To say that Paris Fashion Week was different this season would be an understatement. It was akin to life on a planet in a distant galaxy that mimics our world. Much like the French attempts to make tacos, you recognize the dish, but it just doesn't taste the same. Still, it doesn't mean it wasn't enjoyable. Just different.

Designers and planners certainly had the highest hopes when they set out to host a physical and digital fashion show in late September — a sort of "designer's choice" approach. In July, when the green light was given to in-person affairs by the FCHM, things were looking rosy in France. Le vacance was underway, and life seemed almost back-to-normal.

Even better, Paris was experiencing a sunny, dry spell (though with it came the summer 2020 wasp invasion). Despite new city-wide public mask-wearing rules in late August, designers planning their live shows through early/mid-September had high hopes for bright, blue skies and outdoor affairs.

Alas, this being Paris, the rain returned days before the first show and remained throughout. Worse, COVID-19 cases were on the rise, and government officials were slowly adding more restrictions like the ones seen as the crisis took hold in France during the Fall/Winter 2020 shows, which proceeded in early March despite Italy's near-total lockdown at that point. A feeling of Déjà vu was in the air from the first major show. Would it even last through Vuitton eight days later?

Bryanboy, practically the lone front-row fixture influencer at Dior, held on day two, expressed trepidation. "I just came from Milan, but I am not sure I'll stay through Chanel and Vuitton. I am not comfortable staying here that long to hang around," he noted and commented on the size of the indoor Dior show, which was bigger than any he'd attended in Milan. Indeed, the Philippine-born Swedish resident headed home post-show and returned on the last day to attend Vuitton. (Ah, the joy of European country-hopping.)

But also, what else to do? The uptick in activity that exists in Paris during the shows was missing. Empty hotels, cafés and stores on the Rue de Rivoli, Saint Honoré and Place Vendôme left one lonesome. And parties, fuhgeddaboudit! (though rumors swirled of small-scale private gatherings). PFW also brings in the showroom fashion crowd, VIP clients, and eager fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the action to add to the mélange of activity. Poof! They all but vanished.

Backstage at the Kenzo Spring 2021 show. Photo: Courtesy of Kenzo

Later in the week, Paris was dealt another blow with the passing of Kenzo Takada, the frontier-breaking Japanese designer who transformed the idea of Parisian fashion in the early 1970s. The 81-year-old designer succumbed to his battle with COVID-19, ironically the reason for the dramatically altered week. Pascal Morand, the President of the Federation de la Haute Couture et Mode (FHCM), broke down his tragic passing. "It's a huge loss. He was the first to bring a meeting of East and West to fashion.

He was the first to bring the fashion show as 'spectacle' or theater. He had a horse on the runway!" he said, adding that Paris Fashion Week as we know it was in part thanks to Takada. "He was one of the designers such as Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler and Emmanuelle Khan, who helped create the Ready-to-Wear fashions show in 1973 helping to transform the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture into the Federation it is today." He recalled seeing Takada last at the debut of Felipe Oliveira Baptista's debut for Kenzo. "I can't say for sure, but he looked pleased."

The runway at Balmain Spring 2021. Photo: Getty/Victor Virgile

It wasn't all doom and gloom, though. There were moments of joy, most notable the Balmain show that jolted Paris back to life like a pack of feisty new hosts on Westworld ready for the next showdown. Staged in the Jardin des Plantes, the location was also the site of the brand's summer Solstice music festival-style men's show slash concert in 2018. In an ode to founder Pierre Balmain, Olivier Rousteing took to the runway with a group of older well-known couture house fit models and surveyed his new collection to the sound of Sinatra's "My Way." The show launched into an explosion of neon and energy, set to more self-explanatory music Depeche Mode's "People are People" and Bowie's "Life on Mars" as a cacophony of neon-clad, Pagoda-shouldered, crystal and house logo-covered, Jorts-wearing models paraded in social-distanced packs.

Backstage the exuberant designer explained his MO. "I'm thinking of the heritage of the brand," said Rousteing, referring to the new labyrinth-inspired logo 1945 collection release coinciding with the show. "I want to show the optimism of the brand that Mr. Balmain had when he started the brand after WWII. Of course, we are not going through war; it's a pandemic. It's a time so show positivity, creativity, and freedom to be who you are."

