PARIS — Clothes are not fashion. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Three weeks and four cities into a notably strong men’s wear cycle that will creep to a conclusion next month in the truncated remains of New York Fashion Week: Men, an observer comes away with an assortment of press kits, stacks of engraved invitations and series of moments — sometimes comical, occasionally bizarre, often absurd and many rising to the level of magic — that amount to a semi-disorganized whole definitively greater than the sum of its parts.
Take, for instance, that moment at the Valentino show on Wednesday when, out of the darkness surrounding a stage in a chamber of the Grand Palais, emerged an incandescent image of a woman in a long white dress, her face partly obscured by a fencing mask of crystal beads. Even before she brought a microphone to her face and began to sing in a voice possessed of its own eerie iridescence, people in the audience speculated in whispers that it might be the performer FKA Twigs. It was.
Sure, a new men’s wear collection followed, notable mostly for flower images printed on the clothes. And, yes, like almost everything produced by the designer Pierpaolo Piccioli, that collection had its formal strengths. But who would want to be the person who, looking back, said that what they recalled from that day were the boxy suits, the olive drab field jacket with a purple calla lily printed on the shoulder, the cross-body bags and not, instead, the indelible image of FKA Twigs, shimmering and ethereal as an angel in a Valentino haute couture dress?
Fashion ought to be about those memorable moments — about dislocation, the unexpected, about weirdness, emotion, provocation, even discomfort — as much as it about garments, Thom Browne said this week.
“I always want to do something different,’’ added Mr. Browne, who has staged shows featuring men dressed as sharks, zipped into body bags, wearing codpieces or soccer balls rendered as shoes. “I don’t think people come to my shows just to see another 40 looks.’’
For this season, Mr. Browne decided not to mount a men’s wear show at all. Instead he staged and photographed a surrealistic dinner party. “The animals are the guests and the people are the furniture,’’ Mr. Browne said, adding that the humans are — symbolically, at least — also the meal.
And what was the significance of it all, Mr. Browne was asked, after he had conducted a visitor on a tour of a beautiful collection. There were Harris Tweed chore coats; blazers with frayed lapels; coats embellished with a menagerie that included squirrels, elephants, rabbits, rhinos and zebras; and other items so commercial the shock was they had been produced by the designer that first put guys in suits with short pants, skirts and Pee-wee Herman jackets. “I do things instinctually and don’t overthink them,’’ Mr. Browne said. “It’s important not to know so much. It’s easier to create something when you know less.’’
Sometimes, in other words, it’s good to get out of your head. Virgil Abloh, the artistic director of men’s wear for Louis Vuitton, echoed that sentiment during a preview of his collection at Vuitton headquarters, as soul-deadening a corporate space as you will ever see.
Mr. Abloh has been doing a lot of work restoring the mind-body-spirit connection over the past year, apparently on doctor’s orders. The designer — who became a poster child for millennial multi-hyphenates: a guy who boasted of living on planes and working on 10 projects simultaneously; who once said, “I couldn’t do just one project day in, day out’’ — found himself becoming atomized and decided to rein it all in.
Where in the past, his workrooms were mobbed with friends and hangers-on, now the only people given access were fitting models and members of the design team. His thoughts had been corralled as well, made more linear and focused, specifically on the history of Louis Vuitton and its crafts ateliers.
“Modernizing a historic house for the mood of today is what I’m known for,’’ he said. “But I didn’t want to keep iterating the same thing.’’
He wanted to create tailored clothes, said the designer who triggered an internet firestorm last year when he predicted in “Dazed” magazine that streetwear’s time was up and it would die within a year. “In my mind, how many more T-shirts can we own,’’ he said then. “How many more hoodies, how many sneakers?’’
Exactly how sincere Mr. Abloh was about leaving behind the designs that brought him success was hard to tell. Rumblings from within Vuitton suggest pressure has been put on the designer to bolster the apparel that appeals to the house’s traditional clientele. (And everyone in the industry is trying to talk post-millennials out of their hoodies and stuff them into suits.) It is obvious that if there are limits to the number of sneakers and T-shirts one can own, this is truer still of the $3,800 Prism duffel bags that were Mr. Abloh’s first big hit for the brand. Still, Mr. Abloh said, he refuses to be typecast.
And so, he doubled down on strict tailoring for his show, which was held in a stifling tent set up in the Tuileries Garden. Outside mobs of teenagers did battle with paparazzi for a glimpse of the Migos members Quavo and Takeoff, even as armed French soldiers clad in camo patrolled the park for potential terrorists.
Inside, the Colombian reggaeton star J. Balvin made polite conversation with the Taiwanese pop sensation Leo Chen while a sweaty and hyped-up crowd awaited what turned out to be a show of conventional and largely rehashed tailoring that drew on both Mr. Abloh’s roots in hip-hop and his personal design credo.
That is, it fell somewhere between a mash-up and a bald application of Mr. Abloh’s “three percent rule” (all that’s required for design success, he once said, is to change something original by three percent.) There is nothing daring at all about swiping ideas and motifs from Helmut Lang, a designer whose career is the gift that keeps on giving. It is impressively brazen, though, to send out suits in cloud patterns seemingly lifted from the spring 2014 collection that Italo Zucchelli designed for Calvin Klein. (Mr. Zucchelli’s influence, particularly the fluorescent suits he innovated, has been widely seen here this season, including at the Berluti show on Friday.)
Maybe originality has been devalued by the recursive loop that is digital culture. Or so you might think until you see one of the mad presentations by Rick Owens, a designer as analog as they come (he reads books! he listens to classical music on vinyl!). Mr. Owens described his recent designs as almost insanely exaggerated, which was not at all the case.
Edit out the body contoured, one-legged jump suits and the coats with Ming the Merciless shoulders and you were left with an awful lot of commercially wearable stuff. (Commerciality is the dirty secret of many progressive designers: Mr. Browne may design hobble dresses for guys, but he also produces a wearable chore coat in granddad’s Harris Tweed.)
One incomparable delight of any Rick Owens show, however, is not to be found on the runway at all. Rather, it takes the form of the designer’s die-hard followers, who routinely, almost religiously, turn out in force dressed in Frankenstein boots, bondage straps, veils of chain mail, and with faces painted to look like a cross between Morticia Addams and Exene Cervenka.
“There’s a special dispensation for vampires on Rick Owens show day,’’ one front-row wag said as he surveyed the crowd on Thursday. “The money on this is that they only come out once a year in daylight.’’