Our Bodies, Ourselves

Paris Fashion Week: Redefining Femininity at Comme des Garçons and Rick Owens

In their Spring 2013 collections, French avant-garde designers explored the often-contentious relationship that women have with their bodies. Robin Givhan reports from Paris.

Chris Moore, Catwalking / Getty Images (2) ; Martin Bureau, AFP / Getty Images

When the first model stepped into the single stuttering light at the Haider Ackermann show in Paris Saturday morning, it was clear that a seduction was in progress. Model after model slowly strode into the growing spotlight wearing mysterious shades of navy, chocolate brown and charcoal. The trousers often hung low on their hips or were draped gently around the legs; the tailored jackets embraced the torso; and silky blouses slithered off the body into a perfect moment of dishabille. The audience members were invited voyeurs, witnessing a glorious love affair between a woman and her body.

It is a rarely seen amorous encounter.

Although the fashion industry exists, ideally, to facilitate a feel-good relationship between a woman and her body, rarely does it do so. Rarely does it turn the unending monologue a woman has in her mind about her hips, her thighs, or her arms into a something less fraught, complex, or frustrating. Instead, fashion nurtures tension. It undermines a woman’s innate sense of herself and constantly reminds her that she is being judged by a culture that sets a dauntingly high and ever-changing standard. The garment business is its own worst enemy—giving women endless reasons to turn away from its pleasures and possibilities.

Fashion creates rules that a woman must either follow or reject, but whatever her choice, she is judged based on how she responds. Some designers make it easier to embrace fashion. Nina Ricci’s Peter Copping crafted a delicately pretty collection in shades of fuchsia, lilac, and black with just enough edge—skinny black zippered skirts, for instance—to keep a woman from looking like marzipan version of herself. And Marco Zanini’s collection for Rochas was filled with simple shapes reminiscent of the 1950s in lavish satin and taffeta.

But what makes Ackermann’s work stand out is his ability to create a sensual collection that isn’t reliant on the gaze of a man—or another woman—in order for it to be seductive. For Spring 2013, the tailoring of jackets is crisp; the filmy dresses that top trousers and create a rich palette of patterns are revealing. But the revelations are quiet and without fanfare—as when a woman is alone in her bedroom or her private bath. Ackermann creates a mood of calm and pleasure. The women on his runway do not invite the audience to stare, nor do they demand it. But the audience can’t resist stealing a glance at a profoundly personal moment.

In most instances, clothes do not function in this way. Typically, they serve as costuming for our public roles. The style we choose reflects how we want others to define us, not necessarily how we define ourselves when we are away from prying eyes.

A woman feels pressure to struggle into a cigarette skirt and to bear the weight of a broad-shouldered jacket because those are the accepted silhouettes that define power. Political women can’t shake their attraction to bright shades of red and blue because of the subtext of patriotism. Teenagers dart from one aesthetic tribe to another in search of the most comfortable fit. Rarely do people create their own style vocabulary.

No one underscored that kind of cookie-cutter fashion this season more than Jean-Paul Gaultier, who created a collection not just inspired by 80s pop stars but that essentially mimicked them. His Saturday night show was a personal fashion playlist. As a Grace Jones tune rumbled out of the speakers, a group of black models with wedge haircuts and big-shouldered black blazers stalked the runway. As the vaguely Caribbean sway of Culture Club began to play, along came models in floral jackets and trousers, their hair in faux dreadlocks. As Madonna cranked up, models represented her aesthetic journey from Boy Toy to Voguing dancer.

The collection was a mess, never offering a considered point-of-view. It was little more than a stage full of costumes and accompanying impersonators. Instead of celebrating the diversity of the female form—which Gaultier has often done in past collections—he loosed his inner fan-boy and revealed himself to be a designer who sees women as actors in their own lives just waiting to get into character.

Most often it’s the designers who operate outside the big brands and the historical traditions who give women space to consider their body without so many rules and so much self-criticism. Rick Owens’s work is driven by a personal vision that refuses to define beauty in familiar terms. He doesn’t employ sunny colors or silhouettes that insist on an hourglass shape. He doesn’t give in to frills or sweetness.

For spring, he wrapped his models in lightness and air; he draped them in long skirts in pale shades. And he gave them strapless gowns that swaddled the body instead of showing it off.

Owens, an American who shows in Paris, offers women a different way of thinking about girlishness and womanhood without the usual trussing of the bosom or unveiling of a long expanse of leg. He and Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester, a fan of languid shapes in moody hues, argue that a tiny waist and full breasts have nothing to do with female beauty. For some women, that approach may seem insulting to the classic female form. Others may find it empowering. Still others may find Owens’s contrarian definition an indulgence that they cannot afford in their by-the-books world. But Owens is one of the lead voices in an aesthetic—embraced by women young and old, Western and not—who find power in what they choose to hide from full public view. These customers are not aiming for androgyny, just an alternative definition of femininity.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

While a designer such as Roland Mouret makes a beautiful case that there is nothing more gorgeous and glamorous that an hourglass figured stitched into a color-blocked dress with strategically placed cut-outs and straps, one can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief that Demeulemeester and Owens continue to push their case.

No designer, however, is as adept at forcing a reconsideration of femininity as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. The collection she presented Saturday afternoon began with a blank canvas. Literally, the first model to move slowly down her runway wore an ivory canvas dress that looked as though it had been haphazardly folded and pinched around her body and quickly stitched into place. Atop her head sat an upturned, dented little metal bucket—recycling turned into millinery.

The palette of ivory eventually transformed into all black and with the shift in color the models began to move briskly and with determination down the runway.

No matter the color of the garments, however, there was never a delineation of the body: no darts at the bosom, no curves at the hips, no indentation at the waist.

More than anything, one noticed the contrasts in color and in temperament. Ivory was slow and easy. Black was fast and with more extravagant gestures. Did the gait change our perception of the garment? Did the shift in color—out of the light and into the dark—alter its beauty?

The Comme des Garçons collection raised questions about how our perceptions are altered by the cultural connections we have to color, light, speed. All those things effect our assessment of the models. Those in white and walking with a contemplative gait evoked innocence. Those in black, with their speedier walk, suggested confidence and purpose. How we carry ourselves affects the clothes and the clothes affect our personal carriage.

Fashion is the great mediator in the relationship between our body and ourselves.