It is, of course, impossible not to think about Charlie Hebdo this Paris Fashion Week. It seems like an odd time to be looking at expensive clothes. The world is an odd place. Whether you're Charlie or not, you can't help but see that discussions of freedom of expression, creativity and the right to challenge and even mock have never been so pertinent. And who better to weigh in on the debate than Walter Van Beirendonck, a man who's never sat back, shut up and put commerciality before cause and concept?
He was riffing on Paris' history of, and skill for, subversion and controversy for A/W 15. He hadn't picked a cartoon as his motif - that would feel inappropriate, no one wants to sell clothes off the back of a tragedy - but instead a butt plug. Not just any butt plug, but seemingly a homage to the butt plug - or should I say 'Christmas tree' - by artist Paul McCarthy that shocked and disgusted, and inspired and delighted, Parisians in equal measure when it appeared on the Place Vendome, the same place Beirendonck showed today, as a festive installation last year. On the runway it appeared as 3D printed jewellery or as decorations on shirts and jackets, sometimes hanging from the claws of a triumphant eagle, as if being carried victoriously.
Believe it or not that was one of the more subtle messages in the collection. The opening look featured a sheer plastic top which read 'Stop Terrorising Our World'. Who was the collective that 'our' referred to, I wondered? Whose world is it Beirendonck is keen to save? Well, it seems to him that the enemy isn't a religion or ethnicity - like any rational human, he sees the struggle as being against those that are trying to silence, scare and censor. That explains the proud 'Demand Beauty' slogans on many of the garments. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it shouldn't be seen as a vapid or ignorant that this was the cause he was taking up. To the fashion pack, 'beauty' maybe be gorgeous clothes - sumptuous jacquard jackets and great tailoring like Beirendonck showed today - to others it may be an empowering speech, the right to vote or even a provocative cartoon. Someone wanting to read lots into the collection could see references to the latter too, in the hand-drawn animals that decorated the backs of outerwear and the coat that resembled a blank canvas with its opulent lining and stark, clean outside.
Some in the audience complained the show went on too long. Indeed, despite the strength of the pieces one started to wonder when they'd stop appearing, even as the final delightful jackets featuring shocks of tulle came out. The soft and calming soothing tones of Ghost Culture's Glaciers and the unfalteringly sweet and optimistic nature of those hues - baby pink, satsuma orange, sky blue - started to feel saccharine. On reflection the lyrics seemed apt, they spoke of the importance of imagination - 'Dreaming is useless - so trivial. But not to me.' Indeed, ideas are Beirendonck's greatest weapon. To prove that he bombarded us with peaceful, yet provocative creativity; he made us endure stillness and calm. His clothes may have sought to 'Demand Beauty', but this was Beirendonck forcing it.