He was on point for that statement as the designers and brands took to the new landscape in ways that felt right for them. This PFW may have been one for the books, but change isn't always a bad thing. Here's a breakdown of the many threads to emerge from designers with an IRL component to their collections.

Rules and regulations

The masked attendees at Dior's Spring 2021 runway show. Photo: Getty/Bertrand Rindoff Petroff

It's crucial to explain the logistical health measures brands took. Outside every show, teams of staffers and security offered disposable masks, hand gel and occasional temperature checks like at Dior (indoor venue) and Gabriela Hearst (outdoor). Some houses required you to remove your existing mask (Hermès and Chanel) and take a fresh one. Invites usually included a nice branding op with a house signature mask — an opportunity the Europeans missed in July.

Benches were sooo last season, with seating tending to be individual chairs or stools. Given that shows that previously held anywhere from 700-1500 guests were now accommodating 100-350 tops, this was possible. (Exceptions were the stadium-style bleachers at Balmain and benches at Dior, but they gave you enough room to stretch out in every direction.) Shows such as Paco Rabanne and Louis Vuitton had multiple seating times to ensure their indoor show spaces were social-distanced. Purple magazine's Olivier Zahm hosted a three-tiered time slot cocktail to introduce luxury trunk maker Au Depart's new collection. Held in a private salon at the Hotel de Crillon, only 23 guests could enter at a time.

The great outdoors

The finale at Chloé's Spring 2021 show in Paris. Photo: Getty/Estrop

Designers took to the streets, or rather lush gardens and parks, monumental plazas and courtyards of Paris' impressive cityscape. Kenzo returned to the Jardin de Institut National de Jeune Sourds and Balmain to the Jardin des Plantes, but many forged new spots. Coperni held bragging rights by staging the "highest" fashion show in Paris at 210-meters on the modern rooftop terrace of the otherwise-known-as-eyesore Tour Montparnasse. Chloé took over Rick Owens endroit préféré and showed a generously spaced-out performance in the empty fountain of the Palais de Tokyo. Christelle Kocher held the Koché show in the misty, post-rain air of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, where joggers and onlookers caught a glimpse of the show while simply passing through the park.

Gabriela Hearst's Paris debut also marked the debut of a little-known spot in the École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, commonly known for hosting Thom Browne and Lanvin shows under Alber Elbaz. Instead of the large atrium to the front, her production team Bureau Betak found a charming courtyard with a fountain that even many fashion insiders weren't aware of. Alexandre Mattiussi of AMI Paris showed his collection as a romantic love letter to the city. Models walked along the Seine in front of the Quai Henri IV at night lit by klieg lights while guests watched from a peniche the barge-style boats that cruise the river while sipping champagne. A dramatic site indeed.

The upshot of smaller attendees — buyers and press from the US, Middle East, Asia, Russia and even other Europeans were not in attendance this season — allowed for spaces able to accommodate smaller audiences.

Screen time

Balmain teamed up with LG for the screens depicting VIP guests who couldn't attend the show in person. Photo: Getty

This being a physi-digi fashion week, some designers immersed both concepts into one by incorporating tech into the live experience, generally through the use of screens. Hermès built a fantastic multi-level set working with premier special events and production company Villa Eugénie that resembled dunes or ski runs depending on your take. Columns plastered in a wallpaper of ancient Greco-roman statues created by Claudia Wieser with two large screens on either side of the runway completed the set. Watching the models live while seeing the image differently on the screens made for an arresting visual experience.

Chloé followed a similar concept in the empty basin, which had models approaching various angles and directions. At the same time, three-screen captured both live and pre-recorded footage of the collection. The guest on the boat at AMI was, suffice it to say, quite a bit far out in the river to get a close-up view. Multi-screen placed on the barge with the lights along the river poking through at various points allowed for multiple perspectives and real-time detail views for the crowd.

Balmain's stadium was lined in one section with three front-row guests — think J.Lo, Usher Anna Wintour, Derek Blasberg, Nina Garcia, etc. whose recorded images played though-out the show. Vuitton's sneak peek into the soon to open Samaritaine was either covered in green felt or painted green to allow for the immersive interactive experience those watching at home would enjoy.

