PARIS — Around the same time that Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistle-blower, was testifying before Congress about controversial actions by her former employer, the Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey was in the front row of the Louis Vuitton show, stroking his beard meditatively as he talked to the Vuitton owner, Bernard Arnault, and watching a parade of elaborately embroidered, slightly destroyed evening gowns stretched over quasi-19th century hip panniers. The panniers, which resembled the trays that cigarette girls carried, bounced as they walked. The lights of what looked like hundreds of antique crystal chandeliers twinkled overhead.
This was just before a climate protester took to the runway waving a sign that read “Overconsumption = Extinction” and managed to make it all the way to the photographers’ pen before being forcibly removed from the area. She had been among a group of environmental activists amassed outside, along with the gawkers come to get a glimpse of Regina King, Phoebe Dynevor, Venus Williams and Emma Chamberlain, plus 23 other boldface names.
So does the fashion world crash into the real world. It was a fittingly surreal end to a surreal season, one full of hand-wringing about the meaning of it all after 18 months of a sort of fashion fast. Of delight to once again see imagination in motion, in person, but also a wariness of getting swept back into the slipstream and losing hard-won perspective. Of masks and no masks, and plenty of nerves.
The best shows took ambitious leaps into new shapes, not just on the runway but in how they were conceived: Balenciaga’s comment on celebrity, entertainment and the modern experience via the red carpet and “The Simpsons”; Marni’s flower-power happening; Rick Owens’s ritual purification-by-fog; Marine Serre’s fictional documentary of upcycling and community.
Nice clothes on a catwalk aren’t enough anymore. It’s too easy to look away. Also: Who needs them? The environmental activists have a point. If the pandemic did anything, it raised the bar on the garments in which we live, and the level at which they need to connect.
Miuccia Prada got that, with a Miu Miu collection that merged the back-to-the-office quandary and … Britney Spears circa “Baby One More Time” (that would be 1999).
The incredibly shrinking white-collar uniform was Mrs. Prada’s subject, and its most banal basics — khaki pants, gray cardigans, white and blue button-downs, navy pleated skirts, trench coats — were her variables, only all of them were fraying at the edges and increasingly tiny. The center did not hold; it got eaten away to expose the entire midriff, a great gulf opening up between jacket and pants. Skirts rose to the very top of the thighs, exposing the dangling bottoms of pockets, and dropped below the hips, to show a band of what was beneath.
Crop tops and skin have been a theme of the season, but never have they been used so effectively, and slyly, to grapple with the tension around the return to work, and the desire to redesign what that means and how it looks. (Some satin pencil-skirt suits and sheath dresses, covered in tulle floral embroidery and beading and speckled among the office gear, made it look pretty good.)
Meanwhile, Nicolas Ghesquière, the artistic director of Vuitton women’s wear, was ranging even further through the fields of history, from the 19th century through the 20th and beyond in a tour de force of what he called in a news release “le grand bal of Time.” Also technique, so he was making hybrids of shredded chiffon and Art Deco ornamentation; Mom jeans and cargo shorts; tailcoats and 1980s polka dots; diamante-sprinkled eye masks and giant traveling bags.
At the end, Mr. Ghesquière got that very rare thing in fashion: a standing ovation. Usually the audience, busy filming on their smartphones, just offers the sound of one hand clapping.
Instead the music was operatic, with booming chords crashing all around, and sort of ominous. In its clanging beauty and examination of eras past, so was the show, which seemed like a summation of how we got to now; the end of something (it is the 200th birthday of the brand’s founder). Maybe it was the season. Maybe it was the last complicated, difficult year.
Maybe it’s the start of something new.