09.30.11

Paris Fashion Week Kicks Off

As the temperature rises in Paris, Christian Dior plays it safe post-Galliano, Lanvin brings dark magic, and Lady Gaga’s friends at Mugler fail to break away from costumes. Robin Givhan reports on the runways’ best.

Two kinds of designers tend to take on Paris Fashion Week: those who believe their technique is so refined that it can stand alongside this city's history of fantastical haute couture; and those who believe that clothes can aspire to lofty poetry, energetic polemics, and something more profound than trends, comfort, and the status quo.

So as the spring 2012 collections are unveiled in France’s capital, the eye is forced to jump from the runways of Christian Dior—with its prestigious cultural history—to the sweet melancholy of Rick Owens. The two collections could not be more different: one aiming to exude wealth (and continuity in the midst of corporate upheaval) and the other shunning any appearance of suburban comfort or bourgeois ease.

Thankfully, there is a label in Paris that simply refuses to fit neatly into such unyielding categories: Lanvin. But then again, there is also a designer that doesn’t even seem to know which is the business end of a needle and thread: Nicola Formichetti at Mugler.

Christian Dior designer Bill Gaytten had a near Sisyphean task in creating a spring 2012 ready-to-wear collection. Gaytten has been installed as interim designer for the brand since its executives fired high-profile creative director, John Galliano, after his booze-fueled anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bistro this spring. Gaytten had already presented a critically panned couture collection over the summer. And Friday afternoon, he was back, bracing for more abuse.

As has become tradition, a tent was constructed in the courtyard of the prestigious Rodin Museum. Outside, the sidewalks were lined with agitated fashion enthusiasts, straining against police barricades, intent on photographing anything in high heels as evidence of their brush with Dior. Inside, guests sat sweating shoulder-to-shoulder on the unseasonably warm Paris afternoon. The brand’s owner, Bernard Arnault, in his usual place of honor in the front row, never once seemed to raise a hand to fan himself—as if billionaires have their own internal air-conditioning system.

Paris Fashion Week: spring/summer 2012

It was as if everything—from the crowds, to the company’s enormous advertising-derived clout—was business as usual. Did it even matter what Gaytten sent out?

The designer played to the status quo and the brand’s history. He created clothes for ladies who sit on charity boards, have assistants who fetch them lunch, and spend many of their evenings posing on a red carpet.

No doubt, these women will reach into their wallets to buy the little belted New Look-ish jackets with their portrait collars, the softly tucked skirts that barely skim the hips, and the strapless party dresses with the oversized bows draped across the bodice.

Even a woman who doesn’t live in high cotton can admire Gaytten’s work because it is pretty, tasteful, and there’s nothing about it that anyone might find offensive—unless boredom riles one up.

But nothing gets the fashion industry up in arms more than something dull and banal. As Tim Gunn often warns on Project Runway, “Don’t bore Nina!”

The Dior collection was a pleasant snooze and an unfortunate rehash. Gaytten didn’t put any of his evident technical skill to high purposes; he didn’t take a risk. He didn’t make the collection soar in a way that attracts not only the women who can afford such delights, but those who will pay a full month’s salary—and eat ramen noodles for two months—in order to foot the bill for some insane indulgence. That’s what fashion is supposed to do. It’s supposed to engender illogical yearning, a deep need for the wholly unnecessary. Gaytten created clothes for women who have money—shoppers for whom a trip to Dior is akin to an afternoon’s entertainment at J.Crew.

Gaytten did not speak in fantasies and romantic fables the way his predecessor did. But a designer doesn’t have to be a wizard to leave his audience in awe. He does, however, have to conjure a collection that is premised on more than past successes or, in the case of Mugler, other people’s fame.

Let it be known that Mugler designer Nicola Formichetti costumes Lady Gaga. They are incredibly close friends. But there must come a time when Formichetti stands on his own, with nary a Lady Gaga song on his show’s soundtrack, no giant, flailing Gaga video-head cooing vulgar appreciation of the brand, and no Gaga influence turning clothes into costume.

Formichetti presented a collection of tight-fitting trousers and jumpsuits in shades of camel that called to mind Tarzan-couture. With uneven hems and strange flaps flopping about, it all had the vague feeling of savagery. These were costumes, not clothes. Perhaps, if Formichetti silenced Gaga and got rid of the fog on his runway, he would realize that all the world is not a stage. And instead of designing for Gaga, he’d create a few frocks that might appeal to the woman Gaga once was, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.

Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz didn’t need a light show or a fairytale to create a runway collection that captivated guests, even as they were wilting into communal puddles of sweat.

