John Lewis is a byword for plain-speaking British common sense as much as it is an actual shop; everyone knows that. Saint Laurent, meanwhile, is the high church of Parisian chic, as well as a luxury boutique. When a trend unites both, that is not just a fashion trend. That, mes chéris, is a vibe shift.
A month after John Lewis scandalised the nation by cancelling the floral midi, pointing out that there isn’t a woman in this country who needs another one and gently proposing neutral tailoring instead, Paris fashion week has seconded the motion. There was not a pastoral puff sleeve nor a ditzy floral milkmaid dress to be seen on Paris catwalks this week. Instead, there were shoulder-padded blazers over silk blouses and fishnet tights with spike heels. Pin-sharp silhouettes, not floaty layers. Change is in the air. Three years after the pandemic turned us into comfort dressers, is it time to stop dressing for imaginary picnics and sharpen up? Are you ready to quit the easy-care layers and get back on chummy terms with your dry cleaner?
Fashion week is as much about the feel-it-in-your-fingertips stuff as it is about the clothes. Millions of floating particles form clouds that take on shapes; that’s how the zeitgeist works. At Saint Laurent, the designer Anthony Vaccarello brought back the spirit of the late Yves with a show set that recreated the Hotel Intercontinental, where Yves Saint Laurent showed his haute-couture collections in the 1990s. Chandeliers the size of taxis, expensively rippled moiré carpet, a catwalk elevated so that the audience gazes up at its goddesses. The eternally chic Catherine Deneuve, now 79, was in the audience. There was soft piano jazz and perfect tuxedo jackets over camisoles that were little scoop-necked silk nothings, worn with high-waisted trousers and the simplest black court shoes. And as ludicrous as it sounds, I got shivers. I felt … awe. That did not happen back when fashion was nap dresses and loungewear.
Polish and sophistication are suddenly everywhere. At Balmain, where last season’s show had a raucous Cher performance and a hamburger stand, this season was a mellow, intimate number with Frank Sinatra on the soundtrack, pearls and polka dots on the catwalk. Schiaparelli – which just two months ago featured Kylie Jenner in a lion’s headdress – served up neat suits and crisp velvet eveningwear to the honeyed tones of Sade. On Tuesday afternoon, Miu Miu closed the week with tobacco-coloured suits and caramel twin sets.
Emily is not in Paris any more. The goofy colours and screwball-comedy accessories of Netflix’s American-in-France heroine are fading from view. The guests of honour in the front row this week were Emily’s co-stars. Camille Razat, who plays Camille, was at Victoria Beckham’s show in black tailoring with lace gloves; Philippine Leroy Beaulieu, who plays Sylvie, wore a black opera coat with pointy boots to Christian Louboutin’s fashion week celebration at the Opéra Comique.
This new look is not going to make everyone happy – and that is sort of the point. Fashion has been through an unusually friendly and easygoing spell. It is impossible to look intimidating in a floral midi. Chuck-it-in-the-machine, work-from-home loungewear was perfect for the we’re-all-in-it-together vibe of lockdown. And then last year, Portia from White Lotus was the poster girl for what surrendering to global chaos looks like. But perhaps there comes a point when “being kind to yourself” isn’t about giving yourself permission to make zero effort yet again. Designers are reasserting the case for pulling yourself together. Fashion is not trying to be everyone’s likable friend any more. At Dior, the season’s slogan T-shirts quote that formidable take-no-prisoners Parisienne, Edith Piaf: “Je ne regrette rien.”
Is this vibe shift a more feminist, more progressive way of dressing than what went before, or a step back? Depends which way you look at it. Certainly, these are grownup clothes, which is a vast improvement on the teenybopper Y2K tat of last season, and there are lots of nice, sensible warm coats. (Also, we wore these clothes in the pre-floral-dress era, so you may have them in your wardrobe already.)
On the other hand, this aesthetic has a tendency to be associated with an ultra-lean body. At Saint Laurent I found myself transfixed by the models’ hipbones knuckling through their leggings as they walked. When Victoria Beckham said before her show that she loved strong-shouldered tailoring but “with legs poking out”, I couldn’t help feel that she wasn’t talking about thighs like mine. Meanwhile, “gender fluid”, which was such a buzz phrase a few years ago, has all but disappeared from fashion’s main stages. Designers who loved to talk about “playing with gender” have clammed up on the subject, presumably because there is nothing playful or fun about the way we discuss gender right now. Wild horses could not drag me into this debate, so I note without judgment that womenswear is entrenching itself back into what womenswear looked like before the vogue for co-ed catwalks changed everything.
Paris fashion week left me feeling that perhaps looking polished and chic isn’t retro. At Courrèges, a model wearing a prim grey tweed coat with pristine white boots strode along the catwalk without once breaking eye contact with the phone she was clutching in both hands. It was curious to see what has become the universal gesture of our time acted out like this, as the models texted their way down the runway and back. This is what modernity looks like; it had a little more charm for being properly dressed, somehow.
After the sartorial pressure of fashion weeks, this time of year usually finds me ready to kick back in a comfy dress and trainers. But this season feels different. The ditzy floral holds a little less appeal. Wise old John Lewis called it first.