Paris Fashion Week SS21: Highlights from a week of shows staged against a turbulent backdrop

As a month-long schedule of both digital and physical shows across four major capitals comes to a close in Paris today, the mood in the fashion world is difficult to gauge. On the one hand, a number of designers have shown that against all odds beauty and creativity can thrive even in the most challenging of contexts. On the other, the industry’s role — at least as it is now — in a world that seems defined by political conflict, and health and climate-related uncertainty — is unclear.

As fashion designer Daniel Roseberry told commentator Tim Blanks in a recent podcast by The Business of Fashion, “There is something very irrelevant about what we bring to the table right now. Fashion shows don’t have to be relevant right now. There (are so) many other things that are more important.”

Schiaparelli Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: Courtesy Schiaparelli

Roseberry’s sentiment goes a long way to explaining why we chose to center the majority of our fashion reporting throughout the month of September on some of the larger issues that impact the industry — and, really, anyone who buys clothes. In particular: fashion’s role in the climate crisis. We partnered with international non-profit Fashion Revolution and published a series of twenty features, guides and opinion pieces about the connections between fashion, the climate crisis and how we live our lives.

Choosing not to travel, the CNN Style team watched the four major fashion weeks flicker out from our screens at home, hoping to spot signals for what might lie ahead. Springtime often conjures up ideas of rebirth and new beginnings, but with so much hanging in the balance around the world, many of the new collections presented a reckoning with the past and present instead of a look towards the future.

Here’s what caught our attention from the virtual front row during Paris Fashion Week.

Golden Eye

Striking gold jewelery including statement earrings, face moldings and eye pieces made it almost impossible at first to focus on the clothing presented by Schiaparelli’s Texas-born creative director Daniel Roseberry. But on closer inspection, the clothes were alluring, too, thanks to their simplicity and thoughtful tailoring. Roseberry said he wanted the designs to be timeless and “essential.”

Schiaparelli Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: Courtesy Schiaparelli

“This moment we’re all sharing will end. But these clothes will last,” read a statement. The collection was presented via an off-the-cuff series of photographs taken by Roseberry, and accompanied by a behind-the-scenes video from the shoot which took place on the streets of Paris.

High performance meets commerce

Rihanna threw away the rulebook when she first launched her lingerie line Savage x Fenty in 2018, and created a stir last year when she premiered a 50-minute film on Amazon Prime that was part music video, part fashion show, part behind-the-scenes documentary. At a time when Victoria’s Secret was losing its footing as the lingerie brand with the most hotly anticipated shows, Savage — with its bold and inclusive designs — felt like the future. This time around, Rihanna dropped a new film shot in Los Angeles during Paris fashion week. The Savage x Fenty show “Vol 2” featured an impressive roster of talent including Lizzo, Bad Bunny, Bella Hadid and Demi Moore.
Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2 presented by Amazon Prime Video.

Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2 presented by Amazon Prime Video. Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

The video received criticism, however, for including an incantation of a sacred text in one of the featured tracks, with some calling it cultural appropriation. In Islam, hadiths are believed to be a record of the traditions or sayings of the prophet Muhammad. The producer Coucou Chloe, who is behind the song “Doom,” in which the hadith features, has since issued an apology. “I want to deeply apologize for the offence caused by the vocal samples used in my song ‘Doom’. The song was created using samples from Baile Funk tracks I found online. At the time, I was not aware that these samples used text from an Islamic Hadith,” read her statement on Twitter. She confirmed efforts were being made to remove the track from streaming platforms. Rihanna and Savage x Fenty did not initially respond to CNN’s requests for comment but the artist subsequently posted a statement on her personal Instagram account on Tuesday in which she thanked the Muslim community for pointing out “a huge oversight that was unintentionally offensive.” She went on to say, “I do not play with any kind of disrespect for God or any religion and therefore the use of this song was completely irresponsible!”

Matthew Williams’ Givenchy debut

Givenchy and the house’s new creative director Matthew Williams made headlines in June when it was announced that he would be taking over from Clare Waight Keller (the designer behind Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s wedding dress).

Givenchy Spring-Summer 2021. Credit: Courtesy Givenchy

In an impressive two-month turnaround, Williams released his first ad campaign for the house, swiftly followed by a Spring-Summer 2021 collection which he dubbed a “sampler” for what’s to come. Known for his luxury streetwear aesthetic, his designs — which he revealed via social media — brought a notable edge to the storied couture house.

Lunar games

Perhaps in an attempt to respond to the gravity of our current reality, American designer Thom Browne presented a collection of looks 239,000 miles away from Earth — on the Moon. His show took the form of a tongue-in-cheek digital video which transported viewers to the “Lunar Games” in 2132, presented by comedian Jordan Firstman and model Grace Mahary. The co-ed collection, which the brand labeled as a “a tailored ode to sport and sportsmanship,” was modeled on the steps of the recognizable Los Angeles Coliseum, the home of the 1932 Olympics.

Thom Browne Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: Courtesy Thom Browne

Protective fashion

With the current public health crisis and climate disasters including the wildfires in California, It doesn’t take a fashion expert to unpick the origins of the current trend for performance, or, protective wear, as designers offered various riffs on the protective abilities of garments throughout the week.

Kenzo Spring-Summer 2021.

Kenzo Spring-Summer 2021. Credit: Peter White/Getty Images

Taking a slightly whimsical approach to the idea of clothes that protect, Kenzo presented a series of beekeeper-inspired looks, while Balenciaga’s oversized outerwear and sunglasses-clad models looked as though they could face just about anything. Meanwhile Rick Owens, who took his show to Venice this season, paired every look with the accessory du jour: face masks.

Chanel harkens back to the silver screen

It’s unlikely that there will be many red carpet moments to dazzle us as awards season approaches and the pandemic wears on, so the label’s creative director Virginie Viard’s ode to classic cinema — which she said was a tribute to the muses of the the fashion house — offered up a welcome dose of glamour. In a short film teased a day before the physical show, renowned photographers Inez & Vinoodh painted a picture of French New Wave, Italian cinema and Hollywood all converging in an imagined landscape filmed from above.

Chanel Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

As for the clothes, Viard said she did not want to fall into “vintage citation” and so presented Chanel’s iconic tweed alongside florescent jeans and neon T-shirts. In a statement about her designs Viard wrote that she wanted the collection to be “very joyful, colourful, and very vibrant too,” perhaps offering a last-ditch effort to embrace the fun side of Paris as it shutters its bars tonight due to rising Covid-19 cases.

Kenzo Takada

While a number of fashion houses, designers and their teams managed to muster moments of beauty and levity, the death of Kenzo Takada on Sunday was a sobering reminder of the times we live in. The Paris-based Japanese designer died of Covid-19 related complications in hospital in the city he came to call home after bursting onto the fashion scene in the 1970s. Tributes poured in for the designer known for his colorful prints and his authentic bridging between east and west styles and silhouettes.

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