Last Lap

Paris’s Fashion Finale

Paris Fashion Week came to a close with memorable collections from Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen. But this season showed that big labels still struggle under the burden of history and expectations.

10.06.11 12:44 AM ET

So much about fashion is counterintuitive: runway shows often consist of clothes that will never be produced, and calling a designer “commercial” is tantamount to fighting words.

Consider the Miu Miu show, which signaled the close of the spring 2012 Paris Fashion Week for most American editors. Designer Miuccia Prada presented a collection of off-the-shoulder coats with black ribbon closures, patchwork dresses, and lace skirts in rather mournful tones. The models looked as though they might have been styled by horror master Tim Burton thanks to the hair plastered to their head—like a Farrah flip gone flat with oil and sweat—and red powder rimming their eyes.

With stern expressions and dead eyes, the models marched down a stone staircase to a soundtrack of thunder and moans. They could have been some zombie tribe of undead children, siblings from The Others, or killer kids from Children of the Corn. Miu Miu’s maniacs might suck your blood and steal your shoes!

And yet, it was all fabulous.

That’s fashion. It isn’t logical; it’s emotional. Beautiful can be boring. Ugly is stirring.

Indeed, one might think that the biggest brands or the most storied labels would also wield the greatest creative influence. But most often, that is not the case. These labels, with their deep history and often even deeper pockets, tend to be chained to previous successes, to the company’s longstanding DNA. As a result, these brands struggle mightily for continued relevance. They run through designers who often have little loyalty to the label itself. Talented men and women jump from one atelier to another trying to channel some long-ago aesthetic that sometimes has little to do with contemporary times.

An example of this would be at Paco Rabanne, a house that 40 years ago was known for its futuristic sensibility, particularly its use of chain mail. It has hired, fired, and lost an assortment of designers—including American Patrick Robinson. It is trying once again to rouse itself from a malaise with Manish Arora, whose own label boasts a certain outlandish stupendousness. When Arora debuted his Paco Rabanne collection at the Pompidou Museum, things looked promising—if only for a moment. There were bold minidresses with molded bodices that exaggerated an hourglass figure. And there were warrior-goddess tops in a jigsaw puzzle of metal—not quite Middle American tastes, but they could find a home on an MTV red carpet.

But soon Arora was overreaching with satellite-dish hats, bodysuits engulfed in coils of metal ropes, and dresses cut so narrow the models could barely walk, let alone sit or take a deep breath. By the finale—a parade of black models done up like Mardi Gras floats—Arora had returned Paco Rabanne to the history books. The brand was looking like a treacherous rehash of the kind of flamboyant nonsense that seemed so dazzling back when music videos were in their infancy and Cher still had the capacity to appall.

The boldface fashion houses have not had an easy time during Paris fashion  shows. Balmain’s new designer Olivier Rousteing had a shaky debut with a collection of Western-inspired brocade jeans and bedazzled jackets that often strayed into Electric Horseman territory. But what was he to do with a brand that had defined itself as the go-to house for wretched excess? Minimalism just wasn’t an option.

At Chanel, a branding behemoth firmly rooted in the cultural consciousness, the clothes are almost beside the point. With a cachet so profound, it would be just fine if designer Karl Lagerfeld sent out a group of burlap sacks embossed with the signature Chanel logo. The audience, most likely, would still swoon.

The show at the Grand Palais always provides a short exegesis on the sociology of status. As one watches ladies mince their way across the uneven stone pavement and up the steps, their little bouclé Chanel suits sparkle in the morning light. They are freshly coiffed; their makeup is perfection. And they are so very excited.

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With their frayed edges and boxy shape, the suits they wear have little to do with anything that is really driving fashion forward at this moment. But no matter. The women are imbued with status, not because they are dressed creatively or in a breathtaking manner, but because Chanel is Chanel.

Lagerfeld has nurtured the brand from one generation to the next—from mother to daughter. He has been able to renew and reinvent Chanel signatures, from its fabrics and shapes to emblems such as the camellia. He has driven it to vulgar lows, which has given the brand a hint of recklessness and danger.

He has made cruel statements about fat women, expressing his disdain for food and those who consume it. He has embraced contemporary music, bragged about his library of iPods, and transformed himself into a strutting rock star in fashion’s royal court. He hasn’t so much designed Chanel into relevance as talked, marketed, and provoked it there.

The collection that Lagerfeld put on the runway was inspired by the sea, by its tiny pebbles, billowing algae, and strange and mysterious creatures. The show, with a performance by Florence Welch, opened with reliable Chanel jackets in white that were paired with trim white skirts. Dresses were adorned with seafoam-green ribbons that floated in the air. And there were little swimsuits, decorated with pearls and topped with clear vinyl jackets.

It was a pretty collection but not an especially interesting one—and, with more than 80 looks, a rather homogeneous assembly of models. The Chanel show reconfirmed so many assumptions and prejudices about how status is portrayed, how wealth is defined. There is a kind of brittle, cold beauty that Chanel represents, with its ready-to-wear shows that emphasize vastness over individuality and intimacy.

