PARIS — No matter what anybody — critic, stylist, editor, photographer, buyer — thought or felt about the men’s wear designs rolled out here over the last five days, there was finally a single determinant of success: social media metrics.
This disturbing development became clear to lots of industry types when, in Milan, huge mobs unexpectedly turned out at Calvin Klein to see Cameron Dallas, a self-created social media sensation whom front-row regulars strained to place. Calvin Klein’s corporate media wranglers know him, though, as do his 9.7 million Instagram followers.
Suddenly, basketball stars and Hollywood celebrities seem so old culture. Who cares that you learned your craft and slept or clawed your way up the ladder of success? Fewer people are likely to recognize your name than that of a 21-year-old from Chino Hills, Calif., who has done, effectively, nothing.
The tension between dual positions defined virtually everything that followed both in Milan and then here in Paris. On one side were refined talents like Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, the Valentino designers, who season after season produce gorgeous — if prohibitively expensive — clothes rich in references to the contents of their own mature intelligences but equally to endangered crafts traditions. There were also designers like Lucas Ossendrijver at Lanvin, who last Sunday spoke with real feeling about the workers employed by that label (one rived by the recent firing of its women’s wear designer, Alber Elbaz).
“I love going to the factories,” Mr. Ossendrijver said backstage as he demonstrated the complicated, inverted set of a sleeve from his latest, quietly tailored collection. “I love thinking about the people who make the clothes and the care and craftsmanship they put into each garment.”
The results in each case took the form of creations that were best at Valentino when reinterpreting as an ornamental motif folkloric designs first attributed to the 19th-century British street sweeper Henry Croft, the original Pearly King, and at Lanvin when interpreted as subtle cashmere dusters and shearling jackets with rings looped down the sleeves.
On the other side of the equation was the Balmain show. An awful lot of front-row chatter this week has concerned human relations, and not just the messy split between Mr. Elbaz and the ownership of Lanvin. Who is being considered to take the job of creative director at Dior vacated abruptly some months ago by Raf Simons? Which American design colossus is looking to reposition its brand by ditching its heralded but aging design team? What radical changes are due at another label with worldwide recognition, one whose new chief executive has a background in discount fast fashion?
Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain was in some ways the show of the week. Was it preposterous? It certainly was. Did it make those present feel that at any moment Ben Stiller might strut down the runway? It did. The more time elapses, the clearer it becomes that “Zoolander” is documentary. The satirical film’s superficially wacko plot involving an assassination attempt on the progressive prime minister of Malaysia to allow the fashion industry to retain cheap child labor in that country now seems kind of prophetic. The cult of seemingly vacant male models it parodied is now an established reality. (See, please, Lucky Blue Smith.) While the “Zoolander” sequel doesn’t come out for another few weeks, the Balmain show felt like its promotional trailer. (Too bad Owen Wilson, the film’s co-star — who was spotted in a Left Bank sports bar watching the Patriots-Broncos game with an entourage that included his brother, Luke — wasn’t there to witness it.)
“I hope the quilted leather numbers also come in red,” Klaus Stockhausen, fashion director of the German magazine ZEIT, quipped on the way out of the show, elbowing his way through a mob of Balmain fangirls. Mr. Stockhausen need not fear.
A lot of collections over the last two weeks have been loosely thematic interpretations of military attire. Yohji Yamamoto, one of the authentic renegades in the business, showed a significantly restrained collection of fishtail parkas worn with blanket scarves and T-shirts scrawled with unprintable epithets that could be the new look for Occupy Wall Street. Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons Homme Plus showed a resplendent grouping of swallowtail jackets whose sleeves were layered with reticulated brocade sections that extended a theme she had visited before: an “armor of peace.”
Riccardo Tisci’s Givenchy collection, held in an industrial space painted a saturated Pepto-Bismol pink and lighted with neon tubing, called to mind a modern urban version of the marauding Thuggee cult that for centuries wandered India. Maybe it was the images of hooded cobras Mr. Tisci introduced as a new house motif and applied to everything from sweaters to bomber jackets.
Martial themes were clearly in play, too, at Balmain, where the soldiers Mr. Rousteing conscripted for what he calls “the Balmain army” looked battle-ready for the Siege of Las Vegas. The epaulets, dropped-crotch jacquard biker pants, quilted cummerbunds, storm trooper boots, mink greatcoats, hauberks and assorted braid and regalia summoned up images of Scott Thorson, Liberace’s tragic companion, or else a praetorian guard for Ming the Merciless, the despotic Flash Gordon villain.
Those references would probably mean little to Mr. Rousteing, who is 30. Well before the Balmain show had ended, images from it had been liked and favorited all over the world. And that is one reason, as Stefano Tonchi, the editor in chief of W magazine said, that Mr. Rousteing’s name has topped the lists of designers said to be in the running to replace Mr. Simons at Dior.
With a personal Instagram following of 2.1 million and another 3.5 million faithfully keeping track of Balmain’s official account, Mr. Rousteing — whatever his design skills — has captured the eyeballs of the world’s most coveted consumer cohort. As if to dispel any doubt about his strategic intentions, the show was cast almost exclusively with models who themselves have large social media followings, guys like Jon Kortajarena (@kortajeranajon: 773,000), Sean O’Pry (@seanopry55: 509,000) and Francisco Lachowski (@chico_lachowski: 1.1 million.)
The men’s wear cycle ended here with a beautiful and elegiac Thom Browne show that featured tattered tailcoats, ratted-out patchwork furs that looked as though the moths had gotten to them and models with perforated bowlers worn like masks over their faces. It was a collection that seemed designed expressly for its own posterity.
Sitting in an anonymous concrete structure at the city’s edge while watching Mr. Browne’s dreamlike presentation, this viewer had the sudden realization that the fevered references so many designers have made over the last two weeks, to everything from Russian anarchists to Haight-Ashbury and doo-wop, were most likely a function of panic.
In a precarious new social media order, one dominated by digital gestures with no more apparent meaning than the fact of their own occurrence, designers — like the rest of us — are desperate for context.