Small brands and lesser-known designers don't get much attention in Paris during runway season. Venerable labels such as Chanel (all dark and moody for fall 2011) and Louis Vuitton (a delicious play on fetishes from French maids to shoe porn) typically take up most of the available oxygen. What remains generally goes to people such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, Junya Watanabe or, perhaps, Rick Owens—iconoclastic designers who hew to their own eccentric vision and, every so often, change the fashion conversation.
Gallery: Paris Fashion Week
But this has been a season like no other and everyone's gaze has been wandering. People who would normally fall under the radar are the subject of obsessive gossip. Others have attracted special attention because they offer reassuring sanity in the chaos of rumors and angst. And a few high-profile stars are shining even brighter, their talent even more admirable as the daunting challenges of the fashion industry have become more obvious.
Even before the first model walked down a runway in Paris, the fall 2011 season had been defined by designer John Galliano's stunning dismissal from Dior after an allegedly anti-Semitic, drunken monologue. The mood darkened further with the absence of Balmain's Christophe Decarnin from his runway show, reportedly after a debilitating meltdown. The two events had people looking beyond the flash of the catwalk to the business side of the industry and asking whether mere humans can keep pace with rapidly changing corporate demands.
(Ironically, the Balmain collection, without Decarnin's close oversight, looked especially good thanks to the introduction of ikat and Inuit patterns into the usual melee of rhinestones, sequins and studs. Balmain's signature rock star aesthetic gained substance and nuance in this cleaned-up, calmed-down form.)
Perhaps to shake themselves out of their fashion funk, folks here in Paris have been playing a vigorous, no-rules, no-facts game of "Who will be the next Dior designer?" During a conversation with Dior Chief Executive Sidney Toledano, one French editor practically demanded that Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci, with a flair for the Gothic and an expertise in couture, get the job: "We want Tisci!" I felt the need to back away slowly and quietly for fear of ending up in someone's unsubstantiated Twitter feed on the inevitability of Tisci's appointment. Ladies and gentlemen, can we log off Twitter for just a day so all the facts can catch up with the rumors?
And then, of course, there is the blizzard of tweets about who will create Kate Middleton's wedding dress. Once we become privy to this tightly held secret, will we parse the choice, only to discover the dress design symbolizes little more than one young woman's bourgeois taste?
Thanks to this avalanche of fashion intrigue and rumor, regular people—the kind who think $100 is plenty to pay for a pair of shoes and who have no idea who or what a Bryanboy is (a blogger who has charmed fashion's upper echelon, if you're wondering)—are paying more attention to this industry as it churns out creative products like so many widgets on an assembly line.
And as the models paraded out with their feather dusters, glittery doo-dads and sheared mink wimples, surely those good citizens were left wondering: What tortured machinations go into the creative process and what on earth are those young girls wearing?
Tisci, the subject of so much speculation, has proved an able master of couture—that rarified craft of precision and ornamentation. The public got a close look at his work during the Oscars as both Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway wore his gowns. For fall, his ready-to-wear show, which opened with the sound of a panther's snarl, was a middling, commercial mix of pencil skirts and sweaters with the eerie print of big cats leering through a thicket of green and purple flora. Tisci experimented with layering, mixing sheer, knee-length slips with fluted mini-skirts and cropped jackets. And with a nod toward kitsch, he offered sculpted hats with pointy, feline ears jutting from the sides.
Is that enough to recommend him for such a high-profile brand as Dior? Does he have the constitution to withstand the pressure? Givenchy might be the label known in the public imagination for dressing Audrey Hepburn, but Dior is the one credited with saving French fashion back when it introduced the lavish "New Look" after World War II.
If there has been anything positive about the Dior rumor mill, it's that more attention turned to Haider Ackermann. The Colombia-born, French-raised designer has been quietly honing his skill, defining his aesthetic voice, and gaining confidence with collections distinguished by draped silhouettes, powerful femininity, and graceful tailoring. His most recent show had guests stacked on top of each other, many in attendance for the first time.
They saw a poetic collection that was strong and romantic with swirls of jewel-tone silk wrapping around the torso, trailing down the body and onto the floor. Ackermann turns blazers into tools of seduction. He imbues filmy skirts with swagger. His work surprises the eye and demands an emotional response. "I wanted the collection to have this more muscular attitude," he said backstage after his show, as well-wishers swarmed around him. But he also wanted it to have "a little bit of mystery, a little bit of the unknown."
