Suits. When the fall 2019 runway season closed here Tuesday night, that was the singular message delivered by almost every design house. The emphasis here was on trousers — wide and comfortable — and a matching blazer. Suits. Still considered a signifier of classic professionalism, it also connotes efficiency, old-fashioned gender-blurring and a reprieve from the ubiquity of dresses because for a while, there were so, so many dresses.
Suits are inextricably linked to power. And at every turn these days, women are either flexing their clout or frantically working to retain it. Power is tilting and evolving.
Designer Thom Browne best captured that female power dynamic with his Sunday afternoon show. Ten years ago, the American designer first showed his menswear in Florence. His models in gray flannel suits each sat at a 1950s metal desk pecking away on a manual typewriter. By the time the show had finished, those intensely masculine suits had been replaced with feminized versions of them.
This time, the functionaries in the gray flannel suits were women. They marched in single file, with each woman taking her place behind her desk. They hung up their little khaki overcoats to reveal gray blazers over gray sweaters and white shirts. Their cropped gray trousers were worn with black, thick-soled wingtips. By the end of the show, those women had changed out of their suits into dresses that had tromp l’oeil versions of suits printed on them.
The suits on the Paris runways came from an endless array of designers — for some, a suit is second nature, for others it’s their version of reckless experimentation. If a designer didn’t have a suit or two in their collection, well, they better have something else cooking that’s pretty spectacular because they’ve made a decision to stand alone.
In her co-ed show for Givenchy, Clare Waight Keller cut beautiful jackets with shoulders stitched up with inverted seams. The effect was a bit like having a pair of Mickey Mouse ears perched on your back. Dries Van Noten opened his show with a group of austere, charcoal-gray suits, representing a significant departure for a designer known for his mastery of both color and prints. Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing went with pastel, draped suits and a wee bit less of the Instagram-bait glitter that his “Balmain army” fans love. And Joseph Altuzarra spliced knitwear onto his blazers, creating a hybrid of a sweater and a tailored jacket.
When the design team behind Nina Ricci debuted their first runway collection, it was dominated by minimalist suits in shades of beige. Rushemy Botter and Lisi Herrebrugh have a background in menswear and so it was both natural and welcome that they’d bring that tailoring expertise to their new home.
Even Lacoste had suits. Not track suits, mind you, but blazers and trousers that would be perfectly at home at the sort of strait-laced office that frowns on telecommuting, is devoid of free snacks and has no foosball table in the break room.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to savor Louise Trotter’s debut at Lacoste. Ah, yes, this season was filled with debuts and Trotter’s was the best of the lot. Trotter brought a high-luxury sensibility to the 86-year-old French sportswear company known for its crocodile insignia. Her oversized hoodies and trousers never lost their shape and never turned messy. She elongated tennis sweaters and golf shirts, turning them into dresses. Nylon anoraks topped pleated skirts that were color-blocked like maritime flags. And she made blazers and matching trousers that models wore with sneakers and that looked as comfortable as a pair of leggings and a pullover.
Trotter was one of many designers who showed how much creativity can be conjured within the outlines of one or two particular garments. With the suit, given so many constraints, designers focused on the details. Many turned their attention to the shoulder line.
There were big, wide shoulders at Saint Laurent and three-dimensionally molded ones at Balenciaga. But shoulders were also rounded off and squared off. There were modified pagoda shoulders and more subtle ones, too. The point was that with just a little tweaking, the suit did not have to be a uniform pegging someone as just another cog churning through the day.
These changes to suits go along with a changing world. It was decades ago that women began marching into the workplace in large numbers, but it was 2009 when President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that provided federal protections against wage discrimination. It’s only in recent years that women have taken a far-reaching vocal stance against sexual harassment. It’s only in recent years that big fashion brands and venerated design houses have appointed women as creative directors. Indeed, Trotter is Lacoste’s first female creative director.
Women have had pants in their closet for a long time, but it hasn’t been that long since they began to reap some — not all — of the benefits of wearing them. Bundled up in all the smart tailoring and dramatic shoulders is the question of what the suits really do for women. Designers can’t resist talking about empowering women whenever they’re trying to explain a collection that lacks some whimsical or theatrical theme. The reality is that women don’t need particular garments to make them feel powerful but they still need clothes to help them look the part.
The culture hasn’t yet reached the point at which a ruffly, pinafore-style dress with a Peter Pan collar telegraphs power the way that a navy pinstriped suit does. It’s not fair but that’s the reality. Men, at least white men, can wear track pants and hoodies and no one questions their intelligence or whether they are worthy of respect. Bernie Sanders can pound the hustings looking like he slept in his clothes and people equate the wrinkled suit with being an absent-minded professor type rather than just a slovenly mess. Men come draped in an invisible cloak of legitimacy.
Women are still constructing their own fashion vocabulary of power. In the lexicon so far: sheath dresses, suffragist white, power pink. That’s not much of a wardrobe. So until it gets fleshed out, they borrow from the boys and primp it up just a little. Mostly, the results are terrific.
Certainly there were designers who steered clear of suits. Most did so at their peril. In his collection for Louis Vuitton — the final show of the season — designer Nicolas Ghesquière explored the roster of styles that live on the streets surrounding the Centre Pompidou, as well as the artistry of the museum itself. He re-created the Pompidou’s distinctive inside-out architecture inside an enormous box constructed in one of the courtyards of the Louvre. It was a museum within a museum, which must represent new heights of swagger for a French brand. But all that effort seemed a bit of a waste. The clothes weren’t so much artful pastiche as a piling on of ideas, with each addition detracting from the whole. Sailor collars, Mondrian-esque prints, pinafore bodices, motorcycle jackets, sparkly skirts. They all crashed into each other at Louis Vuitton.
A suit isn’t the only way to convey power. Sacai designer Chitose Abe did it with her dark palette and substantial fabrics. Christelle Kocher evoked strength with the confident eccentricity of her brand Koché, with its inspiration rooted in the streets and the execution informed by the atelier.
And of course, sometimes, there’s a beautiful outlier. Pier Paolo Piccioli’s work at Valentino, inspired by contemporary poets such as Robert Montgomery and Greta Bellamacina, offered a romantic collection of dresses and gowns, many of which were printed with collages created in collaboration with fellow designer Jun Takahashi.
There were a few murmurings of poetry in the clothes on the runway here. But it’s endangered in fashion. More than any other season, designers have focused on prose, on clothes that conjure a clear-eyed, hard-charging approach to life. These are not clothes for the quiet, daydreaming sort. But then, these are not soothing times. And it feels like there’s precious little time for dreaming.