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The pandemic shook the fashion industry to its core. Stores closed, manufacturing slowed or stopped, companies filed for bankruptcy, and the shows — the grand, crowded celebration of the designs — shifted to virtual moments. But this month in Paris, the haute couture shows were largely back. Celebrities were in the front row. Stilettos clacked. And for the first time in a year and a half, journalists could again experience these creations in the round. Vanessa Friedman, the fashion director and chief fashion critic for The New York Times, and Jessica Testa, a fashion reporter, reflected on the experience of returning to Paris. This interview has been edited.
What was unique about the couture shows in Paris?
VANESSA FRIEDMAN It was the first time in over a year that the most high profile and buzzy shows happened in person, with a live audience composed of a large chunk of the fashion world regulars. These are the shows that break through on social media, like Dior and Chanel, so they reach many more people than just the fashion set in the tents.
What is couture fashion? Why is it significant?
FRIEDMAN It is clothes, made to order, by hand by highly skilled artisans who have trained for years, for an individual, that can cost a staggering amount of money: $20,000 for a gown and up. There are maybe 200 actual couture clients in the world. It’s a very formalized sector of fashion. There are all these rules about what you have to do to qualify as a couture house. It used to be the laboratory of fashion and everything filtered down: silhouettes were created and then translated into ready-to-wear that might end up on sale in a store — and then be widely copied by even more accessible brands. Now, it has become more of a stand-alone art form.
What did it feel like to be back in Paris? How was it different from years past?
FRIEDMAN Well, normally, they jam people onto the benches next to the runways, but this time there was like a foot or something on either side and most people were wearing masks in the tents — but, otherwise it felt like a normal show. And there were dinners every night, big fancy dinners, which a lot of people went to. There was a weird sense of it being just like it was in Before Times.
But the past 16 months hit fashion incredibly hard. This was such a difficult period for this industry. All the stuff that had been talked about back in June, when people said this is nature’s way of saying the system is broken — sales are messed up, there is too much stuff — those conversations have ceased. I think the question that both of us left with was: What did this industry learn? And the truth is, it isn’t clear. It’s actually possible the answer is: not nearly as much as you might hope.
What other questions did you leave with?
JESSICA TESTA We also talked a lot about how there’s been this focus the past few years on shows being sustainable and less wasteful. You’re having all these people flying across the world and gathering in one place for an event, usually in like a tent or a structure or something that will be immediately broken down afterward. Another question was whether fashion is still determined to become more sustainable in this period of recovery.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, and what will that look like? Because the other notable development over the past year and a half is that we all realized that despite the fact that we complained about shows for a really long time — there were too many of them, or it was too tiring to run around from city to city — no one really came up with a great alternative. Some of the stuff that we saw during the pandemic, some of the digital mini movies or video games, were really interesting and creative, but it didn’t feel like, “OK, great: This is the answer, and everyone should go do this.”
How did it feel to see the designs in person again?
TESTA As somebody who’s still relatively new to fashion reporting, it’s an amazing experience because it’s a real opportunity to see, up close, how things are made and how much time it takes to make something that’s truly extraordinary.
It’s the difference between seeing a painting in person versus on the screen. For example, at the Balenciaga show, there was this oversize bathrobe. When you’re just looking at a picture on your phone, it just looks like, “Oh, a huge Terry cloth colorful bathrobe.” And then, it’s actually made of these micro-bladed pieces of leather. It’s completely insane. It’s like the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.
How does seeing the clothes shape what you write?
FRIEDMAN I think that’s what helps people understand why something that seems like this insane, elitist, indulgent, maybe offensive, slice of fashion is something worth preserving, aside from the fact that it is the livelihood of a whole bunch of people. But the hand work, the human expertise that goes into it, purely as an object and a kind of craft, is extraordinary. It would be sad to lose that. I think you can appreciate it whether or not you ever would even think about buying it. It is something worth honoring. You can’t really convey that if you’re looking at it through a screen.