Paris Fashion Week’ scenography through the lenses of Philosophy

When Paul Virilio meets fashion week

in brief

Last September, French Philosopher and Urbanist Paul Virilio passed away, leaving behind him a more than actual philosophy on our modern condition and the power of surveillance systems. Among all the subjects explored by his philosophy, we can find the project of an oblique function of architecture. Although it might seem very theoretical, it has been materialised, hence in a French region too often forgotten in public debates, the Centre and Val de Loire.

If Fashion Week doesn’t go beyond the Périph (Paris’ highway separating the city from its suburbs), it allows, at its scale, to rethink space. More than ever, scenography plays a determining role in the conception of fashion shows. Why put all this work and money for something that will only be visible for about 15 minutes, by a handful of journalists and privileged actors? It is without doubt one of the aspects of luxury: a setting that demands time, and is ephemeral. The contradiction of temporalities provokes desire, the desire to immortalise – or to make it atemporal. Pictures multiply themselves, as attendees hope to attest that they were there. I was there. You were not. Paul Virilio would note: we don’t live in the present, we live in the instant.

Does the attitude of the publics shaping Fashion Week evolve? How could the architecture of the show itself allow us to rethink our relation to time and space?

Paul Virilio; 4 January 1932 – 10 September 2018; was a French cultural theorist, urbanist, and aesthetic philosopher. He is best known for his writings about technology as it has developed in relation to speed and power, with diverse references to architecture, the arts, the city and the military.

During this Fashion Week, major houses, as well as new labels, proposed some reflexions on the cycles that orchestrate the fashion system today (be it at the production level, or consumption). Virilio in this? His project of oblique architecture’s goal was to provoke passing people’s stop. A moment when time suspends itself, and when one actually looks at things rather than just seeing them. A fight between the unstopping and impossible pursuit of a moment already gone.

Scenic constructions are, by their own existence, manifestations of the desire to renegotiate the relationship between people passing by, instants hunters and the present moment. Redesigning an architecture of the event to work on the glance and placing publics inside the show: the project of this Fashion Week?

Between magic, dream and dystopia, the messages behind the settings don’t all have the same aim. But whatever their content: they invite, through their ephemeral nature, to stay in the position of the hunter, whilst giving us the impression to be a spectator/actor of the present time. Because the art of being disconnected wouldn’t be one if it couldn’t be shared on social media.

The oblique function in Virilio and Parent (French architect) makes architecture a mean to counter the loss of human relation. The aim: a tilt of the ground to the oblique, that would bring more fluidity. Which would fecund, on its turn, richer human relationships, whilst reinstalling the individual at its subject place.

Translation in the Fashion Week: transforming ancient spectators/buyers into actors. Not selling garments anymore, but SHARING experiences. And for this “disconnection” experience to be fecund, the individual becomes the broadcasting channel of the show, by sharing the “marking” moments on social media. The result: discussions around these instants, qualified as marking.

Fashion wishes, at any price, to make us forget the cost of glamour, of the dream. It doesn’t sell an experience, it shares an experience. The question is to know for which public fashion shows can become an experience? Which houses have overthrown the ground to the oblique?

What remains from present time?

Postmoderns: Houses familiar with revendicative scenography

Do Rick Owens’ sci-fi witches still have the power to to challenge our consciences?

Fastness and acceleration are notions that inhabited Virilio’s mind. In the field of fashion, these past few years’ factories collapse, over-production, waste, repetitive designers’ burn-outs are waking up people’s consciousness. Lidewij Edelkoort’s Anti-fashion manifesto is a significant proof of positions taking that aren’t new. For Elizabeth Wilson, they are even part of styles proposed by some Couturiers of the 80’s. Qualified as “Post-modernist”, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo or Martin Margiela fusion shows, communications and garments into an artistic manifesto of their thoughts. The garment becomes the receptor of a critical discourse that goes in pair with its staging: fashion is theorised, thought. Thus, for all this part of designers, the public is finally in wait of a political show. No surprises at Rick Owens’ great pagan fire, neither in front of Vivienne Westwood’s skaters. The absence of reactions allows to measure the evolution of sensibility regarding the notion of “scandal” in fashion. It has become customary to place certain names in certain categories: our gaze then perceives less of the subtilities of these shows. The weapons of these designers are not that much subversive anymore. Other designers have taken the field of gender and counter cultures: a competition. Thus, the ground hasn’t changed its inclination at the “post-modern”, despite the new shaking. It is a staging where the true surprise would be to have no elements of scenography. The public is called on a unique mode, which of the revolt and the critique.

This approach is more astounding when they happen in Couture houses, said to be “of reference”.

The Guardians of the temple: time as a perception of an elite

All aboard Balenciaga’s psychedelic train to… where exactly?

The post-modern, ennobled in the big leagues: Demna Gvasalia. The designer of VETEMENTS has critised fashion’ cycles several time, transforming the satire of the luxury consumption culture into the leitmotiv of his work. For this season’s Balenciaga show, a tube full of curved LED screens dived the actors of the fashion field into the digital world. The whirlwind has been described as anxiety: welcome into a dystopia where the acceleration of time is directly criticised. Demna Gvasalia created an frightening sensation and delivered a fable of the present time. To do so, he took a rather direct approach. Between the Plaine Saint-Denis, the projections of the US artist Jon Rafman, the post-punk music repeats “presence is key, now is the answer, ego is not who you are”: the message is crystal clear. No second lecture possible? According to Marta Reprisa on “We have rarely seen the Georgian designer in such a dark mood, and it reflected in the garments, furthered from the normcore spirit and superpositions of last season.”. The dystopian lecture is offered on a silver platter, and there’s no exit option. The setting of immersive architecture becomes a dictatorship of fear that goes beyond the Plaine Saint-Denis. If Virilio’s doors transform into windows and space invites to circulate, the Balenciaga tube enprisons.

This is reflected in the digital space by a unanimous and sclerosing media coverage. Balenciaga gives a rather depressing vision and the information broadcasted freezes around the dark mood of Gvasalia. The gaze is finally focused by a too abrupt reading. The information is unambiguous.

The Louis Vuitton show, in the Louvre’s cour carrée.

As for the dream at the other big French houses. Le Louvre’s Cour carrée (Louis Vuitton), Grand Palais (Chanel) or the Longchamp Hippodrome (Dior) : three examples, three wills to maintain hierarchical systems. The ephemeral settings of shows integrate into preexisting venues, often Parisian historical sites, symbols of the French cultural patrimony.

Using these prestigious sites translate an economical and cultural capital. Bigger and bigger settings, in places with an ancient history, with pharaonic volumes. Pure demonstration of power? At Vuitton, Ghesquière exposes a city under construction. Modernist? In reality, in this city, the designer relives his own hits. A new city in the Cour carrée of the Louvre, where the obtuse angles and triangular fountains close perspectives on a directive line: Concorde-Champs Elysées-Arc de Triomphe. New spaces, YES, but still in line of the already established order. As the dystopia freezes, the dream and lightliness afflicts. Although the settings are present, they don’t leave space for the spirit and body to wander.

New settings: new conceptions of a non-systemic fashion system

“It’s about designing a new reality. One that doesn’t compromise but simply reacts to and works with the real needs, situations and fantasies of garments today.” Marine Serre told journalists after her show.

For the “new scene”: everything remains to be built. Thus, settings vary. Budget constraints don’t always allow the freedom of the oblique. So one has to trick. Marine Serre proposes a spectacle where the garments coordinate with the event. A wooden bridge 200 meters above the suburban trains, evoking the differed speeds of fashion’s diffusion, linked to temporalities that aren’t distributed through an egalitarian way depending on social categories. Beyond that, Marine Serre mimics Fashion Guardians’ griffe idea, showing off her logo and printing her name on some of her designs. She plays, like the post-moderns, with the genders. In reality, her show presents such varied propositions, that its reading is infinite. The most democratic gesture that could be. By suggesting a multitude of lecture possibilities, Marine Serre operates an oblique overthrow in the fashion system. Her show is appreciated, lived, in as many spectators that she has.

Known for his evocative set designs, Thom Browne invited his guests into a setting of blue-and-white–striped wood huts decorated with American flags and lifeguard towers, evoking Nantucket’s sandy shores.

To another case, another way to invite attendees to become actors: Beautiful People adopts a didactic register to showcase its SIDE C technique – a way to use the lining of a garment to deconstruct and reconstruct it. Other examples can be cited. The interest is to show that certain scenographies allow to transform the spectatorial experience, and thus reconfigure our digital practices. By proposing a demonstration of the garment at the end of the show, Beautiful People gives itself another media covering. A practice that Thom Brown also has understand. For each show, the models stay on the runway, and the public can then come and go around them freely. Rambling, moving without physical constraints, and so freely mediatise the show as the envies come. An experience that doesn’t act as a barrier of the digital architecture.

DISCONNECT: the paradox of Virtual Reality

Miximalist is a startup offering brands to virtualise their fashion shows for e-commerce.

Can we federate publics outside of the field of Fashion Week?

The lines dedicated to the scenography of shows have never been so many. However, at the beginning of the year, the commenters still asked, quite naively, the question of the utility of these shows, as digital would allow to provide a new access to garments for the wider public, and to reduce brands’ expenses. Non-debates, that conceive a real and virtual separated worlds. On this basis, it becomes impossible to impulse the oblique architecture. In the field of Fashion Week, the digital era is no synonyme of the long decline of shows or their reduction to a mere virtualisation. On the contrary, catwalks have never been so strong and offer themselves to social media. If the word catwalk still is the right qualificative – the object has disappeared, giving space to settings more complex than the simple white path on which models use to walk. To cite Lavoisier “Nothing get lost, nothing gets created, everything is transformed” – a quote that is itself a remake of Anaxagore: “Nothing neither be born or pass away, but things already existing combine themselves, and separate again”. The present time is nothing but an echo between past and present. The old houses fit in this continuum, making their scenography the testimony of their suprematie. The post-modern become the post of a modernity that has been moved. The new scene seems to be more conscious of something: fashion is a world that lives through its representations. The more plural they’ll be, the more they will establish links between people. The mode they are plural, the more they can incarnate through the bodies in diverse ways. And the more the closed doors will be able to transform into open windows.


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