(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

EDITORS: Robin Givhan, The Washington Post's Pulitzer-winning fashion critic, is covering Paris Fashion Week. Read her Fashion Week stories as she makes her way from runway to runway, and follow her on Twitter: @robingivhan.)


PARIS - In the morning coffee hours, before guests began making their way to the Louis Vuitton Foundation's Frank Gehry-designed headquarters for the last hurrah of the spring 2016 collections, the fashion world received notice Wednesday of the latest big promotion in the rarefied, high-pressure ranks of the global luxury market. Demna Gvasalia was appointed artistic director of Balenciaga, filling the position vacated by Alexander Wang last week. He will present his first collection in March.

So it was that yet another designer has been tasked with figuring out how to keep $2,000 handbags and $3,000 dresses relevant in a world of consumers who are increasingly enamored with sweatpants, rare sneakers and high-tech gadgetry. This is the question - both practical and existential - that has simmered as designers have spent the past nine days debuting their spring collections.

They have proposed an array of answers: Elevate the banal. Buy designer track pants! Reinvent a sweatshirt. Spin it around and now it's a hoodie! Get customers drunk on undiluted beauty. You are an ancient Huguenot princess enrobed in ruffles! Take us on a futuristic dream. You are your own avatar in a virtual reality video game!

What is fashion's future? This week, Phoebe Philo's Céline offered a beautiful and powerful answer that focused on the fundamental belief that women turn to their clothes to enhance and express their confidence. That doesn't change whether you're checking your e-mails on an Apple watch (with an Hermès strap) or flipping through a hand-made paper agenda.

Sarah Burton's collection for Alexander McQueen was a pure expression of beauty for its own sake. Inspired by Huguenots and village craftsmen, Burton's collection was an avalanche of ruffles and embroidery on floor-sweeping gowns, sometimes topping them vibrant red officer's coats.

There was only a hint of daywear, and in some ways Burton staked a claim for fashion as a place of respite for those times when you simply need to feel special, and a white t-shirt with pretensions of perfection just won't do the trick.

But these collections address mood and sensibility. What about the clothes themselves? So many designers are showing items such as sweatpants and work boots and riffs on a sneaker. Is this luxury? Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent says it is. And so does the new guy at Balenciaga.

Gvasalia, 34, is a German national of Georgian origins with a substantial fashion pedigree. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp, worked at Maison Martin Margiela (before it was known solely as Maison Margiela) and had a brief tenure at Louis Vuitton.

But he is best known as the co-founder of Vetements, an 18-person collective in its fourth season that reimagines the mundane - sweatshirts, hoodies, butcher aprons - into garments with hallucinogenic proportions, cheeky embellishments or sophisticated troupe l'oeil effects . The collection owes an enormous debt to Margiela, whose archive it references voraciously. But in its use of thick cotton jersey, velour and polyester, as well as streetwear basics such as hoodies and souvenir t-shirts, Vetements is not just elevating the banal - which is the Saint Laurent way - but refocusing fashion's eye to alter the industry's entire value system.

Vetements - French for clothes - exalts the idea of fashion as commodity, preferring to host shows in dingy, unglamorous venues, while also appealing to celebrities such as Kanye West and style arbiters from the realm of glossy magazines.

It is a trick to create a hoodie that has a second neck opening that allows the wearer to turn the thing around and transform it into a sweatshirt. And if a garment can do all of that, isn't it special? Rare and valuable? Even if all it is doing is transforming from one basic throwaway item into another?

Balenciaga did not hire him to turn the label into the world's most storied streetwear brand, but it did hire him for what it believes is his ability to take the brand's traditions and merge them "in harmony with today's global changes."

It's those changes that are so tricky.

Designer Nicolas Ghesquière made a strong argument for fashion that takes its cues from the world of technology and virtual reality - turning fashion into a version of a wearable gadget. His collection for Louis Vuitton had the otherworldly, hyper-colorized look of an alternate reality. His patterns resembled digital interference or a circuit board blown up.

His leather jackets were a postmodern patchwork of colors and patterns and the LV logo, and they were paired with trousers that looked like something out of Japanese anime.

Ghesquière created a collection that reached for the future with its manipulation of fabrics, its runway lined with video panels and an aesthetic of sensory overload. With all those LVs and the Damier check pattern, he spotlights the brand - that's his job, after all - but in doing so, in this context, it's also a reminder that we are all brands. We are all shaping our public selves as we head towards a future that, in one vision, has us each existing in our own personal fiefdom.

In an alternative vision, the future is a place of blurred boundaries and global melting pots, the very rich and everyone else. Instead of turning to their beloved Rome for inspiration, Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli allowed Africa to inform their work. They didn't draw from a specific country as much as offer a romantic ode to an idea of a place.

As a prelude, the designers were not well-served by show notes that promised a trip to "wild, tribal Africa" as well as a bit of "primordial grace." What followed, however, was a collection that was true to the embroidered, embellished opulence of the house: beaded and feathered dresses, elaborately embroidered gowns, wide leather corsets, skirts with souvenir prints and jewelry modeled after Masai neck rings and Ndebele necklaces.

It was an impressionistic vision of the continent shown on a diverse group of models with their hair in cornrows that were tucked into messy buns.

So often, when fashion looks to Africa, designers can't seem to get past the exoticism or the fear of offending and simply apply their craft to create a narrative in their own vocabulary. Chiuri and Piccioli did that - and, yes, sometimes the collection reflected their tendency to over-embellish. Does a dress need feathers when it already is embroidered and beaded? But Valentino is about unabashed high, high opulence, and that was the story they told to all who can afford it. Even those folks who say they'd prefer a sweatshirt.



Keywords: fashion, fashion week, Paris, Robin Givhan, Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquière, Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Vetements, Demna Gvasalia, new Balenciaga designer, magnet-fashionweek