All Aboard the Most Extravagant Fashion Cruise

In 1964, John Cheever published a short story called “The Swimmer” in which a seemingly happy suburbanite endeavors to swim his way home across New York’s Westchester County, by going from one backyard pool to the next in an odyssey that reveals the truth of his world.

It’s a scenario that sprang to mind during the last cruise (or resort) season, a monthlong series of extravaganzas in far-flung destinations that came to an end last week. It was not hard to imagine fashionistas hieing their way from show to show to show before finally returning home.

They could have started in Los Angeles with Chanel on May 9, moved on to Seoul with Gucci, on to Mexico City for Dior, then to northern Italy for Louis Vuitton (which had confusingly held a separate pre-fall show in Seoul just a few weeks before) and Alberta Ferretti, ending in Rio de Janeiro on June 1 with Carolina Herrera. Many of them may have been treated to their trips by the brands themselves (The New York Times does not accept press trips, so yours truly watches the shows on the computer), caravanning around the globe as if the pandemic was a speck in the rearview mirror.

In other words, despite all the lip service paid in recent seasons to reducing the excesses of fashion, this was one of the most mileage-intensive, blowout seasons on record, one that widened the gulf between the mega-brands that can orchestrate such spectacles and the rest of the industry.

Each brand, it seemed, was trying to one-up the others in offering “experiences” complete with dinners and famous guests dressed to the nines, selfie-ing away in extraordinary places: Jaden Smith, Eileen Gu and Emma Stone at Isola Bella, Italy, the Borromeo family’s private island (Vuitton); Naomi Watts, Alicia Keys and Riley Keough at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, once the school where Frida Kahlo studied and met Diego Rivera and now a museum (Dior); Kristen Stewart, G-Dragon and Sofia Richie at the Paramount Studios lot (Chanel).

Rarely has it been so clear that when it comes to fashion, there is now so much more at stake than just clothes.

The sheer fact that the press notes for Gucci’s fashion fantasia in the 14th-century Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul contained not just a description of the “dialogue between the house’s own heritage and the electrifying South Korean impact that influences it today” but also a 36-page document detailing the celebrities and “KOLs” (key opinion leaders) in attendance along with their Instagram, Twitter and TikTok followings, pretty much said it all.

The collection itself, a wetsuits-meets-the-bourgeoisie hybrid of neoprene, logos, suiting and chiffon created by an anonymous team because Gucci’s new designer, Sabato De Sarno had not yet arrived, was significantly less striking than the idea that more than 350 million IG followers were granted secondary access to the experience through the postings of the lucky few actually in attendance.

In other words, the show allowed the brand to have its exclusivity — to flex its power, ability to access a historic site that had never before hosted a fashion show and taste — and advertise it widely too.

Not to mention court a market that is increasingly important, as K-pop takes over the world and China proves increasingly complicated politically. What better way to show respect, after all, than to go to the source?

That’s also partly why Wes Gordon decided to take his first-ever Carolina Herrera cruise show, a bouquet of polka dots, juicy florals and cha-cha frills, to Brazil, in a nod to both the brand’s Latin roots as well as the country’s voracious appetite for beauty and fragrance.

Of course, the destination show also brings other benefits — like inspiration. Designers have to produce so many collections, so often, that coming up with new ideas every season is pretty much a Sisyphean task. One advantage, then, of the traveling collection is that it comes with a built-in set of potential new ingredients based on paying “homage” to the culture and geography where a brand lands. This is both a necessary show of appreciation in the era of cultural appropriation, though one that can seem more expedient than long-lasting and authentic, and thematically useful.

Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior, in particular, had made a virtue of the trend, positioning her cruise shows as platforms to showcase the work of local artisans and using her power to argue, at least for a season, that skills that have often been dismissed as “craft” deserve the same respect as couture. As a result, she has created a specific identity and reason for being for the Dior cruise collections that no other brand has quite managed.

This season was no different, with six different expert weavers and artisanal groups invited to contribute their work to classic Dior shapes like the Bar jacket; lacy petticoat shirtdresses; and filigree gowns (and to sit in the front row at the show). For a grand finale, designed by the Mexican artist and activist Elina Chauvet, there was a set of 20 white dresses — muslin toiles, taken from the brand’s archives — embroidered in blood red with hearts and words meant to represent the violence visited on women, their fragility and strength. It was jarring but also unexpectedly effective.

Another kind of conceptual liberation was on view in Nicolas Ghesquière’s Louis Vuitton show, which was weird in the best possible way: a bizarro amalgamation of sea creature silhouettes, sci-fi royalty and romance sparked perhaps by the island site but not limited by it. It made for a persuasive argument for getting designers, literally, out of their comfort zone. Free the imagination!

Not that it always works. For Virginie Viard of Chanel, a journey to Los Angeles led to what seemed like thoughts of roller-skating on the Venice boardwalk, “Barbie” (Margot Robbie was in attendance), aerobics and related clichés, including palm trees, playsuits and bubblelicious bouclé so saccharine it made the jaw clench. Ms. Viard can lean casually into the soignée — see one shimmery, simple tank top with a wisp of a black skirt — when she isn’t trying so blindingly hard to be hip, but this was one case when going further afield meant going astray.

Blink in surprise, however, at a particularly lurid aqua warm-up suit and simply cast your eyes somewhere else: to the bright lights and snack carts and movie stars and later a performance by Snoop Dogg. The show around the show was so fabulous, the fact that so much of the collection was more souvenir kitsch than chic was washed away in the rush of fame and fun.

And that, in the end, is the crux of this particular fashion phenomenon. That’s the memory dangled, and designed, for purchase. Like any piece of concert merch, these collections tap into the atavistic urge to own a sign that you were there.

Or there-ish.

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