A Wealth of Ideas

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2015 New York Times News Service

PARIS — “To defy circumstance and live with joie de vivre!” one Congolese dandy said, explaining his philosophy in a 2014 documentary about Les Sapeurs, or le Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant Persons), and incidentally describing a fundamental purpose of fashion.

Last week in Paris, fashion paid its own form of homage to Les Sapeurs. And while their economy may be mired in a prolonged slump, the Japanese designers here especially seemed to be revitalized by the pleasure to be taken in defying circumstance.

Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons Homme Plus and Yohji Yamamoto mounted what were by most reasonable estimates the shows that — in a season when seemingly unchecked corporate budgets turned the meager ideas of some designers into bloated Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats — exemplified the Sapeur philosophy. That is, the most ineffably luxurious quantity in life is not material wealth so much as the human capital of talent and ideas.

It is no small achievement at a time when fashion has become among the more costly forms of popular entertainment. Yet while Kawakubo and Yamamoto, and the former’s onetime protégé Junya Watanabe, make exorbitantly expensive clothes, their designs are demonstrably generous with ideas anyone is free to share.

Consider the Watanabe show, held on a payday morning in the Palais de Tokyo. The patterns of illumination magically refracted around the gallery space were produced by that most basic form of lighting technology, a revolving disco ball.

The soundtrack opened to the strains of a 1970s hit by the Floaters, a group that emerged from the Sojourner Truth housing projects in Detroit at a time when the Motor City was on the skids. Watanabe explained afterward that the show had been inspired by the Sapeurs; in fact, he even cast some as models.

It says a lot about this gifted designer that in from what might have been just another fashion show “sampling” the cultures of exotic others, he exhibited a respect for his sources that seemed both appropriate and overdue. He did so with clothes that married his own long-standing fascination with dandyism to an equally potent interest in traditional textiles and the thrifty repurposing custom of using patchwork.

Last season, Watanabe made wonderful clothes piecing together patterned indigos in a manner known as boro. Here he assembled soberly colored cropped jackets, tailcoats, tuxedos and natty high-water trousers as if from scraps.

The models wore top hats and Sweeney Todd side-whiskers. Some (the real Sapeurs, mostly) didn’t walk the runway so much as stutter-step around it, striking insouciant freeze-frame poses, as if to remind viewers that great style is a matter of attitude.

Yamamoto had his models made up with bruises and welts as if returning from a street brawl; the clothes, too, looked as if they had gotten the worst of it. Exposed seams, frayed hems, bovver boots and alley-cat styling played off a calculated reserve seemingly central to Yamamoto’s mature design.

Like any smart fighter, he has learned with age to conserve energy; in particular, a grouping of jackets in marbleized patterns of muted blue or green that looked flensed and reconstructed definitively demonstrated that, at 71, Yamamoto still has moves.

Rei Kawakubo, too, seems still to live by the athlete’s creed: stay hungry. Notoriously averse to self-explication, the gnomic designer nevertheless scatters clues to her current thinking. In a show set to a remix of Jocelyn Pook’s music for the masked ball sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” she alternated strict, almost constricting formal wear with skintight trousers and jackets covered with florid patterns designed by Joseph Ari Aloi, aka the graffiti artist JK5.

The diagonal seams and uneven jacket hems seemed to reflect slippage, possibly of the conservative masculine ideas that are undergoing tectonic shifts. On the other hand, the legends blazoned on the clothes were unambiguous and easy enough to align with the frank anti-war message of last season’s menswear presentation.


“Fight Off Your Demons,” read a florid graffito on one shirt, worn with a bucket hat reminiscent either of a Watteau shepherdess or Bunny Mellon. The slogan seemed like a good one to live by, particularly at a time when France remains stunned by the recent terrorist acts.

It was a relief to find at least some designers making token references to social concerns, current politics and a wider world, since many here seemed preoccupied with chasing the elusive 1 percent.

Today a midlevel salaried worker in France earns under $2,000 a month on average. Rent on a Paris apartment can easily eat up two-thirds of that. Despite deep discounts on everything from spatulas to Saint Laurent jackets, the big department stores were notably empty throughout the sale season, which happens to coincide with the menswear presentations. Was this a consequence of the terrorist attacks? Or was it instead a lingering effect of a Europe’s prolonged economic downturn?


Regardless of how beautiful the show, masterful the craftsmanship or prodigious a designer’s skills, it was impossible to ignore or even sidestep the growing gap between the haves and everyone else.

As it happened, the shows also overlapped with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where people like Winnie Byanyima, head of Oxfam, patiently and repeatedly recited ugly litanies of the statistics underlying wealth inequality.

Consequently it was with a kind of abstracted distance that one viewed shows like the ‘70s-inflected one Lucas Ossendrijver of Lanvin staged at the École des Beaux-Arts; or the endearingly pretentious presentation Riccardo Tisci mounted for Givenchy (voodoo makeup, anyone?) in a tent adjacent to Napoleon’s tomb; or another finely crafted one created by Véronique Nichanian for Hermès held in a heavily secured structure housing a French radio station against a windowed backdrop of gorgeously illuminated nocturnal Paris.

Hermès, of course, sits securely at the top of the luxury-goods food chain, and Nichanian understands her brief. Most design houses are struggling to define and capture a market consisting of young “wealth creators,” guys who, while they like clothes and fashion, have no particular interest in dressing like Dad.

For that man, fancy track pants or sweats and a jacket — blouson, bomber, Perfecto, whatever — have become a kind of proto-uniform, the new suit. Nichanian’s show demonstrated her skilled readiness to outfit this new consumer. If he wants sweats, she will give him sweats. Naturally, they’ll be rendered in sheared mink.

Similarly, Alessandro Sartori at Berluti has turned his very considerable talents to the reinvention of the 120-year-old shoemaking house, purchased nearly a decade ago by LVMH and recast by its new chief executive, Antoine Arnault, as a go-to label for the young rich.

As the 37-year-old son of Bernard Arnault, chief executive of LVMH and France’s richest man, the handsome Arnault himself is probably his own target consumer, the kind of guy whose business life less often requires suits than, say, the unlined blazers to which Sartori brings mastery as a tailor.

Maybe he prefers a throwaway trench coat in coated silk to toss on over jeans; or cuffed jogging pants of felted jersey; or cashmere hand-loomed with leather to create tweed. Tech refinements similar to those that inspire wristwatch aficionados to geek out over the latest dial innovation or tourbillion become, in Sartori’s capable hands, intrinsic to Berluti’s appeal.

Jogging pants were ubiquitous this season, at Dior fashioned by Kris van Assche of leather and worn with a tailcoat. They looked vaguely silly on the runway and yet still plausible, as did a tailored denim suit layered with a skirt-length shearling gilet or a black leather parka worn with an improbable bow tie and cummerbund.

Watching the show — expensively staged in a tennis club at the outskirts of Paris, and with a live orchestra playing a symphonic version of music by the French singer Koudlam — one could not help but think of what expandable-waist leather jogging pants might look like on real-world consumers. One imagined a guy rich enough to afford leather kiddie pants and enough of a schlump to enjoy wearing trousers that don’t require a belt.

Candidly and unfortunately, the image that came to mind was that of Seth Rogen. Once evoked it was, alas, impossible to unsee.