At Paris Fashion Week, female designers explore their own visions of women

Chloé.

For many years, the world of fashion has been dominated by male designers projecting their fantasy of the ideal woman onto the catwalk. But what happens when women design for women? Celebrating femininity in all its glory, with a touch of creativity unspoiled by pragmatism, a handful of women designers are expressing their personal vision during this fall-winter 2023-2024 season, held in Paris until March 7.

At Chloé, the attention paid to women is as much about substance as it is about form. Designer Gabriela Hearst created a collection inspired by Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the very few women painters of the Renaissance, who transformed the atrocities of her life (a rape followed by a humiliating trial and the loss of three of her children) into extraordinary paintings. Hearst also uses her muse to address a subject that keeps her up at night, climate change: “Women have a great ability to overcome hardship, to find solutions. They are the key to success in overcoming the environmental crisis,” said Gabriela Hearst.

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For this collection, she focused in particular on the painting Esther Before Ahasuerus – showing Esther before the Persian king begging him to spare the Jewish people – which she transposed into naive-style embroidery on a multicolored patchwork dress or on black leather zipped jackets. The Renaissance inspiration also shines through in coats with tricolored stripes reminiscent of men’s formal attire of the time, small bags in the shape of purses and super voluminous sleeves. But the collection is still highly pragmatic, intended to be worn by women in their day-to-day lives. “I could wear everything this season,” the designer said about the beautiful thick and frayed knit dresses, the cozy shearling coats and suits with super chic square shoulders.

Victoria Beckham.

The same mindset is also adopted by Victoria Beckham. “Each of my collections starts with what I want to wear. And I try everything on! My teams have a lot of fun seeing me half-naked in the studio trying on clothes.” This season, the designer wanted to capture the gentle eccentricity of the movie Grey Gardens (2009), with her invitation card showing a portrait of the actress Drew Barrymore reprising her role. This biographical film chronicles the lives of Edith Bouvier and her mother, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, the cousin and aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, who lived as recluses in their run-down Hamptons home in the 1960s and 1970s.

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We see their playfulness in the long, flowing pleated dresses and skirts, with feathers poking out. This range is all about dressing up, like little girls going through their mother’s closet. The combination of materials and colors sometimes evokes this childish game, like the amazing crocodile-style cracked leather pants that form a pair of boots extending from the leg, or the strands of acrylic hair wrapped around the pumps or shaped like necklaces.

Hermès.

Hair is also highlighted at Hermès. Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski – whose own hair has been cut into a bob – has made it the backbone of this collection. “Hair is about identity. It’s a strong feminine attribute. In history, hair was about power, seduction and magic,” said the designer. The reference to hair extends to the colors of the collection, with mostly auburn, strawberry blond and jet-black tones adorning the monochrome silhouettes. Hair is also reflected in the details of the clothes: undulating topstitching on fitted knit sweaters, a smooth calfskin bag decorated with silky horsehair and bracelets used like elastic bands to cinch in the jackets on the models’ backs.

The allusions are discreet, and what the outfits give off is the feeling of joyful sensuality, be it a soft leather skin-caressing jumpsuit, a hammered metal pleated silk skirt that undulates as you walk, a woolen wrap top that ties voluptuously around the waist or stretch leather boots that hug the curve of the leg as far as the thigh. “It’s time to take ownership of the codes of femininity and to treat them more intuitively, with empathy for the body,” said Nadège, who achieved her goal of dressing a woman who is “powerful, sensual, but not constrained.”

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Exaggerated shoulders and openwork dresses

The Isabel Marant collection is also a celebration of the everyday woman who knows how to be seductive. “It’s quite a soft, very winter wardrobe,” said designer and studio director Kim Bekker. Jackets with exaggerated shoulders set the pace, wool coats and trench coats envelop silhouettes and tall soft leather boots lengthen legs. “Everything looks quite sensible at first, but it’s quite mischievous. The lines are sometimes graphic and angular like the shoulders of the coats, knitwear with cut-outs revealing the skin, “explained Kim Bekker.

It features little dresses in openwork knit with sexy twists, like cutouts on the hips and busts. In terms of casting, the designer has gone back to the stars of the 2000-2010 catwalks: Julia Stegner, Karmen Pedaru, Sasha Pivovarova, Caroline Trentini and Jessica Stam. “We wanted to work with these girls that we loved again. Wanting to be younger at all costs is not for us. We want to represent real life, with women of all ages.”

Isabel Marant.

Out of the 55 looks at Alexander McQueen, 15 were worn by artists, dancers, actresses and long-time collaborators. These women (and also some men) represent a refreshing diversity of bodies in this run-of-the-mill fashion week. “Fashion is obviously all about having dreams. But the world is in such chaos right now that it’s important that we have our feet on the ground,” explained Sarah Burton. In this spirit of giving meaning to her work, the designer has returned to the initial inspirations of founder Alexander McQueen, from whom she took over after his death in 2010.

“His work is still relevant today,” she rightly noted. Like him, she has deconstructed the suit. Jackets are transformed into corsets tied at the back; shoulders are removed, reducing them to bustiers; and skin-revealing cuts are made in the sides and backs. The architectural dimension of her highly skilled work can also be seen in the flamboyant dresses, whether they are slashed knit dresses or figure-hugging molded dresses, with little orchid-like creepers shooting off around the shoulders and arms. “Extraordinarily beautiful and infinitely adaptable, the orchid mimics both predator and prey,” said Burton. “In the language of flowers, the orchid is a symbol of love.”

Alexander McQueen.

Love is also at the heart of the Ester Manas collection, inspired by her upcoming nuptials to her partner in life and work, Balthazar Delepierre. “We imagined the kind of wedding that we won’t be having, in church, with all the clichés you see in movies,” said the designer, whose clothes are particularly adaptable to all body shapes, especially curvy women. Delepierre added, “We also liked the idea of the wedding because it is a very inclusive moment where all bodies are represented.”

The couple imagines (recycled) lace dresses combining lots of tulle and ribbed knit, trains like Italian curtains and flamenco ruffles, worn by women of all sizes. Sheer, layered fabrics cut to show off flesh and delicate lingerie (made by Chantelle). “There was no real ready-to-wear offer for wedding dresses outside of standard sizes, so we’ve stepped into this niche,” said Manas. Women really do think of everything.

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Ester Manas.
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Translation of an original article published in French on lemonde.fr; the publisher may only be liable for the French version.

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