Maybe it's the mood stirred up in Europe by Brexit or the Greta Thunberg effect, but fashion seems to be about more than pretty clothes these days. There appears to be a sense of needing to be useful, of longevity and of actually serving a purpose. Rather than flash-in-the-pan ideas, the general mood at Paris Fashion Week, which ended on Tuesday, was about slowing fashion down and revisiting tried-and-trusted ideas in new ways. Within that, of course, there were shows that celebrated life, with a live-fast, die-young zeal, embracing today as if there were no tomorrow. Overall, however, this week has been about the bigger picture, of climate change and depleting resources, and of adopting the mindset to seek inspiration from decades past or invest in pieces that are made to last.
Take Marine Serre for a start. Not only did the French label use real people on its runway, but it also offered clothes for surviving the apocalypse. In a collection called Maree Noire (meaning oil spill), jackets and tops were made from slick, hard-wearing rubber and trousers cut from a camouflage fabric so faded, it must have had a previous life elsewhere. Nuclear blast eyewear hung around necks, while several looks were cut from humble towels, decorative edges still intact. Fittingly staged outside, even as the audience sat in the rain, the show raised the stark question of climate change.
Then there was Chloe, where Natacha Ramsay-Levi's collection looked back to the brand's old days (read Lagerfeld's Chloe) and the importance of timeless dressing. This was a quietly beautiful conversation about creamy nudes and how to wear them – whether as long plisse skirts, high-waisted 1970s-style jeans, or 1930s-era housecoats worn open over trousers. The higher message was about reworking classic pieces and learning how to see them anew each time.
For Christian Dior, creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri built a forest using 164 trees from around Europe – their roots carefully wrapped in protective burlap sacks – to highlight the importance of biodiversity. Through this forest, models meandered in looks that were part-feminist, part-wood fairy, sporting Thunberg-style plaited hair. Chiuri took inspiration from Christian Dior's own sister, Catherine, who had fought for the French resistance, before becoming the first flower wholesaler in Paris. This materialised as utilitarian blue shirts paired with floor-length hessian skirts strewn with embroidered wildflowers and topped with woven farmers' hats. Even the bestselling Book bag was remade as a trug, and filled with gardening tools.
Founded as a leather saddle-maker, Hermès returned to its roots, recrafting workers' aprons into elegant pieces. Still rich with heritage, the sparse leather-patched-on-to-canvas belted long jackets, knee-length tunics and short dresses were simple, sculpturally cut and practical, despite the butter-soft perforated leather. In a tale about carrying the past forward into the future, this was about longevity, rather than just a new season's offerings.
Valentino created a story about dresses so delightfully gorgeous, they deserve to be handed down the generations. Inspired by the Valentino thinking of the 1960s (including the same all-white opening), this was the latest iteration of a narrative that began a few seasons ago, of party dresses, lifted and lightened with tendrils of feather, in colours to cheer the most weary of souls. The prettiness of the garments aside, the show was about that ultimate Italian attitude: a celebration of family and love. Make no mistake, Pierpaolo Piccioli is thinking about the long term, and the life these clothes will have in the future, retrieved from suit bags and tissue paper as grandchildren play at dressing up.
Balenciaga, meanwhile, tackled a difficult topic head-on, staging its show in a faux Balenciaga "parliament", which happened to be the same blue as the EU flag. The first all-black suited looks (worn by both genders) were designer Demna Gvasalia's version of politicians, followed by what he described as "democratic and easy-to-wear volumes". That volume appeared, too, on faces, as prosthetic angles on cheekbones, weird and spooky because of the subtlety. Jacket shoulders jutted six inches past nature, becoming progressively more outlandish, ending as sports coats that sat up around the ears, almost as protection. The great skill of Gvasalia is updating Cristobel Balenciaga's rich heritage for today's world, and the five crinoline dresses of the finale, in silver, gold and glossy velvet, were Gvasalia's version of Balenciaga's long-time influence – the gowns of the 17th-century Spanish Court.
