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The pandemic has shaken the fashion industry to the core. Shops closed, production slowed or stopped, companies filed for bankruptcy, and the shows – the big, overcrowded celebration of designs – moved to virtual moments. But this month in Paris, haute couture shows had largely returned. Celebrities stood in the front row. Stilettos rattled. And for the first time in a year and a half, journalists were able to experience these creations in the group. Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and chief fashion critic for the New York Times, and Jessica Testa, fashion reporter, reflected on their experiences on their return to Paris. This interview has been edited.
What was special about the couture shows in Paris?
VANESSA FRIEDMAN It was the first time in over a year that the most famous and hippest shows took place in person, with a live audience made up of a large portion of the fashion world’s regulars. These are the shows that are gaining popularity on social media like Dior and Chanel so they reach a lot more people than just the fashion in the tents.
What is couture fashion? Why is it significant?
FRIEDMANN These are garments that are handcrafted to order for a single person by highly skilled artisans who have been trained for years, and they can cost a staggering amount of money: $ 20,000 for a dress and up. There are maybe 200 real couture customers in the world. It’s a very formalized fashion sector. There are all of these rules about what you have to do to qualify as a couture house. It used to be the fashion lab and everything was filtered out: silhouettes were created and then translated into ready-made clothing that might be sold in a store – and then widely copied by even more accessible brands. Now it’s more of an art form in its own right.
How did it feel to be back in Paris? How was it different from previous years?
FRIEDMANN Well, usually they squeeze people onto the benches next to the runways, but this time there was a foot or something on either side and most of the people wore masks in the tents – but otherwise it felt like a normal show . And there was dinner every night, big chic dinners that a lot of people went to. It felt strange that it was just like Before Times.
But the last 16 months have hit fashion incredibly hard. This was such a difficult time for this industry. All of the things that were talked about in June when people said that this is the way nature says the system is broken – sales are messed up, there is too much stuff – those conversations have stopped. I think the question we both left behind was, what did this industry learn? And the truth is, it’s not clear. Indeed, it is possible that the answer is: not nearly as much as you might hope.
What other questions did you go with?
JESSICA TESTA We’ve also talked a lot about how that focus has been put on making shows sustainable and less wasteful in recent years. All of these people fly around the world and gather in one place for an event, usually a tent or structure or something that is immediately dismantled afterwards. Another question was whether fashion is still determined to become more sustainable during this recovery phase.
FRIEDMANN: Yes, and what will it look like? Because the other notable development over the past year and a half is that we have all realized that despite the fact that we complained about shows for a long time, we complained too many of them, or it was too stressful to go from town to town run city – nobody has really found a great alternative. Some of the things we saw during the pandemic, some of the digital mini-films or video games, were really interesting and creative, but it didn’t feel like, “OK, great: that’s the answer, and everyone should be” that. “
How did it feel to see the designs again in person?
HEAD As someone relatively new to fashion reporting, it’s an amazing experience because it’s a real opportunity to see up close how things are done and how much time it takes to do something really out of the ordinary.
It makes a difference whether you see a painting in person or on screen. For example, at the Balenciaga show, there was this oversized bathrobe. If you just look at one picture on your phone, it just looks like, “Oh, a huge brightly colored terrycloth robe.” And then it’s actually made from those microbladed pieces of leather. It’s completely insane. It’s like the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.
How does seeing the clothes affect what you write?
FRIEDMANN I think that’s what helps people understand why something that looks like this wacky, elitist, indulgent, maybe offensive piece of fashion is something worth preserving aside from the fact that it is the livelihood of a whole group of people. But the craftsmanship, the human competence that goes into it purely as an object and as a kind of craft, is extraordinary. It would be sad to lose that. I think you can appreciate it if you would ever consider buying it. It’s something worth honoring. You can’t really convey that by looking at it through a screen.