The temperature in Paris has been in the 80s and as guests find themselves snuggly seated in venues with little or no air conditioning… well, let’s just say these last few days have not been stellar fashion moments for the assembled editors and buyers.

But Elbaz tried to make it all better. Waiters passed cool drinks and there were little Lanvin fans at every seat inside the tent that had been constructed in the Tuileries Gardens. But the heavy hot air refused to budge. There was little to do but think cool, light thoughts. Perhaps Elbaz would show a collection of colorful parachute silks?

When the first model emerged on Lanvin’s darkened runway, there was nothing light or airy about her. She was dressed in a cigarette skirt that surrounded her hips like a spring coil. Blouses had cowl backs, revealing glistening skin. Dresses had one sleeve or an imbalanced bodice. Ornamentation rose up the side of a dress and coiled around the neck, transforming into a glittering snakehead poised over the shoulder. A shift dress was awash in gold safety pins. Pants were slit along the side. Sleeveless jackets revealed underlying shoulder pads, with their strong angles gaining even more emphasis.

In the heat of the tent, in the midst of a season so defined by happy colors and patterns, Elbaz presented a collection that was boiling and powerful, not so much angry as aggressive and determined. (If the woman of Elbaz’s fantasies does have an ax to grind, she does it without raising her voice.)

With rock music rattling the rafters, Elbaz’s collection was out-of-sync with the color and restraint that has been presented on the runways—from New York, to Milan and even here in Paris so far. Instead, it was a compelling antidote to the demure little pencil skirts and crisp blazers at Rochas and the light, lingerie influences at Nina Ricci. If designers at these labels were making an argument for the cool femininity of the 1950s and '60s, Elbaz was outfitting a woman who roared into being in the last generation. It conjured up images of women like Christine Legarde—international players with a lot of style and little patience for nonsense.

Elbaz used his able technique to make a provocative aesthetic statement. His work isn’t the stuff of romantic fairytales—no prince is required for a happy ending. And that, perhaps, makes it the most enticing fantasy of all.

At this midway point during the Paris collections, the eye begins to drift to the usual array of fashion gadflies, whose presence entertains as guests wait patiently for shows to begin. Sometimes invited, sometimes not, they are some of fashion’s most faithful followers. At Dior, one gentleman arrived in a faded denim cowboy suit, dotted with rhinestones and carrying a matching bag, embellished with a single white fox tail. Another man was in black leather, including a little leather biker cap. (Alas, there was no cop, construction worker or Native American chief in sight to complete the stylish Village People quintet.)

The fashion ravens are fluttering about, the black-clad wretches in leather jackets and studs, the women in long black dresses and combat boots—all of them defining fashion as something dark, dour, and shrouding.

Rick Owens is their patron saint. His clothes never strive to be classically pretty, but he doesn’t attempt to be as self-consciously discombobulating as someone like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons. His languid silhouettes and round shoulder tops, in which fabric converges into a hood, require no small amount of technique—otherwise, a woman would end up looking like a vagabond swaddled in her life’s possessions.

But Owens's reputation is not built on his technical skills. Instead, he imbues his work with a brooding melancholy, while maintaining both its dignity and elegance. He’s not some subversive rebel. His clothes are meditative. His fabrics are seductive.

Owens began his show, in a wide concert hall, by shooting 21 bars of light across the back of the stage, creating a celestial ladder of white rays. As the models took to the runway, they broke through the light, bathing themselves—for the briefest moment—in brilliant illumination.

They then promenaded down the runway in murky light, smoke and dust swirling in the background. To call Owens an intellectual might label him with an unfair burden he does not wish to bear. Not to mention, it also incorrectly suggests that a fascination with uneven hemlines and non-linear design automatically ups one’s IQ. But Owens does produce clothes—like his terra cotta dresses that grazed the ankles and looked as though they might have been inspired by some fantastical Sisters of the Perpetual Sahara– that make one consider the effects of shrouding one’s body for the sake of fashion, instead of religion or cultural tradition. (Oppression is a wholly different topic.)

In the West, young women are so often indoctrinated with the belief that revealing their bodies is fashionable, sexy and almost a requirement of youth— the “flaunt it while you have it” mentality. But Owens makes the argument that obscuring cloaks enhance body confidence. His flowing dresses and droopy shorts look their best on impossibly tall and slender young women because the beauty of the body is so dynamic that it dazzles behind the drapery.

Owens is, in his own way, rather old-fashioned. He underscores the allure of what goes unseen. He doesn’t engage in raucous fantasies or outlandish wizardry. Yet, he is never boring. And for spring 2012, he rises to the expectations of the Paris runway.