For a band of young creatives in Paris today, surreal melodrama is the new language of high style. Humor, games, sexiness and tongue in cheek are back in the spotlight.
“In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous”, intoned Elsa Schiaparelli. Two rising stars in Paris today, Victor Weinsanto, and Vincent Pressiat who both launched their brands during the pandemic, couldn’t agree more. While neither consider the world a very happy place right now, each has turned to cabaret humor, tinged with the smoky eroticism of the 1920s, 30s and 40s like an antidote to despair.
It’s a scenario and performance style reminiscent of Sally Bowles, the high kicking torch singer played by Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret,“ the dark classic about the rise to war in early 1930s Berlin. Like Sally, the divas in Weinsanto and Pressiat’s shows are quirky, sexually ambiguous and second degree. Trans beauty Raya Martigny slithered her hips down Pressiat’s runway in an impossibly huge, long-haired cropped faux fur jacket turning to reveal a remake of bottom cleavage à la Mireille Darc. Weinsanto showed off his provocative shapes on contortionist Julie Demont.
This is, in fact, a boomerang effect. After a prolonged period of politically driven collections in which archetypes of feminine and masculine seduction were all but submerged by a tidal wave of genderless uniforms, the urge to be over the top has returned.
At the recent Fall presentations of Christian Louboutin and Roger Vivier by Gherardo Felloni, both surreal cabaret extravaganzas featuring dancers, drag queens evoking icons of the silver screen and cats dressed in 17th century court dress, vampishness held sway.
As Thomas Bompard wrote in his introduction to Sotheby’s recent “Surrealism and Its Legacy” sale: “Surrealism is the disobedient wife of Blue Beard, who wants nothing more than to open the forbidden door. In today’s increasingly complex, contradictory and multipolar world, the legacy of Surrealism resonates more because it embraces these contradictions instead of resolving them”.
Victor Weinsanto, 26, launched his brand with a show in March 2020, a week before confinement began, but that hardly counts because the audience was mostly friends and production lagged. Fast forward to Spring ’22, Weinsanto, is one of two French designers shortlisted for this year’s LVMH prize and Madonna wears his strappy corset dress in her “Frozen” remix with Fireboy DML video. With sales and basic T-shirt and jersey production handled by Dover Street Market/Comme des Garçons, the brand operates on both affordable and high end price points. His Murder in Paris, Autumn/Winter 2022 collection confirms him as a rising star.
For Weinsanto, murder is an excuse to make fun. “The idea came from “Cell Block Tango,” in the musical Chicago. I loved that each woman was a murderess with a personality and a past that they explain in a burlesque way. I wanted to extend this beyond husband murderers to characters like the Addams family and Medusa who could slay with one look.” Weinsanto is inspired by friends like Sam Quealy the sexy Australian in Paris singer who’s style he describes as “Laura Croft à la Crazy Horse.”
His murderesses, weaponized with mean looking flail bags and giant feathered hats, some of them attached to dresses like capes, associate humor with chic. Weinsanto, like Jean-Paul Gaultier where he got his start, is into second degree. Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, who plays Sylvie in the series Emily in Paris walked the show. “I was thrilled she accepted. After she wore our bicolored lace dress in season two, it really took off. Currently it represents about 20 percent of our sales.”
Although they both passed through major French fashion brands, the difference with Victor Weinsanto and Vincent Pressiat has a lot to do with what they were doing when they weren’t at work. Both were habitués of Cabaret Manko, Paris’s riotous camp nightclub run by Marc Zaffuto and his partner Manon Savary. In fact, before the club closed in 2019, that’s where they could be found in the evening after spending hours preparing their looks for the soirée. “Marc and I have been working together for seven years. We began with Manko Cabaret. With our producers we came up with a formula. All of our artist friends who didn’t have a lot of money could go to the club for free and everyone else would pay”, explains Savary.Today, Savary & Zaffuto are the generators of a unique form of Parisian chic zaniness from the launch event for Jean-Paul Gaultier’s fragrance Scandal where they put models in a boxing ring, to Michèle Lamy’s primal scream chanteuse performance at Art Basel, Roger Vivier’s recent cabaret and all of Vincent Pressiat’s shows.
Vincent Pressiat, 27, could be a time traveller. There’s something not completely here and now about him. This season’s Resonance collection consolidates his larger than life style, a mix of Bowie 1980s, les Incroyables et les Merveilleuses and early 20th century tailoring traditions.
Giagantic wrap around blousons with extra wide shoulders in white fur, kinky platform boots and Michaela Stark exploding from a torturously small corset, echo the characters in the dramatic silent films Pressiat watched obsessively as a child at his grandmother’s, an elegant woman who he recalls was usually dressed in sharply tailored, double-breasted suits. In fact, he’s been wearing tailored clothing himself since he was 12.
“I’ve always been into old photography from the 20s to the 40s and I also like Nick Knight and Paolo Roversi, everything that’s dark and sharp. My clothes come from that”, he says.
There’s a point where fashion and costume design intersect. The desire to evoke character runs so strongly in Pressiat’s clothes. He pillages old tailoring for sharp cuts that he tweaks, pushes and shoves into improbable forms until he arrives at a piece that celebrates the body, but also transforms it. The collaboration this season with Michaela Stark, an artist who sculpts her own body into bumpy forms with lacing and corsetry for photo images, felt “natural”, he said.
Pressiat may look out of time, but he is from Besançon in eastern France near the Swiss border. And as he explains it, “everyone” in his family is connected with couture. His mother was a ‘modeliste’ who spent 30 years working for luxury brands in Paris before she switched to teaching and one of his grandfathers was a tailor. He obtained an MA from Ecole de La Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, (Yves Saint Laurent’s alma mater) before it merged with Institut Français de la Mode (IFM).
If the pandemic hadn’t happened, Pressiat might still be working in the men’s studio at Balmain with Olivier Rousteing. He’s also worked with Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent and for John Galliano at Maison Margiela.
He did have something to start with. His collection is full of strange prints, stretched out faces and photo images from Nikkria, his fine art alter-ego. When Michèle Lamy saw a portrait he’d done of her that looks like a Gustav Klimt painting, she had him illustrate a book of her personal collection of Comme des Garçons.