Chanel's primary scale production in the Grand Palais reportedly the last at this location, using the screen in another way — by paying tribute to the silver screen and its starlets of Hollywood. Adding to this context was a short 1:40 minute film directed by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin had a Nouvelle Vague film vibe, even featuring actual footage from the era.

Let us entertain you

A marching band with bagpipes provided the soundtrack at Koché. Photo: Victor Virgile

Several brands added a live performance to their collection showing, whether it be music, dance or art. Koché had bagpipes by Bagad Ronsed-Mor serenading both models and Mother Earth. The designer sent out an urgent message to act upon the climate crisis via the collection, hence the location. Gabriela Hearst had Spanish-singing sensation Leiva, decked out in gaucho-rockstar cool, sing to the audience from the courtyard as models walked along the vaulted exterior corridors. Dior invited Lucia Ronchetti to create a choral work performed by the acapella/operatic singing troupe Sequenza 93.

Isabel Marant turned to dance to entertain her guests in the Palais Royale. However, energetic and lively, guests and viewers on social media expressed concern at the close contact that many of the troupe dancers had — especially as they danced sans mask.

Acne Studios and Kenneth Ize showed their collections in an art setting. Literally. Within the Sphere showroom, one of the few group showrooms of the week, Ize transformed a corner into his universe. He recruited artist Maty BIayenda "my black trans-sister" as a reaction to the protests surrounding the murders of black people, especially transwomen. She actively painted a piece of art through the presentation surrounded by floral arrangements with models strolling on rotation. "I need to bring my blackness into this collection. I cannot hide it; it's my skin complexion, my beauty, my culture and my essence of who I am," Ize told guests, adding, "I am also sending a message back home to Nigeria to support my community there." Acne also had an art-gallery immersive experience in the Grand Palais, where guests followed models from four rooms, each with different light experiences. Whether a giant orb, strips of colored neon fluorescent tubes (remember Rodarte shows?) and a giant robotic light machine bathed in blue for the finale segment.

Street style

Declan Chan outside the Chanel show in the last day of Paris Fashion Week. Photo: Getty/Edward Berthelot

In some cases, it appeared the diminished street style scene moved onto the runway. Koché, Ami Paris and Xuly Bet all gathered runway models from the streets, with many becoming first-time catwalkers. The approach led to more diversity — in color, size, age, and gender identity. Ami Paris used Instagram to recruit their models, hoping to convey that their brand is for every type of Parisian, even those Parisian at heart.

But that isn't to say that street style photographers were left with nothing to capture outside the shows, where an entirely different fashion universe exists. It got off to a slow start, but by the end of PFW, crowds gathered to gawk and have their photo taken in large numbers outside Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Paco Rabanne. Their models approached the runway from the building next store, effectively creating a secondary public runway.

Street-style photographer Kuba Dubrowski who shoots for WWD, took the altered season with fewer attendees in stride, aiming for quality, not quantity. "My background is documentary-style shooting - I've never just captured fashion week as this dreamy, aspirational life with influencers dressed head to toe by brands," he said, adding, "I shoot drivers in traffic, a pizza delivery boy, anyone who looks interesting and part of the experience."

Up close and personal

Other designers supplemented their digital presentations with IRL appointments with press and buyers. The eagerly-awaited debut of Matthew Williams at Givenchy (to note, the only American to ever helm the legendary French house) was subtle: essentially a lookbook. But a lucky few met with a casually dressed Williams walking guests through the collection at Givenchy's Avenue Montaigne headquarters.

Daniel Roseberry, artistic director of Maison Schiaparelli, greeted the local industry at the Place Vendome headquarters of the surrealist fashion house. During the day-long presentation of his collection displayed on mannequins in a room covered in custom-designed wallpaper by artist Anthea Hamilton, Jonathan Anderson popped in to say hello to guests.

Guillaume Henry personally greeted guests for his third outing for iconic French brand Patou at its original and historical location on the Quai du Marché Neuf on the Ile de la Cité. Olivier Theyskens took over a newly renovated showroom in the Marais to walk press and buyers through his collection, inspired by French pop star Mylene Farmer. He also doubled efforts by offering the Fall 2020 collection in the storefront of the gallery to be discovered and sold.

Photo courtesy of Chanel

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