The pressure of working for a major brand in our modern fashion culture—where umpteen collections are required each year and bean counters demand that profits march steadily up, up, up—makes one worry about a designer like Ackermann, whose talent seems so vibrant and optimistic. His energy recalls a time when people were drawn to fashion shows because they were curious about the clothes. They wanted to experience the magic a designer could conjure with a few yards of silk and a graceful young gazelle to inspire. Now, entering and exiting a fashion show means squeezing through hundreds of young on-lookers with digital cameras and cellphones. They aren't eager young design students hoping to score someone's extra invitation or sneak in on a kindly editor's coattails. They are enamored with the buzz, the characters, and the aura of fashion. They blog; they tweet; and they look for a way to profit from their followers.
Designer Sarah Burton has been justifiably leery of having her public profile raised after taking over at Alexander McQueen last year. Fresh from having to deny rumors she'd been commissioned to make Middleton's wedding gown, Burton delivered a breath-taking declaration of her creative and technical virtuosity.
Inspired by ice queens and working in a palette of white, black, and lilac, she offered body-hugging skirts with glinting rows of silver zippers. Form-fitting day dresses topped with stern shoulder harnesses made the models look like futuristic warriors. Exuberant romance dominated the evening gowns with their rows of lush ruffles and pinched pleats. Nothing was as it seemed in this collection. Bodices were built from broken bits of china. And rows of silver barrettes created the illusion of metal skull caps.
Burton has quickly and assuredly stepped into the role of creative director for this brand, capturing its emotional and volatile essence, while not allowing those moods to swing too far into the darkness.
There also was plenty to admire in the collection that Nicolas Ghesquière showed for Balenciaga, with neon underpinnings shining through thick black lattice dresses and black skirts gleaming with bronze trim. Floral skirts were gently draped in front and tailored in back. Sculptural tunics with cap sleeves topped narrow trousers. Ghesquière has the unmatched skill of merging sci-fi with fashion and making a woman feel that by putting on his slim-cut trousers with one of his plumped up tops, she could be a modern superhero.
Ghesquière, as well as Lanvin's Alber Elbaz and Celine's Phoebe Philo, have avoided the 21st-century trap of having one's public persona overwhelm one's work. The travails of this week have underscored how admirable that accomplishment truly is. Elbaz's power-broker femininity long ago redefined the wardrobe of the working woman. Under his watch, the dress supplanted the suit as the go-to uniform. His fall collection, with its spare jackets and skirts, as well as, soft black dresses edged in gold metal, aptly reflected his ability to celebrate a woman's core strength while wooing her softer side. And Philo, who singlehandedly revived minimalism, continued down that path for fall with a collection of lean coats and trousers in black and brown, with occasional jolts of saffron and merlot.
Ladies and gentlemen, can we log off Twitter for just a day so all the facts can catch up with the rumors?
These labels have banned all hints of jittery fashion angst from their runways. The presentations were about clothes and technique. There was no overwrought showmanship. No Lady Gaga blowing smoke from the runway. No persistent rumors to swat down—as there were at Yves Saint Laurent about designer Stefano Pilati. Going? Staying? Pilati's collection was dominated by Prince of Wales check and smartly tailored jackets and skirts. Not exciting clothes, a runway thin on ideas. But no matter. These are clothes women will buy. Will the rumor mill finally shut down even as he has publicly admitted how painful it is to be churned through it? Probably not.
Designers like Kawakubo, Watanabe, and Owens have always shown work so unique and confounding that it's such a delight speculating about the meaning of their clothes. No one has time to consider the private lives of the creators. What does it mean that Owens had his models, in their beautiful layers of jersey skirts and cashmere capes, wearing convent-style head-coverings stitched out of mink? Kawakubo played masculine against feminine with her hacked-in half-blazers and her ruched skirts in an explosion of colorful prints. She wrapped the models' naked torsos in sheer swathes of tulle, and left prim coats open in the back to reveal frilly bloomers. Kawakubo plays with innocence and seduction, womanhood and girlishness, discretion and provocation. Who has time to gossip about the designer?
And Watanabe put his love affair with leather motorcycle jackets on display with ever-changing permutations of this classic street style. Sometimes his leather jackets were sporty and rakish, at others they were sculpted into prim, hourglass shapes. It was a meditation on a familiar form and one that was filled with his quiet commentary on propriety, subversiveness and the power of fashion to spark a conversation.
Thankfully, here was a dialogue inspired by traditions and fueled by possibilities—and utterly devoid of exhausting, distracting, rumors.
Robin Givhan is a special correspondent for style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. In 1995 she became the fashion editor of The Washington Post, where she covered the news, trends and business of the international fashion industry. She contributed to Runway Madness, No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers , and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers. She is the author, along with The Washington Post photo staff, of Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady. In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. She lives and works in Washington, DC.