The Science of Style

PARIS — Gabriela Hearst of Chloé is really, really excited about nuclear fusion. You know: the reaction that occurs when two atomic nuclei combine to form a bigger one, like in the sun and other stars, and that offers the promise of almost limitless clean energy for the planet, if only we can figure out how to recreate it in a controlled way.

She is so excited about it, in fact, and its implications for solving the climate crisis, that she has spent the past two years learning about it. So excited, in fact, that she took field trips to three fusion research centers: ITER (a.k.a., the world’s largest fusion experiment, located in the South of France), Commonwealth Fusion Systems (a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff in Cambridge, Mass.) and Helion Energy (in Washington state).

So excited that she designed an entire collection around it.

She created a set in the circular shape of a tokamak, the name for the reactor that scientists hope to use to produce thermonuclear fusion. Commissioned an installation from the artist Paolo Montiel-Coppa involving zipping beams of light and giant glowing rings. Invited scientists from the various fusion energy companies to sit front row (you could tell them by their ties). And featured the hydrogen isotope as her aesthetic throughline.

The hydrogen isotope!

Fashion often seems to obey the laws of physics (all hems that go up must come down; every trend has an equal and opposite trend reaction), and Ms. Hearst has a long history with embedding sustainable practices in her work and using them to bring awareness to the climate crisis. But even in that context, this was taking things to a new level.

Chloé, spring 2023.Credit…Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

As for those isotopes, they came as a trio of circles cut out of the sides of stretch knits, hand-stitched as pebble-shaped embeds into the body of a leather tank dress, represented by sun-like bursts of studs on dark denim (made from recycled cotton and hemp) and otherwise incorporated into the earth mother-appropriate power urbanity that has become Ms. Hearst’s Chloé signature.

Or so it seemed; the clothes were kind of hard to see because of the beams that kept shooting overhead. It was also kind of hard to see how Ms. Hearst’s newfound passion, authentic and important though it is, would make the leap from garment to general public. Most people, after all, will see a racer-back knit covered in leather discs and think “modernist mermaid.” As opposed to, say, “nuclear fusion, the solution to the energy crisis, if only we can make it work.”

Fashion can be a great viral vector of information — just think of how color can become the symbol of protest — but if it’s going to wade into current events it needs to do so in a way that is legible at the most essential level, and at a glance. That taps into emotions, like the desire for change or revolution or safety or unity.

The team at Off-White understands this, even as it begins to tiptoe forward not quite a year after the founder Virgil Abloh’s death. Mr. Abloh situated his brand at the place where high fashion bleeds into merch and community, and in that vein the brand dropped a T-shirt on every seat, referencing a 2017 project that Mr. Abloh had created with Planned Parenthood averring the right of people to control of their own bodies.

Off-White, spring 2023.Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti

“Even when dreaming up new words, we must speak about the harsh realities of our everyday lives” went a line in the show booklet.

Then, under the leadership of Ibrahim Kamara, Mr. Abloh’s longtime collaborator and the new art and image director of the brand, the team members did just that, starting with a surrealist film by Stephen Isaac-Wilson featuring dancers painted blue — rendering them all the same, their original skin color moot — running through doors in a cloudy dreamscape.

Against forest music from West and Central Africa mixed by Faty Sy Savanet, and around a troupe of blue-clad dancers, they offered a treatise on the schematics of the body (a starting point established by Mr. Abloh before his death, according to notes in the show booklet).

Chests and rib cages were etched in whorls of thread on sweaters and sweater dresses; X-rays of the spine, ribs and pelvis silk-screened onto denim and suiting; and big, comet-shaped holes, a brand signifier, cut out to expose the belly, that current subject of intense debate. And make it impossible to ignore the connection between decisions made in statehouses and the actual people they affect.

Rick Owens, spring 2023.Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti

(As it happened, Daniel Roseberry of Schiaparelli was also focused on the body, using splashes of gold to create trompe l’oeil nudes on little black dresses and little black swimsuits, though his gesture was more playful provocation than politics.)

Still, perhaps no designer is as able to merge the buffeting winds of the news cycle and the dream state as Rick Owens.

Once upon a time the dark gollum of fashion, he has matured into one of its most canny elder statesmen, creating clothes that function both on a majestic, almost cinematic level of weirdness and are entirely grounded in cultural realities. (It’s probably no coincidence that a large chunk of pop culture imagery, from “The Rings of Power” to the recent iterations of “Star Wars,” seems to have absorbed his wardrobe mechanics). As he said before the show, “We live in a world of what I call the airport aesthetic — a very strict set of standards of beauty and aspiration and sexuality — and I resent that.”

His clothes, he went on, are “my little protest to bend those rules. There’s a side of me that thinks we’re all doomed, but you have to put your best foot forward while you’re here.”

Rick Owens, spring 2023.Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti

Then he name-checked Luxor, in Egypt, a place that — like Paris and Venice, where he works and lives — represents the rise and decline and memorials of great civilizations; shot a giant fountain of water 15 meters (50 feet) into the air in the reflecting pool of the courtyard behind the Palais de Tokyo; and gave substance to his words.

It came in the form of translucent leather bomber jackets in clay and raspberry with a gelatinous texture, draped jersey minis with trains that whipped out behind like the standard of an alien nation, and dresses made from 200 meters of recycled tulle.

Some garments were pieced together from strips of lacquered denim, so they contracted and expanded, Slinky-ish, almost on their own; others swathed and bunched around the body like insect carapaces. Like the unspoken proclamation: If we’re going to go out (into that good night, or any other), we’re going to go out in glory.

It was impossible to look at and not feel fully charged.

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