Digital Dior. Remote Chanel. What’s Couture With No Runway?

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Is this a front row anyone really wants to join?

After three days seated at my dining room table, watching what was effectively Quibi for fashion — which is to say, the first streamed digital couture “shows,” forced online by the coronavirus pandemic and transformed into bite-size nuggets that ranged from ersatz music videos to schmaltzy short films and previews for collections to come — I’m starting to wonder.

Yes, everyone gets to watch what was formerly an entirely exclusive, just-for-insiders, demonstration of fabulousness. That’s a good thing.

But honestly, give me the runway.

I never thought I would write those words. Like many, I have complained about the waste involved in fashion weeks: all those people, flying around the world, to sit twiddling their thumbs waiting for a show to start while ogling the celebrities across the catwalk, most of whom are dressed in full-blown evening clothes at 10 a.m., surrounded by elaborate sets made to be demolished after 20 minutes, all in the service of (in the case of the July shows) a parade of insanely expensive handmade clothes for the very few. Nero, meet your fiddle, and all that.

ImageThe actress Carice van Houten in Iris van Herpen, haute couture, fall 2020
Credit…Valentine Bouquet

But what this whole digital experiment ultimately revealed is that, though music and movies have been using fashion to their own ends for decades now, reversing the equation doesn’t really work.

Not even when you rope in a famous film director, as Dior did with Matteo Garrone, the Italian auteur behind “Pinocchio” and “Dogman.” And give him carte blanche to make … a mash-up of myths involving mermaids, Narcissus, satyrs, bellboys and nymphs who really, really, want to wear lamé goddess gowns and wafting, feathered coats instead of barely-there bits of chiffon. Not even when you team up with a cult-y musician, like Olivier Theyskens did with Sylvie Kreusch of Warhaus, for his debut at Azzaro couture, all rhinestone siren slinkiness balanced on a knife-edge just this side of kitsch.

Not even when you get a famous actress, as Iris van Herpen did with Carice van Houten, formerly the Red Priestess on “Game of Thrones,” and have her animate a single look that plays with your sense of perception in odd angles and cuts, so it seems to grow around her body like a nimbus of rebirth.

Not even when you dress up well-known models and convince them to do awkward dancing, as if they were punk princesses at the famous Parisian disco Le Palace, while wearing bejeweled bouclé and lavishly flounced taffeta, as Chanel did.

Credit…Mikael Jansson

It feels inauthentic: a copy of an idea from another creative discipline. And the problems of couture are not so much financial (most of the brands that can afford couture have enough of a cash cushion to survive the current situation, and someone, somewhere, is still buying it) as existential. With the dire state of the world, what’s the point?

There’s an electricity to a live event, with its sense of shared experience and risk, that answers that question and cannot be replicated in the vacuum of the internet. There’s a specificity to a fashion show, a rhythm in the entrances and exits and struts, a duet between body and cloth, that has its own cadence and offers its own implicit thesis about the costumes IRL, which loses its force when it gets moved to a URL. It’s too easy to look away. To roll your eyes. And giggle.

Well, now we know. And it’s not actually a judgment on the clothes themselves, anyway. It’s a judgment on the context.

In any case, thinking of these digital shows as shows is probably wrong in the first place. They were more like a joint declaration of belief: We’re still here!

(That’s why, even though it didn’t have an actual show, Maison Margiela offered up a 48-second lava lamp of a show trailer, starring the vamping model Leon Dame suggesting the form of a longer … something … to be a revealed July 16. Ditto Valentino, which clocked in at just over a minute with its hypnotically morphing single piece of fabric/promo for a July 21 show. They wanted to show their faith in the official couture organization, even though their main events are later.)

After all, fashion, like so many industries, is in crisis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic: stores shuttered, fabric mills closed, brands declaring bankruptcy. To dare, in the face of a lockdown that separated designers from their ateliers, to create any form of a collection for public consumption is a kind of triumph: an aria of optimism into the void, a testament to imagination and ingenuity.

Credit…Brigitte Niedermair

And in fact, the videos that revealed just that — bringing the viewer inside the creation process — were the ones that hinted at couture’s true magic. Ironically, it’s the documentaries that may actually best convey the “dream” that is couture: the handwork and humanity woven into its seams.

So while Dior’s movie was misguided escapism (verging on the objectionable, thanks to an entirely white cast, which is the dream of exactly who these days?), its opening scenes, which took place in the ateliers, were irresistible. They showcased the fact that the collection — the gold Aphrodite dress with its flowing cape, the sunburst-shirred high-collar white shirt and a pale-pink halter-neck ball gown covered in beaded branches — had actually been created in miniature, scaled down to 40 percent of a traditional toile to create a treasure chest of a collection that will later travel the world for clients to ogle, and order (full-size, of course).

The designer Maria Grazia Chiuri had been inspired by Le Théâtre de la Mode, a traveling exhibition of 150 dolls created in 1945 by designers of the day such as Lucien Lelong, Schiaparelli and Jeanne Lanvin as a way to revive the couture in a post-World War II world and rescue the fashion industry from economic ruin and emotional despair. You can understand it: What worked once, might well work again.

Especially when close-ups of the 2020 versions revealed the careful artistry of the petites mains (little hands) that made them, the camera watching an artisan painstakingly using a tiny needle to create the fringing on the hemline of the moonlit gown.

Just as it was charming, if not entirely satisfying, to look over the shoulder of Daniel Roseberry of Schiaparelli as he sat sketching away on his “imaginary collection” in Washington Square Park, near the New York apartment where he was sheltering in place, drawing tape measure straps, power shoulders and zeppelin-size balloon sleeves (for looks that will be made later this year). And to have sneak peeks from Ulyana Sergeenko and Elie Saab at the hands transforming basic materials into extraordinary embroidery for their somewhat overblown creations. Even if all the soft focus nature that followed mostly called to mind a perfume commercial.

They all made me long for more such intimate experiences: not just to goggle at the flotillas of tulle and cloqué of Giambattista Valli, with their exclamation points of bows both large and small (look: a swan! and look: a white taffeta bow as big as a torso atop a white chiffon dress as tiny as Joan Smalls’ waist!) but to understand how they are constructed. Though to be fair, at least with his video, you could see the clothes, instead of just the mood.

To really understand the Chanel collection, for example, which ultimately looked a whole lot better than the designer Virginie Viard’s recent stabs at halfhearted casual couture, you had to eschew the live action for the static lookbook: 30 styles versus the short’s five, including some lavishly restrained midnight blue gowns and not-quite-understated armorial tweed jackets.

Credit…Casper Kofi

In any case, only Viktor & Rolf managed to capture the absurdity of the whole exercise: us, sitting in our rooms around the world, staring into small screens by ourselves, mesmerized (or not) by well-intentioned efforts to elicit asynchronous rapture.

They did it with a five-minute play in three acts titled “change” (small c, all in gold balloons) that spliced the classic department store show with today’s working-from-home ethos, with a stentorian voice-over by the singer Mika, and a heavy dose of levity.

See, for example, an empire-waist sapphire satin negligee spotted with lace storm clouds to reflect “a feeling of sadness and anger familiar to many these days.” Or the pale pink chemises adorned with “contradictory emoji,” the “frantically entangled” sashes swirling around enormous bathrobe coats, and the enveloping A-line silhouettes to guarantee “you will remain in your own safe zone while venturing out into the world.”

There was a lot more like that. “If only we could change ourselves as easily as we do our outfits,” said Mika. That is, of course, the promise of all this; the beauty is that we all keep hoping.

It just seems so much more convincing from the ballroom chairs.

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