Comme des Garçons and Co. Show Everyone What They’ve Been Missing

PARIS — There’s nothing like a little Duran Duran in the morning.

So it seemed, anyway, early Saturday when the first Junya Watanabe show in more than two years began: a whistle-stop reminder tour of Mr. Watanabe’s greatest hits, torqued through an early-’80s New Romantic lens and set to the strains of “Girls on Film” and “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

But this was no mere nostalgia trip (we’ve had enough of those). Nor a repeat of the past, but rather an interrogation; an explosion of shoulder pads, trench coats, motorcycle leathers, denim, tartan and pearls, mixed up with spiky cartoon Mohawks and some sequin leggings. A coat dress was exaggerated to battering ram proportions, belted in the front and flying out behind; a fan-pleated silk shirt stretched into a gothic nightshirt; classic banker’s stripes tangled up with chains and pearls in the front and spliced into pieces at the back. The show had an anarchic, kitschy energy that was contagious.

Oh yeah, you can make something new out of all those old aspirations, frustrations and cheesy dance moves.

Issey Miyake, the designer who died in August, was right about a lot of things: the importance of technology, of a uniform, of clothes that allowed a person to move more easily through the world. And the idea that — as was written on the opening slide of the first Miyake show since his death, a celebration of futuristic, sculptural knitting and freedom — “there is hope in design. Design evokes surprise and joy in people.”

There’s currently a lot of nattering backstage at whatever show about “optimism” and “celebration” and the idea that dressiness can provide a positive antidote to the grimness of the world: the threat of nuclear warfare, the looming energy crisis, pick your poison. Pretty escapism is all fine and good (and it sells; there are plenty of people who just like pretty), but it’s beginning to sound like a rote justification for ruffles and a bit of a flounce.

The kind of design that Mr. Miyake was talking about is something different.

It doesn’t appear that often — the endless cycle of stuff mitigates against it, because such work demands time and revision — but when it does, it sticks around.

It’s design with knowledge and emotion; design that challenges preconceptions about beauty and function and form — or at least makes the attempt, and in doing so makes you want to try it on for size. And who says a dress has to be made out of bolts of fabric? Maybe it can be sprayed on, as in the viral moment with Bella Hadid at Coperni, gimmick though it was. The kind of design that does knock your socks off. That is discrete from clothes, which are just things you wear.

That makes you sit up in your seat, smile, open your eyes a whole lot wider, and shake your head in delight and maybe a bit of disbelief. Mr. Watanabe’s show was one of those moments; another was Jonathan Anderson’s Loewe, which featured an enormous fiberglass anthurium at its center (the waxy bloom that resembles both a phallus and a vulva, depending on your perspective), Taylor Russell, the star of the film “Bones and All” as the opening model, and a meditation on what is real and what is fake (the space where we live, in other words), in 53 looks.

The anthurium showed up again, molded into the bodice of a dress, wrapped around the torso, or covering one breast. Strapless, knee-length prom dresses sported false-front panniers that, from the back, resembled jackets on hangers. A sort of wearable riot shield (“wearable” being a relative term) came sporting its own cardigan. Sweatshirts and chinos were edged in big pixels and looked blurry from afar, like a glitch in the fabric of the day.

Some shoes seemed to be floating on little rafts of petals, or ruffles, but turned out to be covered in deflated balloons. Pop.

Humor is an underrated quality in fashion right now. Mr. Anderson has it; so does Daniel Roseberry of Schiaparelli, and Rick Owens, who is fond of endlessly puncturing his own tendencies toward pomposity.

But though it was impossible not to chuckle at the idea of Hermès hosting a “rave in the desert,” as the show notes went — there is nothing less Burning Man than the highly exclusive understated luxury woven into the seams of the supple leathers and silks at this house — the designer Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski wasn’t trying to be funny.

What she was trying to evoke, seemingly, was a kind of superrefined version of glamping. It was there in the leather braiding tracing the midline of a suede minidress, the climber’s ropes circling the waist, the tent closures connecting the tiers of a silk dress, the colors of the sunset over Joshua Tree. (Where the graphic 3D-printed dress fit in with the theme was harder to imagine, but, well, California equals technology, maybe.) Squint your eyes, peer closely, and you could be getting ready for five-star s’mores.

Certainly, there was a lot of surreptitious peeping going on during the Victoria Beckham show, especially at Brooklyn Beckham and Nicola Peltz, sitting front row, the better to put to rest the rumors of a rift between the designer and her new daughter-in-law, and to cheer on Ms. Beckham’s debut in Paris after seasons of showing her eponymous line first in New York and then London.

“It’s always been a dream,” Ms. Beckham said backstage before the show, noting she had reorganized her design team and atelier to raise her aesthetic game with a view toward coming to Paris. “It’s the ultimate,” she said. “For me, this feels like a bit of a ‘flag in the sand’ moment.”

The result, however, looked more like a paint-by-numbers trend-checking moment. Sexy! Check: bias cut dresses inset with transparent panels twining around the body and billowing chiffon numbers with peekaboo gaps on the side. Lingerie! Check: minidresses made of snaking ruffles atop boned lace corsetry. Midriff; check. Masculine/feminine; check.

The suiting was actually the best part, especially the trompe l’oeil bonded lapels in the jackets, which were more like bas reliefs than actual lapels and a cool idea. But while each piece was a serviceable iteration of its type, the whole lacked any discernible design mind. “Femininity” is not a brand code, it’s a noun.

That is not a problem for Yohji Yamamoto, who at this point is the undisputed champion of “Serenity, the X-Games Version” and who was calmly shredding the stuff of historical costume — portrait collars, corsets, tuxedos, lace — in yet another masterly exploration of the romanticism of a zillion iterations of black.

Nor for Kei Ninomiya of Noir, who, like Mr. Watanabe, was holding his first live Paris show since the Covid pandemic was declared. Mr. Ninomiya is a part of the Comme des Garçons stable of brands, and his work often falls in the emotional space somewhere between garment and structure, like evolution in stop-motion.

So it was this time, as Prince of Wales checks and leather corsets extruded waving, reed-like stems, as white shirts and straight skirts bloomed squishy aquamarine sea-sponge blobs and as mini crinis were encased in an aura of silvery swirls. At the end, two dresses appeared with their own miasma of dandelion fluff: Wish upon a frock, and blow.

And so it was, too, for Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, likewise returning to the city whose fashion scene she has often disrupted so effectively. It was hard not to wonder how the past two years might have affected the enigmatic Yoda of the industry. Would she have decided, for example, to start making clothes again?

Not really, though there were a few wearable pieces secreted beneath the complicated constructions that Ms. Kawakubo has made her own — some black silk shorts or a pair of trousers covered in rosettes, for example.

Mostly, though, there were gaping mouths of black and white daisy-chain lace swallowing heads and wrapping torsos; a lacquered loving cup of a dress from which a head protruded (though no arms); tubes and bubbles of brocade that migrated upward on the body dripping barnacle-like attachments, supported by off-kilter hoops and carrying within them the fossilized remnants of once-familiar shirts and jackets. Rendered, in Ms. Kawakubo’s hands, disconcertingly tender.

She described the show as a “lamentation for the sorrow in the world today and a feeling of wanting to stand together,” but it didn’t look sad. It looked — as if to prove the words of Mr. Miyake — like hope.