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In a pandemic, what does a COVID-19 edition of Paris Fashion Week look like?

Despite the rise of coronavirus infections in France, the show must go on. The four major fashion weeks that punctuate Paris life annually bring in €1.2 billion (S$1.9 billion) in economic activity to the city. 

In a pandemic, what does a COVID-19 edition of Paris Fashion Week look like?

A model walks down the runway at Hermes' Spring/Summer 2021 show. (Photo: Filippo Fior)

There is no way that I belong in the front row. But that is where the meticulous planners behind Dior’s spring/summer 2021 show have placed me, just seats away from the billionaire founder of LVMH Bernard Arnault and his family.

Welcome to Paris Fashion Week – COVID-19 edition. Travel restrictions mean that many celebrities and fashion editors who would usually sit front and centre are not here. In their place are locals like me, the FT’s Paris correspondent, promoted to the big league. 

The vibe in the French capital matches the rainy and foreboding weather. New coronavirus infections in France are rising again to about 12,000 per day now, prompting the government to impose new restrictions. The bars must close by 10pm and masks are required pretty much everywhere. 

Yet the show must go on. The four major fashion weeks that punctuate Paris life annually bring in €1.2 billion (S$1.9 billion) in economic activity to the city. 

The masked guests filtering into the Dior show have to walk over muddied sand to enter the white cube structure erected in the Tuileries garden. I chat to another journalist who has been attending for more than a decade. “Oh, this is all very weird,” he said. “It is too quiet. There are so few in-person shows that I have time for long lunches.”

Coperni, a buzzy Parisian ready-to-wear brand known for its tailored minimalism, chose the rooftop of the ugly 1970s Tour Montparnasse for its Tuesday show. Despite the fog, the view from 59 storeys up was breathtaking, overlooking diagonal avenues and the Eiffel Tower. A light drizzle fell as the models walked. I particularly like a mint green dress with a train like a mermaid’s tail, and white narrow jacket paired with leggings, both perforated with tiny holes.

Coperni design duo Sebastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillant tell me afterwards that the collection is inspired by three watchwords: Protection, optimism and comfort. Several pieces are made of a new jersey fabric that offers sun protection and is anti-bacterial. The pair are relieved that it all came off. “A certain magic occurs when the music, the place, the casting and the collection all come together,” said Meyer. “We wanted to feel that. We are in Paris. We are still standing.”

Just under half of the 84 fashion houses showing womenswear this week opted for live events, while the rest produced online videos. Kering brands that usually show in Paris, such as Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, are not participating and will host digital events later.

In contrast, rival LVMH is out in force, not only with the elaborately staged Dior show for 350 people, but also with a beekeeping-themed Kenzo show in a rose garden. It’s a bet that in-person shows, even smaller ones, will generate more publicity than virtual ones.

“We really wanted to be here in person. Paris is the city of fashion. It gave birth to runway shows. It is a tradition, and nourishes many studios and people behind the scenes.” – Sidney Toledano

Arnault’s group is saving the glitziest for last on Oct 6, when it will stage its Louis Vuitton show in the art nouveau department store La Samaritaine. LVMH spent years and €750 million renovating the store, only to have the opening delayed by COVID-19. It should make quite the backdrop for the collection of Nicolas Ghesquiere.

Holding Fashion Week during a pandemic is not easy. The organisers of Koche’s show thought Buttes-Chaumont park would be a safe venue. But they nearly had to move at the last minute when the city banned gatherings in public places of more than 10 people. A workaround was negotiated with local officials: Putting up a black velvet rope around the area meant that it counted as a private space, not subject to the cap.

Spare a thought too for the paparazzi. Stars are thin on the ground, and with all the masks it is hard to figure out who is famous enough to merit a snap. I have seen the Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams three times so far, always gamely posing for photos.

Sidney Toledano, chief executive of LVMH Fashion Group, tells me it was important to soldier on. “We really wanted to be here in person. Paris is the city of fashion. It gave birth to runway shows. It is a tradition, and nourishes many studios and people behind the scenes.” 

I finally start to understand why so many in the industry are wedded to live shows when I head to the Jardin des Plantes on the Left Bank for the Balmain show. The brand led by creative director Olivier Rousteing is beloved by stars such as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and has a young loyal following dubbed the Balmain Army. 

They have turned up en masse, dressed to impress. Studded minidresses with plunging necklines. Thigh-high boots. Night has fallen. A crowd of onlookers and paparazzi has gathered outside the garden gates. An electric sense of anticipation is in the air. 

As the show kicks off, Depeche Mode’s People Are People blares. Suddenly, screens flanking one side of the runway beam in pre-taped video of the A-listers who could not travel to Paris: Jennifer Lopez, Anna Wintour, Kris Jenner, Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears, Usher. All wearing Balmain, bien sur. It is Fashion Week’s version of a Zoom conference call. It is weird and kitsch, but also kind of great. 

The 20-minute runway show is a glamour parade. There are so many models, so many outfits, that during the finale they walk the runway in rows of six across. Fluorescent yellow suits with dramatic shoulder pads. A trench coat and baggy trousers that reprise a black-and-white patterned 1970s print from Balmain’s archives. Sparkly ball gowns. 

A guy next to me jumps to his feet and cheers at the end. Finally, a bit of joy.

By Leila Abboud in Paris © 2020 The Financial Times

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