A combination of the coronavirus crisis, torrential rainstorms and references on the runway to climate change and animal extinction made Paris Fashion Week a strange and eerily unsettling event this season. Several international buyers and press members cut short their trips because of the flu outbreak on the outskirts of French capital. Around the catwalks, there was a fiery tempest and flooded catwalk at Balenciaga; snow and bemused African animals (models in masks) at Thom Browne in a show themed around Noah's Ark; and Stella McCartney advocating ethical solutions for fashion that are not cruel to animals and harmful to the planet. This was a season to remind us that fashion has its fair share of responsibility in what is happening environmentally.
That was the reality check; however, there were many positives to take away from Paris, such as strong messages about female empowerment, diversity of ethnicities among the models and an embracing of beauty in many forms. Here are the key themes that emerged.
Red and black
The two strong, empowering and sensual colours dominated almost every runway. Pierpaolo Piccioli put more black in his Valentino show than he has ever done before, using it for sheer shirting, pantsuits, bustier dresses, and a couture-crafted coat and bustier constructed from hundreds of tiny leather petals. The blackness was punctuated by pops of signature Valentino red accessories, and a group of coats and dresses culminating in a beautiful sylph-like red sequin finale dress modelled by Adut Akech.
The colour combination also dominated the McQueen collection, where Sarah Burton was inspired by the courageous women and folkloric history of Wales. She sculpted silhouettes in wool and leather, embracing models of all sizes in curvaceous draped leather and heart-patterned dresses. The combination also turned up at Giambattista Valli where a couple of vibrant red off-the-shoulder evening dresses stood out among the designer's signature pinks.
Red was also the primary colour at Hermes where a showjumping set of coloured vertical bars (Hermes sponsors an equestrian Grand Prix in Paris this spring), racing silks and polo shirts came in red, accented with luxurious white leather and silk. Beautiful and functional.
Paris designers are seeking new (and not so new) directions to move with their brands. If these runways are to be believed, the sports luxe and streetstyle trends we have become familiar with in recent seasons are dead. Fashion is much more elegant, plundering the 1970s, 1980s and sometimes 1990s era of the Parisian bourgeoisie. It is a look that Hedi Slimane has successfully raided from the historic Celine archives since arriving at the house, working chiffon foulard blouses with knee-length skirts, belted shirt dresses and felt hats. It was very literal but, given Slimane’s roots at Saint Laurent menswear, maybe understandable.
Elie Saab similarly explored the frilled blouses, velvet jackets, lace, bows and other familiar tropes of Parisian bourgeois for his expanding daywear collection. Chic and pretty without being fussy, Saab's collection stuck to a monochrome palette to keep it sharp. Perhaps Karl Lagerfeld's early years were on the Lebanese designer's mood board as there was a strong hint of Chanelegance about the styling as Lagerfeld, like Yves Saint Laurent, defined 1980s bourgeois. It was a point picked up by Virginie Viard at Chanel, who was also inspired by Lagerfeld's early period for her tweed coats, hot pants, beautiful scalloped white shirts and a show piled high with all that famous Chanel jewellery.
If there is one thing to invest in for your own wardrobe, make it chequered prints. Every runway featured variations on the theme, including Stella McCartney and Thom Browne, in black and white or brown tones – from houndstooth to Prince of Wales and big blanket checks. Maria Grazia Chiuri is a cheerleader for feminism, and filled her Dior collection with shadowy checks on dresses, shorts, tank tops and blanket coats inspired by the women's libbers of the 1960s and 1970s. Her show featured neon slogans flashing words such as "Consent", which was very topical as the show coincided with Harvey Weinstein's conviction.
Giraffes, elephants and lions could have looked out of their element in the snowy landscape Thom Browne created for his men's and womenswear collection, but the tailoring made much of the Noah's Ark theme of pairs of animals, or in this case his and hers tailoring appliqued with animals and animal-shaped bags.
The motifs also featured in a beautifully crafted pantsuit and coat at Alexander McQueen, created from a collage of geometric-cut fabrics.
Stella McCartney's message was more serious for, as a vegan, she is constantly exploring ways of creating fashion from sustainable sources – a point she highlighted with cow, fox, crocodile and rabbit costumes along with models dressed more conventionally. The designer uses PVC and animal-free vegan leather for bags and boots, and shaggy pile animal-free shearling for her teddy-bear coats.
Black leather and red wool, along with plenty of chequered prints, highlighted one of Paris fashion's strong points: finely sculpted tailoring. The heritage of chic tailoring in haute couture filtered through into very fitted shapes, the shoulder sometimes a little built up for a more empowering silhouette. The sharpest suits came from Valentino, Saint Laurent, Schiaparelli and Elie Saab.
Daniel Roseberry is modernising the famous Schiaparelli look with slender tailoring in black and pink, punctuated with gold buttons using the house signature surrealist motifs, such as the padlock, or stitching a gold embroidered tape measure braid on to a lapel.
At Saint Laurent, Anthony Vaccarello emphasised legs with latex, bright elegant coats and corsets in leather and silks. Vacarello looked to the Saint Laurent archive for some of the designer's more bourgeois looks from the 1990s and added his own spin with the shiny black latex for the braver customer. After all, Saint Laurent himself was not above subverting anything he thought overly bourgeois.
It was not all about fitted silhouettes, either; there were also soft volumes and drapery. There were airy silk tent dresses at Issey Miyake, and bubble-shaped sleeves and dramatic drop-shoulder frills at Loewe, where Jonathan Anderson knows what his art-loving audience likes. At Vivienne Westwood, it was draped and swagged dresses, while Sacai's Chitose Abe, known for her hybrid sportswear in silk and tech fabrics, embraced volume with flowing maxi dresses. Incidentally, Abe will be the first designer to participate in a new project in July launched by Jean-Paul Gaultier Haute Couture, which will invite a designer to interpret the codes of the house each season.
Feathers, fringes and chain mail
The chain mail and metallic paillettes at Paco Rabanne are worth a mention for their shine and movement, and those elements are key to fashion trims this season. Feathers at Giambattista Valli, Givenchy and Elie Saab, and plenty of blanket coat fringes and silky fringed gowns in Dior’s eveningwear, have replaced embroidery as fashion’s decorative details for autumn’s party season.