In Paris, Intimate Encounters at Balmain and Dries Van Noten

PARIS — For so long (even, maybe especially, after the brief Covid hiatus) so much of fashion has been focused on being big — big shows, big sets, big stars, big followings, big growth — that to talk about intimacy, about being small, can seem new.

It’s not, of course: The clothes we put on, which literally touch our skin, have always been among our most personally resonant belongings, repositories of individual history, even as they also make public statements. It’s just that recently the public statements (or made-for-selfie statements) have been so overwhelming that they tended to drown out any other idea.

Yet there they were, both Olivier Rousteing of Balmain, a brand built on Kardashian and Jenner-size ambition and bombast, and Dries Van Noten, king of the emotive gesture, name-checking the preciously personal.

Intimacy with clothing is the emotional flip side of the popular term “wearable,” which is fast going from being a synonym for boring to a laudable adjective suggestive of smart thinking about daily life. It started in New York with Proenza Schouler, continued in Milan at Prada and Bottega Veneta. So the fashion hamster wheel turns.

Maybe it has to do with the general horror at megalomania and global domination — by companies or countries. Maybe it’s social media fatigue. Maybe it has to do with an appreciation of the human, in the face of war. There’s a lot of grimness so far in Paris fashion; a lot of black and gray on the runway, creating a sense of looming austerity. At Undercover, Jun Takahashi even included little skeletal hands on his suiting, like phantoms rising from the grave (also the lyrics, from The Specials’ 1980 cover version of the 1949 song “Enjoy Yourself”: “Enjoy yourself/It’s later than you think,” scripted on the backs of jackets).

Or maybe that’s all over-egging it and it’s just about self-justification. Maybe a better way of thinking about intimacy: the return is as another way of talking about sustainability, which has otherwise unfortunately disappeared from the fashion conversation (possibly because the environmental impact of brands is being considered in actual practice, though by all reports not as effectively as needed). Still, it’s increasingly clear there’s a divide between those paying lip service to an idea and those actually thinking it through.

Or, in Mr. Van Noten’s case, designing it through. His guiding principle being that clothes should be valued and loved until they are worn out — and then repaired and loved some more. That they should not be disposable. That in not just the making, but the wearing, they contain volumes.

Designers tend to go on and on about the touch of the hand and the value of artisanal creation, and those have meaning, unquestionably. It’s part of what you pay for when you buy high-end fashion: the material and work involved in its creation. What they talk about less is what happens after, when the clothes become part of a life. Yet that may be the most priceless part of the experience and that’s what Mr. Van Noten was honoring.

“For me, it’s really the opposite of wanting to show off with the garments,” he said backstage in the gargantuan amphitheater where he held his show (despite the fact it was all about closeness; apparently there’s only so much pushback against the prevailing winds any designer can stand). “It’s really things which for you personally are important.” Or become personally important.

That meant a focus, above all, on fabrics, collaged and contrasted: rich and plain, masculine and feminine, tough and fragile. A bit of silk, handwoven and hand-painted, patchworked onto the hem of a skirt and then laid under a scrim of chiffon, worn with a gray jacket. Some gold leaf, painted to resemble a corset onto the waist of a camel wool coat. A pinstripe bustier, stitched in gleaming thread and worn with an easy pantsuit, the jacket fraying at the edges. It was make do and mend, the British wartime mantra, dashed with a bit of 1930s drama and raised to the nth degree. Klimtian luxe meets wabi-sabi. Redolent with imagination about how such pieces might be worn.

That’s what was missing from the Balmain collection, despite Mr. Rousteing’s stated determination to pull back from his megashows.

This time he swapped the stadium of his previous show, which had also involved an appearance by Cher and 7,000 guests (a.k.a. his Balmain army), for 220 guests and a living room setup with low white couches snaking their way around a room. And this time he was talking backstage about a return to original Balmain principles, back in 1945, about the fact that, “I think we are going through moment in fashion where people need to remember what fashion is about: It’s about quality, it’s about timelessness. It’s not about hype.” That for him, the show and its approach were the start of “a new chapter,” the “new me.” A focus on craft.

Sounds good. Except that Mr. Rousteing seemed to translate craft as a lot of structure and more than a bit of bling. Just because it comes in a 1950s silhouette (also a theme at Dior), and to the tune of Frank Sinatra crooning a very on-the-nose “My Way,” doesn’t change the actual effect. Think a quilted, silver shoulder-framing jacket, plunging to the clavicle in front and gleaming with sequins, over cigarette pants. Sweetheart necklines, peplums and full skirts dotted with gobstopper pearls. Also cage-like corsetry and a lot of bows. More pearls — pearls galore. A tea dress entirely encrusted in rhinestones. Turned out it was the space, not the clothes, that got small.

On Instagram, it was probably fabulous. Close-up, it was blinding.