Over at Saint Laurent, however, things were very different. A glossy black runway lined with searchlights visible for miles created clouds of light pollution through which creative director Anthony Vaccarello marched his models. Clad in micro-minis and sheer tops, Vaccarello's models wore additional spray-on leather, carved tightly around torsos and legs, and matched with high heels. Almost entirely monochromatic – lightened occasionally with smudges of patinated gold – the cuts were razor sharp, such as the blazer / mini dress with squared-off shoulders, and left negative spaces of skin integral to the look.
It seems Stella McCartney's long game of trying to save the planet is starting to pay off. Mocked for years for her pro-animal, pro-sustainability stance, now, as the rest of the world catches up with that view, suddenly McCartney is front and centre of the cause. In that respect, the show she delivered in Paris was victorious, with scalloped hems on shirts, dresses and skirts, and bias-cut stripes as jersey dresses and sheer blouses. With no leather, animal glue or virgin cashmere to be seen, her suits (for men and women) were loose and relaxed, while her long dresses – with deep plunges in bold blue, orange, lace and florals – flowed with environmental virtue.
At Celine, designer Hedi Slimane garnered all his skill and vast knowledge to rework the 1960s and 1970s, with patchwork denim skirts, embroidered culottes and antique-ish lace blouses over knee-high boots. Every child of the 1970s will know this from watching their mothers in similar garb, but this was no copycat. In Slimane's skilled hands, this was insouciant and modern, with simple pinstriping now a languid three-piece suit (worn with a pussy-bow blouse) and paisley prints covering off-the-shoulder summer dresses. Another outfit was delightfully made of crochet, while the most remarkable were gold-encrusted.
Despite having been at Alexander McQueen for almost a decade, Sarah Burton has had a slow, simmering rise. But risen she has, and for spring / summer she delivered arguably the most beautiful collection of the week. Focused on storytelling and human connections, the opening look was a puff-sleeved dress of linen that, according to the show notes, had been "bleached by the sun and the moon". It was followed by looks in ivory linen from the oldest mill in Ireland, and trimmed with guipure lace, the patterns of which were taken from sketches Burton's team had made of endangered Irish flowers. Elsewhere, looks were in white damask, with square necks and pleated folds from Thomas Ferguson, the last damask weaver in Ireland. By applying touches normally found in couture, Burton made every look remarkable, and worthy of the name slow fashion.
At Chanel, new creative director Virginie Viard offered a less rigid take on the house codes, with the famous tweed cut into endless playsuits and minidresses. On a set of Parisian rooftops, the clothes were still tailored, with immaculate lapels and square shoulders, but more relaxed, and probably closer to Coco than Lagerfeld in thinking. Knitted dresses had a fluid, almost slouchy feel, especially when worn with oversized knitted cardigans, while denim featured heavily as flounce-sleeved tops and capri pants. The boxy jacket – the mainstay of the label – appeared decked in sequins, as copper metallic and, most beautifully, in oversize logo print. The stage-crasher who interrupted the show aside, this collection felt warmly familiar, approachable and quietly sublime.
Nicolas Ghesquiere at Louis Vuitton is never one to follow others, but even he cast an eye back to, if not nostalgia, then certainly a less climate-addled age. In a beautiful collection set against a singer belting out It's Okay to Cry, 1970s-era skinny jackets and waistcoats appeared with flare trousers, even as a 1960s-style knitted tunic turned out to be made of sequins. Vivid pop-art patterns covered bishop-sleeved minidresses, while mini wrap skirts were kaleidoscopic in purples, mustards and greens. The designer's favourite cropped flared trousers appeared under layers of vintage lace and jackets with patterns that could have been hand-drawn. Most surprisingly, and just like the rest of Paris Fashion Week, even Vuitton's wonderful array looked like it might well have been made with things most of us own already.