PARIS — A few months ago, when the designer Rick Owens started thinking about his fall collection, he was thinking about Covid and the re-emergence, and discos, and parties, and whether all of that was good or bad, and how he had mixed feelings, and so on and so forth. Sound familiar? But then last week happened, and everything changed.
He listened to the music he had chosen for the show, and thought the driving, acid bass of Eprom, with its percussive beat, sounded like artillery fire. At the last minute, he decided to use Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 — the one inextricably linked to Visconti’s film “Death in Venice” — instead. It was, said Mr. Owens in a preview conversation, a little sentimental for him. But, he said, “it’s an emotional moment.” So he leaned in.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It will either be totally rapturous or totally corny.”
Actually, it veered to the sublime.
Mr. Owens, the dark prince of fashion, the designer who turned the aggro, the alien and the destroyed into objects of desire, has of late been tending to beauty, and here he took that to a new level. A parade of ghostly high priestesses emerged like apparitions from a curtain of fog and then faded back again, like memories of history and mythology past.
Working with a long, attenuated silhouette, with liquid bias skirts snaking down the legs to puddle out at the floor, he stretched sleeves and swathed hips; pulled shoulders into exaggerated cone shapes or broadened them into shields. Some gowns were covered in muted sequins that gleamed like hammered metal, some made from burnt-orange stretch velvet, some dusty faded denim.
There were big, puffer boleros that curled up and around shoulders like boa constrictors atop denim shorts cut high on the hip and paired with gladiator boots that climbed to the upper thigh. Sheepskin was pieced together in a Dark Ages collage; cashmere capes swept the floor. One long, swirling yellow dress was paired with a light blue rough-cut cropped jacket, coincidentally (or not) the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Many looks were accessorized by personal fog machines, swung like ritual thuribles, emitting puffs of smoke into the air, blurring the edges. Yeah, it was just fashion. But it also looked like grace.
Finally, designers are starting to — not come to terms with what is going on in the world, and how deeply weird it is to be holding a fashion show at the same time, but to acknowledge the dissonance. That’s probably all anyone can do. It can’t really be resolved. But recognizing that the stakes have changed is important.
There, for example, was Dries Van Noten, wandering the halls of the desiccated Hôtel de Guise, an 18th-century house in which he had constructed vignettes in lieu of a show, like a life-size cabinet of exquisite curiosities, like a pointed expression of a surreal time.
Look up, and there was a mannequin in overblown jewel-toned floral cloqué, leaning languidly over a banister and observing; open a closet and find a trench covered in 44,000 leather and patent “sequins” sewn together to mimic snakeskin; peek behind a door and see a woman clad in puddling iridescent silver.
Go past the pantry and discover another, in a Delft porcelain-print skirt, matching leather boots and matching print puffer, the shoulders an exaggerated half moon à la Charles James — a shape echoed in velvets and zebra stripes in other jackets, in other rooms. It was a pretty compelling case for the soft power curve.
And there was Olivier Rousteing, backstage at Balmain, discussing how, when he started the collection — a veritable ode to personal protective clothing (PPC) in the form of moto-meets-sci-fi leathers, laces of all kinds and gleaming silver and gold — it was a reaction against his fear of how social media might judge his appearance when a fire in his apartment left him covered in burns. But then he realized that in the current situation, such shapes had taken on an entirely more urgent association.
Indeed, it was impossible to see the finale of haute body armor (which looked oddly similar to the wearable tech vests at Dior earlier in the week, in one of those inexplicable fashion mind-melds that ends up equaling trend), and not think of the conflict only about a three-hour flight away. If planes were flying.
A point Gabriella Hearst also made backstage at Chloé, before a show of understated leather in earth tones and chunky, striped knits in recycled cashmere.
Ms. Hearst, who has made sustainability a subtext of her collections, was talking about anxiety — initially of the climate, rather than combat, kind. Which led her to solutions, which led her to embedding stones of power in her pinafores along chakra lines (tiger’s-eye, onyx and red jasper) and weaving a story of hope into two sweater dresses that featured, respectively, forests and glaciers destroyed by climate change on one side — drought-stricken, melting — and the same landscapes restored to wild glory on the other.
Glaciers can’t actually be restored, of course, but for a moment it was awfully tempting to think so.
All of which made the twisted serenity sisters at The Row, in their black suiting and white poplin shirts with giant Seussian pointy collars and sleeves long enough they needed to be taken for a walk, their coats worn back-to-front, seem out of place in more ways than one.
Not just because the brand, designed by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, which usually shows in New York, had come to Paris, but because, while there’s no question this is a strange, warped time, these are ideas already owned by other designers in this city. Most notably Yohji Yamamoto and Martin Margiela — one of the muses of this season for the umpteenth season — but also Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Viktor & Rolf, who offered similar throat-swallowing collars in their recent couture show.
The Olsens can cut a terrific jacket, and their swaddling dresses have the appeal of a very chic security blanket (some handbags even came with their own little security blanket on top). And it’s true: Designers borrow from each other all the time.
Yet in the current world, such obvious appropriation just seems — well, inappropriate.