Céline Inspires with Sophistication, While Balenciaga Rehabilitates Anti-Fashion in Paris

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Sunday was a big day for fashion in Paris. Valentino showed the first collection under the sole creative direction of Pierpaolo Piccioli, and it was a delight to behold. Demna Gvasalia scored another hit at Balenciaga with the boundary-pushing fashion concept he and a group of colleagues pioneered at Vetements. And Phoebe Philo at Céline delivered one of the most compelling takes on feminism seen on a runway in recent times, all the more impressive because it came during a moment when contemporary culture—and fashion—is cluttered with an awful lot of crudeness.

I would use a less polite word, but the sophistication of both the Valentino and Céline shows inspires me to do better. Piccioli's first show on his own as creative director at Valentino, after a fruitful partnership with Maria Grazia Chiuri who this season moved to Dior, was a terrific effort, more so because the designer did not appear to overthink things when under enormous pressure. His light lace dresses, shown with ballet shoes and sometimes velvet panels in a burgundy, pink, and mauve palette, or a light line drawing of a decadent landscape, evoked the romanticism and elegance of Valentino without forgetting Valentino Garavani's often stated raison d'être: To make women look and feel beautiful.

How charming, upon closer inspection, to discover the drawings, by London designer Zandra Rhodes, were inspired by the bizarre paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, who was celebrated this year with fantastic exhibitions in Spain and Holland marking the 500th anniversary of his death. The earrings of little swords and bugs could have come directly from his paintings.

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Another artist, Yves Klein, was directly referenced in Philo's Céline collection, in this case with white dresses on which bodies were painted in blue, after Klein's famous Anthropométries performances from the 1960s in which women smeared their naked bodies in paint and rolled around on canvases. Those paintings, using the female body as a living brush, have been held up in feminist studies to criticize the power wielded by the male artist, and it is hard to imagine that Philo did not consider the implications of the reference in contemporary fashion as well as the current political environment. If ever there was a designer to represent powerful women, it is Philo, who has structured an enviable work-life balance by her own standards and created an amazing array of clothes in the process. For spring, the highlights included a super light suit with a trim of long lacy cuffs that billowed beneath the pants hems, and lightly provocative dresses with crocheted panels along the breasts (far from Kardashian territory, but revealing nonetheless).

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The accessories were also killer this season, with oddly mismatched shoes and enormous portfolio bags. Perhaps it was unintentional that Philo's daughter stood next to a column right in front of the American press, but there was a nice symbolism watching as she cheered her mother from the sidelines.

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The Balenciaga stage was again in the shape of a square, much larger than the one from last season when the designer Demna Gvasalia made his debut there, but generally giving the same disorienting impression to audience members who never could fully see the proceedings or the scale of the runway at any given time. Each of the four sides was draped in tall curtains, and at the start, some scratchy, unplaceable noises set a sort of ominous tone for an uncomfortably long time, although one lady sitting across from me actually fell asleep.

Then came the loud opening of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," and the start of the show, which was like a victory lap for Gvasalia and his colleagues at both Balenciaga and the industry-shaking collective Vetements. It is astonishing just how impactful their work has been. Numerous editors at the show were wearing looks from Gvasalia's first collection, particularly the exaggerated hourglass suit jackets that feature square shoulders and a deeply nipped waistline that is set just below the breasts, an extreme look that is both surprisingly powerful in its dimensions and as stiff as a sandwich board.

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For spring, Gvasalia carried that distinctive silhouette further, with trench coats and flower-patterned dresses (of a variety that reminded me of printed polyester) again with giant shoulders. Some of the looks with whalebone structures in the shoulder pad appeared as though they had coat hangers built into them. Blazers were shown with the "Made in France" label still attached to the sleeves. Puffer jackets in bright neon colors were made like inflatable rafts. All-in-one shoes and stockings hybrids were shown in a multitude of colors and prints that I later learned were made of Spandex.

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If these ideas sound familiar, that is because they are, of course, twists that figured heavily in the work of Martin Margiela and other designers, where Gvasalia and many of his colleagues trained before their time in fashion's spotlight. What's different today is that Margiela was a designer most appreciated by a self-selecting group of fashion insiders in the time before social media, whereas Balenciaga is an established luxury brand in an era of runway image profligacy. So now that kind of anti-fashion—take the ironically large shopper bags and square-toe shoes, which normally evoke poor taste—has the power to stick, and to become rehabilitated as good taste.

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