The Newbies Take Their Shots

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PARIS — New talent, new talent, new talent. Every year fashion’s scouts and big brands scour the landscape of up and coming designers like carrion crows on a constant search for their next meal. The prizes and showcases proliferate — the LVMH Prize for young designers; the Sarabande showroom, established by Lee Alexander McQueen in support of emerging artists and designers — to offer a platform and exposure. The industry needs a constant stream of fresh blood to survive.

This season, three brands got it: Nina Ricci, where Harris Reed made his debut; Off-White, where Ibrahim Kamara showed his first solo collection (he joined the brand last season, but the clothes had pretty much been made already); and Ann Demeulemeester, where Ludovic de Saint Sernin took a bow. Though new blood is not always the same thing as new life.

Mr. Reed, at only 26 a rising star from London whose work has made it to the Met Gala (on Iman) and the Grammys (on Shania Twain) and been favored by Harry Styles, is known largely for his one-off show stoppers. His challenge was to commercialize that sensibility for Ricci, which has repositioned itself as accessible luxury.

Backstage he talked about “bold femininity for girls, guys and gays,” which was expressed in garish shades of orange, blue, pink and green, lots of polka dot tulle, lace, giant bows and ’70s flares — and a reproduction of the house’s L’Air du Temps perfume bottle top as a bra top, in case anyone forgot that scent is the real reason for existence of the brand. It looked less like a new start than an audition for an “Emily in Paris” diffusion line.

To be fair, Mr. Reed is the sixth designer Nina Ricci has had since 2002 (that’s an average of one every 3.5 years), which reflects just how desperately confused the brand’s identity has become. It’s effectively a blank slate with a perfume, which could be a potential boon for a designer with a crystal clear and powerful new idea. But this was not it.

Still, Mr. Reed took a big step forward in his casting, and Ricci was second only to Ester Manas in being the most genuinely inclusive runway in Paris. Given the general backsliding going on when it comes to size this season, that’s worth applauding. And perhaps a way forward.

Mr. Kamara’s challenge was even more fraught — he was stepping into the shoes of Virgil Abloh, the pioneering and revered designer who founded Off-White in 2013 and who died unexpectedly in 2021. While Mr. Abloh was a role model in all sorts of ways, Off-White has been more of an incubator for his ideas about community and access than a brand with a clear fashion identity, and that’s where Mr. Kamara is beginning to build.

Combining his own roots in Sierra Leone and London’s club scene with an abiding interest in sci-fi and Mr. Abloh’s visual language, especially the meteor circles that the designer used as a brand signifier, Mr. Kamara decided to answer the question: “What would you wear in outer space if you were a boy who liked to rap and was cool enough?” Or so he said backstage.

It may not be the query that occurs to most of us, but it turned out to be a pretty good one, at least as far as it got him thinking. Anyway, he had a pretty plausible answer, for any gender: slick tailoring and knit jersey speckled with silver grommet-like wheels, which also got reinterpreted in tie-dye cartwheeling across dresses in the blues and earthy ochres of Sierra Leone, plus silvery astronaut suits and intricate beaded embroidery.

As for Mr. Abloh’s signature quotation marks, Mr. Kamara used them only on the phrase that was splashed on the T-shirts placed at every seat: “I need space.” With this collection, he earned it.

As did Mr. Saint Sernin. If ever a brand was primed for a resurgence, it’s Ann Demeulemeester, avatar of 1990s poetic alienation and tailor of the kind of elegant angst that seems perfectly — well — suited for the current moment. Ms. Demeulemeester left in 2013 (she started making pottery, among other things), and though she had dipped in and out as an adviser, the brand has mostly been treading water ever since.

Mr. Saint Sernin gave it an injection of energy, in part by reminding everyone that Demeulemeester has a history not just of louche black pantsuits and white shirts that extend to the fingertips, but also gothically minimal gowns (and sending models out topless with their arms crossed over their breasts, which was not the best idea to revive in freezing temperatures).

Bias-cut silk skirts hung just under the belly button in front with a bit of a cowl at the lower back and slithered down to the floor under rough cropped shearling; ditto backless halter dresses. All of them were paired with detachable generously belled sleeves in pleated silk, body-hugging sheer nylon or velvet that could be slipped on at will via harnesses, making arms look like wings.

They were both eerily romantic and practical, though also dutifully archive-obedient, and made one wonder: What alchemy could happen, if Mr. Saint Sernin dared to spread his own?