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Why protesting at a Louis Vuitton show does nothing to focus our sustainability goals

By Jackie Mallon

13 Oct 2021

Fashion |Opinion

Louis Vuitton S/S 22 show ph. Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP.

Nicolas Ghesquière’s vision for Louis Vuitton which closed Paris Fashion Week was a pure fashion moment that perfectly represents the times in which we’re living. Louis Vuitton was the last fashion show to occur before Covid shut everything down eighteen months ago, and this collection was a triumphant post-lockdown bookend. While an activist from Extinction Rebellion stormed the runway holding a banner scrawled with the words Overconsumption = Extinction, hers was a lone voice of dissent in the chandeliered space of the Louvre’s Passage Richelieu. A wave of approval from fashion’s elite greeted Ghesquière’s proposal for Spring 2022.

It is clear that the visual feast of a fashion show is back on top despite all the hyped potential of digital. The unanimous verdict after a year and a half of virtual presentations and online look books, shows in a box à la JW Anderson or runways with dolls à la Moschino, is is that there’s nothing like the real thing: the reaction of an audience, that emotional connection, that expression of craft and artistry on beautiful models for a room of living breathing appreciators. Anna Wintour has likened going to a fashion show to attending live theater.

Ghesquière is a designer’s designer who does theater like a master. Erté, Marie Antoinette, Paul Poiret, art nouveau, and Empress Eugénie were all evoked in this collection of dresses with beaded panniers, oversized frock coats, billowing capes, juxtaposed with denim and wrestling boots.

For those who believed the pandemic would have us rethinking fashion in radical ways, the Louis Vuitton show might be received like a poke in the eye. Expensive impractical garments displayed for an exclusive well-heeled few to great hype. In other words, status quo. Susie Lau posted a video on Instagram from the front row where she could be heard whooping enthusiastically with fellow influencer Bryanboy, as the designer took his bow, and chanting “Nicolas Ghesquière till I die.” Lau, who together with Bryanboy have well over a million Instagram followers, wrote in an accompanying post that the collection gave her “that fashion tingle” and heralded “Ghesquière’s handling of the past and longview of fashion’s scope.”

Louis Vuitton S/S 22 CatwalkPictures.com

Certainly the gatecrashing eco-warrior added an extra frisson to the live performance of it all, something she couldn’t have achieved via Zoom. But is the Louis Vuitton show really the most effective place to show up for a protest rally? She counted on causing a huge publicity stir, but will it create any real change where it matters, spark any real conversation? “We chose LVMH symbolically because it is one of the most influential houses,” she said afterwards, LVMH being the parent company of Louis Vuitton.

Nicolas Ghesquière’s creativity is focused on sustainability

Ghesquière’s muse, read the press release, is a figure “who travels through the ages, adapting to dress codes of the era,” but this could also describe the designer and his approach to fashion. Garments that Ghesquière created 20 years ago when he relaunched the then-dormant Balenciaga are now in demand by collectors, fetching high prices. The striped fencing top from 2003 is currently priced on 1stdibs at 6500 dollars while his patchwork dresses from 2002 have been priced in the tens of thousands. Vogue describes the items from his 12-year tenure as “the ultimate, elusive must-haves.” Ghesquière told Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times during an On The Runway panel discussion, weeks before his show, that his past creations are being worn alongside his current ones, garments emanating from two different maisons but from the same hand. “I encourage this circulation,” he said, adding that rewearing items is “a very chic way of owning fashion today.” He prefers to call these vintage pieces “living archives,” and is delighted that they continue to transmit something meaningful to younger generations.

Louis Vuitton SS/22 CatwalkPictures.com

Merging vintage Vuitton with new pieces is just one of several functions of these “living archives.” Ghesquière mentions revisiting fabric, something fellow designer’s designer, Miuccia Prada, has done to great success in recent collections. “I see a real opening there,” he said, also citing customization and controlling inventory as important strategies in efforts to create with responsibility. He believes that designers should stop placing ridiculous discounts on garments halfway through the season which then makes customers question the value of pieces at their original price.

This might be interpreted as a return to exclusivity, elevating clothing to an expression of art, just when we’d finished patting ourselves on the back about how democratic fashion had become. But, according to Anna Wintour, during the same NY Times panel, the sheer number of young designers selling fashion at more accessible price points, who showed during New York Fashion Week for Spring, is a testimony to the ongoing democratization of fashion.

The three Rs of retail

The three R’s expanding across luxury to encourage the consumer to view fashion purchases as collectibles and investments are resale, rental and restoration services. Brick and mortar stores like Selfridges and online retailers like Farfetch figure pre-owned and vintage into their businesses and WWD announced in July that Valentino is forging relationships with the top vintage retailers globally for a project to be revealed that is designed “to create a cycle of loyalty and added service to its customers.”

No one denies that the fashion industry has enormous work to do to offset its global emissions, to implement circularity, to design timeless pieces that will be passed down through generations, to produce less. But José Neves, founder and CEO of luxury retailer Farfetch, in response to points made by Ghesquière and Wintour, added the following sentiment which cuts through the noise of ill-placed protests. “Fashion is part of civilization. Fashion is part of culture. It is not a second-class citizen like some people believe it is. There are those who think it is not even part of culture, that it is just an industry.”

Perhaps that is the takeaway: read the room, my fellow sustainably-minded. If you’re gatecrashing a fashion show from a 167-year-old maison that is built on excellence, craft, history and spectacle, that makes fashion aficionados swoon, whose designer cherishes and promotes garments as collectibles, maybe your message of overconsumption and extinction is off-target. Beneath the cacophony you’re generating, those with something to say are going heard. Or maybe, after a hard eighteen months, you just want to create some live theater too?

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry