Sex vs. Skin

Over the weekend, as Paris Fashion Week entered its final days, a colleague on one of the rough wood benches that is today’s equivalent of the gold ballroom chairs of the past leaned over and huffed, “But where’s the politics? Does no one care about what’s happening to women around the world?”

It was a fair question, though to a certain extent simply offering women the tools of dress as empowerment, or trying to, is an inherently political act. Slogans not included.

This is a truth that Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino understands implicitly, and though on the surface his collection didn’t seem remotely armored or aggressive or activist or any of those things, it was one of the most radical statements about female autonomy of the season yet, because it separated nudity from sex. Shocker.

Back in Italy, Mr. Piccioli said during a preview, he had heard people saying that women should “be careful what they wear” lest they invite whatever happens next. ”It is a big step backward,” he said. So he tried to move in the opposite direction by celebrating the body, not as a vehicle of desire but as a canvas owned by the person inside. By making clothes that subjugate the eye of the beholder to the experience of the wearer, so what you see turns on the brain, rather than turning it off.

Valentino, spring 2024Credit…Valentino
Valentino, spring 2024Credit…Valentino

He did it by setting his show in the atrium of the École des Beaux-Arts, among the marble nudes, and asking FKA Twigs and a troupe of five dancers to perform. And he did it by making simple cotton and rough linen garments that pulled-on like T-shirts, except they were painstakingly pieced together from complex collages of shapes — doves, pineapples, butterflies — that lay like bas-reliefs, or the most elaborate embroidery, directly atop the skin, the better to incorporate the body beneath so it practically became a base layer, or part of the palette, unto itself.

There were other pieces, too (dresses with the waist or sides cut out like full moons rising), but it was the collaged looks that were revelatory. In all meanings of the word.

Mugler, spring 2024Credit…Kristy Sparow/Getty Images
Mugler, spring 2024Credit…Kristy Sparow/Getty Images

In a way that, for example, Casey Cadwallader’s Mugler, with its plastic breast and hip plates, its swirling strips of fabric and transparent bodysuits bristling iridescent spikes, was not, cheerfully and inclusively libidinous though it was. (Hot! We’re all so hot! Hot sea creatures! was mostly the message).

But in a way that the work of Chitose Abe at Sacai also shares.

Though in the past Ms. Abe has sometimes gotten tangled up in her signature technique, which splices garments together to represent the reality of female multitasking at the most creative level, she has recently begun simplifying and abstracting her approach, and her collection was the better for it. In her hands, clarity and complexity are not antithetical concepts. They’re cool.

Sacai, spring 2024Credit…Estrop/Getty Images
Sacai, spring 2024Credit…Dominique Maitre/WWD, via Getty Images

This season she was playing with shapes, sculpting denim and crisp shirting into cocoon curves, stretching tuxedo trousers long and adding a generous flare at the end, giving otherwise utilitarian basics a black-tie elegance by applying the cutting techniques of couture — and then slicing through them to let the stuffiness out, providing a window into the life below. Sometimes, lingerie veiling served the same purpose, not as provocation but as a sort of physical mnemonic.

A reminder, if anyone needed one, about what this is really all for.

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