Couture began just after the inauguration, and the opening collections were appropriately surreal.
PARIS — One day you’re in Washington, looking out over the Mall at a sea of red baseball caps and yellow rain ponchos as Jackie Evancho sings “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the moment many people thought would never come finally arrives. The next day you’re there on the edges of an ocean of pink knit hats, the air a crescendo of unified voices, demanding to be heard.
And then, an overnight flight and brief moment of bed rest later, you’re perched on a gilded ballroom chair staring at a Marilyn Monroe-blonde Kylie Minogue and Thandie Newton in a paneled salon on Place Vendôme, watching a woman in a white cashmere tunic with an appliqué of beaded red arms clutching her torso and over-the-knee blue suede boots strut by.
It’s enough to give even the most levelheaded among us a touch of vertigo.
Attending the couture — the discipline that celebrates very special clothes for the very few — has always felt a bit like going through the looking glass. This season, coming as it does right after the inauguration and the Women’s March, it was particularly surreal: from pussy hats to lobster hats in 48 hours!
At least metaphorically speaking.
Couture began Monday morning in Paris with Schiaparelli, its founder an erstwhile friend of Dalí, Cocteau and Co., and famous for wearing a simulacrum of the above-mentioned crustacean on her head. It made for a fitting (ahem) start to the not-quite week, which is in something of a reduced state these days, in part because there is so much else going on that demands attention that exclusive clothes seem the least of the matter and in part because of awards season, which acts as a more populous substitute runway.
Versace, which usually kicks things off, has opted out this season; Roger Vivier, too. Raf Simons apparently has introduced a couture-like collection called “By Appointment” as his first salvo for Calvin Klein. It coincided with couture (and, probably not coincidentally, the first couture show at Dior, Mr. Simons’s former employer, under its new creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri). But he didn’t even bother with Paris, doing it on the internet. Who needs to eat cake when you have Instagram?
Nevertheless, Bertrand Guyon, Schiaparelli’s creative director, and its owner, Diego Della Valle, chairman of Tod’s Group, did their best to acknowledge the weirdness — both in the house’s history and this particular moment — instead of ignoring it.
There was a lobster, pincers extended to the floor, though it had migrated from the head to the skirt of a fragile one-shouldered nude silk crepe gown. There were lavishly lashed eyes blinking from either side of a squared-off buttonless black jacket, profiles forming trompe l’oeil lapels, atop sleek tuxedo trousers. There was a cloudlike cloak with hobo patches in tie silks floating over a silk gazar gown. There were stylized carp prints and a lacquered gold lamé minidress with a dragon belt, and it all, interestingly, managed to walk the very fine line between outré and elegant.
It’s a balancing act that, ironically, felt quite germane in the current environment.
Even more apropos, however, was Iris Van Herpen’s meditation on distortion, visual and psychological, done in collaboration with the German artist Esther Stocker. It was held in the darkened basement of the metallurgist’s headquarters, in a black room bisected with zigzagging white lines that rose and fell (literally) like tiny pyramids. People kept tripping over the hillocks on their way to their seats.
Ms. Van Herpen has never been one for fetishizing the past or heritage technique: Her focus is on the transformations wrought by technology, and how they change our understanding of, and perspective on, what is possible. So away with the beading! Away with paillettes and peplums! Enter polyurethane and injection molding; expandable laser-cut mylar and 3-D handcasting.
The shapes were simple, but the execution was not, and the result was eye-boggling: minidresses with squishy skeletal stripes picking out the curves and construction of the body; a long sheath dress shimmering in optical illusion waves; another trapping the body like a spider’s web of futuristic lace; and pajama-like trouser suits speckled with shards of crystal geometry. At the end, silk tulle was covered in hand-cast transparent “water drops” and cut like an enormous snowflake, as if the Sugar Plum Fairy had returned from a trip to Pluto and picked up a dress or two along the way.
“How could you sit in that?” muttered one observer.
The answer is: It does not matter. Sitting is not the point. For Ms. Van Herpen, couture is an ideas laboratory, and the collection is her research paper. It was, according to the show notes, about exploring “the imperfections of systems and structures in both the physical and digital worlds.” In those glitches, she found beauty.
And suddenly, strange as it may sound, you could relate. Thus the couture marches on.