uring the womenswear seasons of fashion week, it is always the public perception of what it means to be a woman that is most at stake. In previous seasons, it’s been easy to set this aside — think not about the macro implications of the power and tone and lifestyle connoted by a garment — in order to pursue, observe, criticize the minutiae of the hem on a dress, the sleeves on a sweater, the shape of a pair of pants. To have been able to set these implications aside, or to take them for granted because of designers who understood acutely enough how a woman wants to feel when she wears what she was does, was a privilege, not a right. What a bummer.
Since Hedi Slimane showed his collection for Celine, it has been impossible not to consider who is at the helm of the houses who are presenting shows and whether they are male or female and whether they and their bosses care about a garment’s highest calling: to make a woman feel like a better version of herself. Of course, this sense of “better” is going to vary greatly person to person, but held up against Phoebe Philo’s work, which existed to make wearers feel like they are perfect just as they are, it is tough if not disjointed to reconcile how a gaunt partygoer, poised to live fast and die young, as Slimane’s aesthetic has so long embodied, could carry the weight of tradition laid down by Philo.
But I’d rather not delve into the mechanics of what is wrong with how Slimane has reinterpreted Philo; there are thousands of think pieces and Instagram captions to do this for you and frankly, for as much as I dislike what I can’t unsee, my impetus is not to drag Slimane through the mud (as if the outrage is not already palpable enough, hundreds of angry, bully-ish comments flood the official Celine Instagram account). He is who he is and likes what he likes and does what he does without apology. That lack of self-deprecation, the extent to which he’s unapologetic, I can admire it in anyone. What is unfortunate is the oversight on the part of the senior level decision-makers at LVMH who have shown a blatant disregard for this moment in time when fashion has become style, style is more personal than ever and what we deem personal is also extraordinarily political.
What we wear has never felt more charged; I challenge the naysayers and nose-uppers to call it trivial.
One editor suggested that as Slimane’s power has taken him through gigantic growth spurts at the houses of both Dior and Saint Laurent, so too will he see success with Celine. I understand his point, and he might be right, but as we hold ourselves to higher standards and see the core values of our moral, political and social biases enmeshing with the most harmless but hedonistic parts of ourselves, I wonder if the statement inferred by carrying this collection, for as long as it pioneers such dark, deep upset, will speak louder on behalf of the carriers than the actual clothes on the sales floor. Would you lose respect, possibly even boycott, the store who deigned to replace Céline with Celine?
But even more than that, I worry that this sets us up to grow further from our male counterparts. In this unsettling era of #MeToo, when women are radically exploring what it means and how it feels to fear their safety in the hands of a man, and denouncing the sexist mechanisms that created this climate in the first place, fashion is supposed to be the place where we’re still respected and revered and celebrated no matter the cost.
In the wake of Slimane’s Celine, it has become impossible for me to see a garment without considering the gender of whose mind designed it. But this kind of thinking is dangerous if it is not rigorous — if it does not offer enough room to live within the stunning nuances that separate the top of a funnel from its bottom. We are relentless in our fight to be equal, this much I know, but there are great men out there who fight next to us. They indeed respect and revere and celebrate us. Dries Van Noten; Raf Simons; Pierpaolo Piccioli (his Valentino show yesterday was a breath of remarkably fresh air).
They value empathy and sincerity. My husband; my co-workers. My dad — he taught me kindness.
To say that this shift from empowered to powerless mirrors the evolution of American presidencies from Obama to Trump could be a stretch, but I remember distinctly that when the latter won, I didn’t want to evince more outrage, continue living in the echo chamber that distorted our sense of progress. I wanted to sit down and think and recognize that we hadn’t come as far as we thought. To meet and understand the other side, not pretend it didn’t exist. We had work ahead of us, which was daunting (still is), but guess what? We’re doing it. The world is changing not before but because of us.
Perhaps this is another one of those wakeup calls — this time to redefine what being a woman means. To take what we have learned from such quiet but fiercely intelligent women like Phoebe Philo and employ the values we’ve adopted as our own. To honor our boundaries. Care for, respect and put ourselves first. (After all, even from the very top, she is the one who decided to leave Céline to take time off.)
We know what we want to look like, both physically and not, so what to do now? Roll up our sleeves, so to speak, and push for a future that respects that.
Feature photos by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images and Vogue Runway.