As the models walk around the perimeter of an expanse that feels as long and wide as a football field, the point is not to see the craftsmanship of the clothes. It is to be impressed by grandeur and quantity. It is to feel the dominance of the brand on the global fashion stage.

Yves Saint Laurent is no less a historically rich brand. And for spring, designer Stefano Pilati produced a collection that stayed true to the house’s tradition of rich and evocative color. Seafoam-green blouses bore ruffled cuffs; wide black belts cinched pine-green dresses with cap sleeves. Purple pleated skirts turned sporty thanks to flap pockets; jacquard prints enlivened wide-leg trousers.

Perhaps it was because of the saturated colors in the clothes. Maybe it was due to a presentation style that had models strolling through a series of salons in an old Rothschild mansion rather than through something akin to a stadium. Whatever the reason, there was warmth to this collection that Chanel's lacked. Pilati captured the personality of a particular kind of woman—well cared for but not precious, sophisticated and dignified in her reserve. The collection had a voice and an edge. And while it was a point of view that might not appeal broadly, its elegance was far more affecting.

The other fashion house with a footprint to rival that of Chanel is Louis Vuitton, where Marc Jacobs holds the design reins. His collection was based on the fantasy and joy of Paris fashion—both the wearing of it and the process of its creation.

The curtain lifted on his theater-in-the-round set to reveal models perched on the white horses of a mirrored carousel. The color palette was all sweet pastels, as delicate as Easter eggs but, miraculously, not childish. Daisy cutouts created a lace-like effect—a broderie anglaise—and scrims of organza floated over many dresses, creating a hint of an angelic aura.

As the haute couture house of Christian Dior searches for a designer and rumors roar that Jacobs is the man for the job, this collection offered fine reassurance that he is truly up to the daunting task of working in the specialized and highly skilled world of couture.

Jacobs’s ability to be so unabashedly creative—more so than either Lagerfeld or Pilati—was eased by history, or the lack of it. Louis Vuitton had no ready-to-wear aesthetic when he arrived there some 15 years ago. He established the voice of the house.

Phoebe Philo had a similar advantage when she arrived at Celine. She has given it her own distinctive sensibility, transforming it into a house defined by clean and spare lines, 21st-century efficiency, and feminine ease. The spring collection speaks to a multitasking woman who wants to look feminine but is unwilling to deal with ruffles and trains or other distracting whimsy. A slight peplum effect on a jacket? OK. A scrim of black tulle on an ivory trouser? Why not?

But that’s as much frippery as Philo—and her customer—can bear.

Stella McCartney also believes in effortless style. And, as a designer showing in Paris who helms a brand she actually created, she’s also a bit of a rarity. Her athletic-wear-inspired collection was both sophisticated and cool—filled with mesh shorts trimmed in graphic wave patterns, dresses that appeared to layer sexy one-shoulder slinks atop mesh tunics, and baseball jackets in luxurious fabrics.

But at other high-profile brands, designers are in the awkward position of channeling someone else’s vision. From season to season, it is always a challenge.

At Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton has done a magnificent job leading the house since the death of its founder last year. But with the collection she presented for spring 2012, design seemed to take a back seat to metaphor. Burton was inspired by “a woman as object of desire. We go to such lengths to adorn ourselves that we almost become our clothes or are taken over by them.”

The collection focused on party frocks that had gilded skirts with flirty hemlines paired with fitted jackets, short dresses exploding with ruffles, and evening gowns with figure-forming corsets and romantic trains.

At times, the models seemed nearly consumed by gilded lace. The fabric enveloped them, covering their heads and encasing their faces. They represented women who are engulfed by their own narcissism and desire.

That’s a fascinating kind of tension to explore—and it’s certainly the kind of topic that the house would have enthusiastically tackled under its founder. One only wished that Burton had used a more varied vocabulary, beyond ruffled and lace gowns with their embedded corsets, to argue her case.

Tasked with channeling the Chloe archive is new creative director Clare Wright Keller, who had previously been channeling the archive of knitwear house Pringle. Keller got off to an auspicious start with a collection of pleated skirts and lighthearted dresses in shades of latte, mocha, and strawberry cream.

Backstage, as she greeted well-wishers, Keller noted that her customer “is very natural and very sensitive, but she also exudes strength and power in her attitude.” The result is a collection that has a bit of a crunchy-granola earthiness, but not so much as to make these clothes seem out of place in the grit of the city.

There is no grit in the world of Valentino. No dirt. No urban stink. Designers Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri presented a collection dominated by sturdy lace dresses backed with organza. In a conversation at their atelier a few days before the show, they described the collection as pure, easy romance, with long dresses for day and glittering flat sandals for evening.

Women “want to dream,” said Piccioli, describing what he learned from a recent visit to Dallas. “They don’t want to buy something with just good quality. It’s important. But they also want to dream." Added Chiuri, “All women like to be princesses in some way.”

Thus, this collection was not about anything—although it was informed by an inspiration board filled with images from Mexico and the photography of Graciela Iturbide. The collection doesn’t have a grander purpose. It isn’t overthinking sexuality or gender. It is simply meant to be deliciously, rapturously beautiful—a goal far more difficult than it seems.