a stadium (even though I’m in the front row, naturally).
What a change from the old days when, at a (very) young age, I would attend the Paris shows. I remember at Chanel, there was no music and the select group was perched on gold-painted chairs. Coco herself would sit curled up at the top of the stairs, her famous hat on, and look into the mirror at the crowd below to see their reaction.
At Balenciaga, to which most of the press and hangers-on weren’t invited, there was no music and you literally might hear a pin drop from a dress. There would be reserved applause and at the end; Mr. Balenciaga never appeared. The famed editor Carmel Snow and the others kept wondering whether Balenciaga was even backstage—they didn’t have the nerve to go back to see for themselves and worship at his altar. The whole scene was like a monastery, and Balenciaga was the head abbot.
At Saint Laurent, once in a while a little curtain would open and Yves himself would peek out at the audience, who would get just a glimpse of his glasses. He would then turn his attention back to the models to make sure everything was in order. The only sign of emotion was if people approached him to discuss a dress and he would smile his shy smile. At least you were close enough to see him.
I personally liked the days when couture models would come so close you could see the detail in every creation. I would see one man reach out to pinch the dress—and the model. The only touch of showmanship was when Saint Laurent or Marc Bohan, after their shows at Dior, would step out on the balcony and wave to the crowd of regular people below standing on Avenue Montaigne to cheer them.
It was all more intimate and more human. In the Fifties, I was invited by Mr. Christian Dior himself to Moscow, where he was showing his collection for the first time. I was carefully watched by a charming young lady who was a KGB watcher. She constantly told me how great the Soviet system was and how happy everyone was under Communism. We both attended the show and in the middle of it I heard whimpering. I turned to look at her and she was crying. I asked if she was all right. “It’s so beautiful,” she replied. “It must have been like this at the time of the Tsars.”
So people do appreciate beauty. But do they really go for all the trappings of vanity and the showing-off aspects of fashion? I’m not so sure. You’re not seeing clothes; you’re watching a performance.
The scale of the shows has simply gotten too big, even in the States, where the shows—with a few exceptions like Marc Jacobs—are practical (a word I hate). It’s like they’re showing in an airplane hangar with stripped down sets, thumping music and lights so blinding you again can’t see the designs. And the old fashion capitals no longer have the field to themselves—there are now fashion weeks from Mumbai to Beijing, where the most recent shows had models in belligerent metal clothes with spikes coming out of their heads.
It used to be that fashion shows were meant to sell the cosmetics. Now they’re megamarketing machines aimed at selling the shoes and the handbags—which drive the fashion business today—as well as the perfumes and all the other stuff. The clothes are becoming irrelevant.
The point of talking about the old days is that I think things are going to change. There is going to be more of an interest in the Balenciaga way of showing, where people can examine and study the clothes. Look at Sarah Burton’s show for McQueen: 10 outfits presented to an intimate group—and it was one of the most spectacular shows in Paris.
The old saying “less is more” is perfect. But I’d like to add something: “The clothes are what count. The hell with the show.”
With that, I’m off to see the new lawn mowers for the grass at the Eiffel Tower—a flock of black and white sheep—and listen to the new bells at Notre Dame. Fashion is wonderful—but it’s nice to come back down to Earth.