Fashion

09.28.12

Raf’s Ready-to-Wear Debut at Dior

Fresh off his star turn at Jil Sander, designer Raf Simons presents his first ready-to-wear collection for the storied house of Dior. Robin Givhan reviews the collection. Plus: rock-and-roll looks on the runways at Lanvin, Balmain, Mugler, and Dries Van Noten.

The executives at Christian Dior built an impressive, but temporary, edifice—complete with pillars and inlaid lighting—in the shadow of Les Invalides and its golden dome, for Raf Simons’s ready-to-wear debut. Apparently, no building in Paris was adequate for this much anticipated moment.

Dior is a storied fashion brand and the most-favored child in billionaire Bernard Arnault’s stable of luxury labels. The Dior name cuts a grand swath through French history and culture, and those who run it do everything in an imperial and unabashed manner.

But the company didn’t need to build expectations with architectural splendor. The whole of the fashion industry already was abuzz with anticipation of Simons’s spring collection. The designer has already shown his first couture collection for the house in July, and it was a study in modern elegance that was well received. But couture is a small and rarified aspect of the label. Ready-to-wear is the home of accessories and shoes, handbags and real world frocks. It is, as they say, where the money is made. Couture is ego. Ready-to-wear is the bottom line.

To a packed house of editors and retailers, along with the fashion fan and aspiring designer Kanye West, Simons presented a collection filled with promise and possibilities. None of them, however, were wholly fulfilled.

Still, one could see the aspects of the house’s legacy that have intrigued Simons thus far: the famous Bar jacket with its hourglass tailoring, the fluid femininity of dresses, and the use of volume in so many aspects of design. These are all enticing touchstones.

Simons’s charcoal jackets with their rounded lines were beautifully cut and often paired with super-short shorts or turned into a mini-dress with a sweep of pleats swaying down the back. His use of color in technically enticing fabrics was a strong acknowledgment of fashion’s future and where the key innovations lie.

And his relaxation of evening formality—without losing the exquisite pleasure of dressing up—was as refreshing as a sigh. For night, he paired full skirts in iridescent floral prints with simple black T shirts. They were a nod to Dior, by way of one of Simons’s final collections for his previous employer, Jil Sander.

Simons acquitted himself well with this collection; he left his audience wanting to see more. But he didn’t articulate a clear message of what his tenure at Dior will mean. With editing and refining, his aesthetic will become clear. (And in this era of instant everything, Arnault has shown unusual patience for creative evolution.)

But as Simons pushes forward with new ideas and techniques, one hopes that his aesthetic doesn’t lose its elegance and refinement as he chases youthful vigor. It’s worrisome that almost the whole of his spring collection was focused on mini-dresses and hot pants—save for the evening skirts and a few cocktail dresses. His cropped and crumpled ball gowns are quickly becoming a signature look. In the ready-to-wear collection, he paired them with shorts. In his couture collection, he offered a similar look, but with trousers—a more inviting and accessible combination.

Simons is charged with ushering Dior into the future, and this show proves that he is a leader with a multitude of ideas. But there was a breathlessness to his ready-to-wear debut. With a brand as renowned within fashion as Dior, it is only human to feel pressure. After all, no matter how successful his run at Jil Sander, he must still prove himself in this new atelier. But he should feel assured that he does not have to prove he can do everything, all at once.

Simons acquitted himself well with this collection; he left his audience wanting to see more. But he didn’t articulate a clear message of what his tenure at Dior will mean.

While this is a season in which it so happens that two of French fashion’s most high-profile brands are debuting new designers, this changing of the guard is as normal as the rise and fall of hemlines. A decade ago, Alber Elbaz was a designer out to prove that he had the capacity to revive the languishing house of Lanvin. He passed that test long ago and with the collection he presented Thursday evening, he underscored the skills that have allowed him to succeed.

Last season, Elbaz celebrated his 10th anniversary helming Lanvin with a blow-out of a party and a big show. This time, he slashed his guest list, moved into a smaller show space, and brought his audience closer to the clothes. Often when a designer chooses a more intimate environment, the clothes lose a bit of their mystery. But if any of the clothes’ black magic vanished, it was replaced by a heightened sense of their power. Wearing an opening group of asymmetrical black dresses with exposed backs, tuxedo references, and slouchy trousers, models stalked an elevated metal runway. Soon they jolted the audience to attention with black trousers dripping in metallic embellishment—like high-end punk rockers. Then they strutted out in mini-dresses and skirts in luscious shades of purple and chartreuse—garments removed of any hint of sweet femininity thanks to their angular lines.

The clothes lacked the magnetic sensuality for which Elbaz is known. Instead, this was an aggressive collection, with more fist-pumping audacity than shrill speechifying. A woman who aims for a tone of quiet meditation as she goes through life would be overwhelmed. These clothes are for a woman who doesn’t just talk the talk, but one who is utterly certain of her bad-ass status.

It’s hard to believe that designer Olivier Rousteing, at only 27, wasn’t debuting his Balmain collection but rather was settling in for his third collection. And while Balmain, with its more, more, and please-may-I-have-some-more sensibility, gives some folks a case of vertigo, Rousteing nonetheless displays a mastery of skill and construction.

His spring collection was inspired by Cuba, rap, and Sade—although the only references to the subdued and smoky singer seemed to be the large hoop earrings worn by the models. His lavishly embroidered jackets with square shoulders topped skinny trousers that were also thickly embellished. Mini-dresses in bright yellow twinkled with rhinestones and jewels and other forms of glitter.

Rousteing exudes keen control in his designs. So while he may be creating clothes for a woman who wants to release her inner rock star, he is still giving her something that is sleek and polished—even a tiny bit proper.

Surprisingly, it was designer Dries Van Noten who nodded to the disheveled side of rock and roll with a collection that spoke of grunge. Of course, his version of it, with translucent plaid shirts and silky plaid trousers paired with ethereal floral prints and gently crumpled and quilted jackets, was more soothing than jarring. He wasn’t tapping into the cathartic release of grunge as much as its disavowal of the accepted order.

Van Noten’s runway was a clash of patterns that are usually at odds. The sensuality of flowers engaged with the angular lines of plaids; the femininity of blossoms coexisted with the masculinity of lumberjack plaids. And with a fine dose of ribbon embroidery and a bit of sparkle, grunge was dressed up enough for a grownup.

Nicola Formichetti and womenswear designer Sebastian Peigne have been working to transform Mugler into a full fashion brand rather than just a vehicle for selling the popular Angel fragrance. They have not been successful. Why? Lady Gaga. The star, who was once assumed to be an advantage for the brand, may actually now be a hindrance. Formichetti has a close relationship with the flamboyant performer, working with her on costume creation and design. She has walked the runway at Mugler and regularly contributes songs for the show’s soundtrack. She also appears to be something of a muse.

But a muse who dresses like a burlesque Martian is bound to inspire collections that are better suited to the stage than the red carpet, a dinner party, or even a bar. Formichetti is masterful at crafting a strong, memorable visual image. His patent-leather mini-skirts, which stand away from the body, are like perfectly molded little bells. His tops wrap around the body with wide bands of leather. They are strong design gestures but look uncomfortable and impractical. A sky blue jumpsuit with short cap sleeves is wholly wearable but has as much verve as a painter’s coveralls.

Somewhere between the overly dramatic and the mundane, Formichetti will find the contemporary version of Mugler. But Lady Gaga will never be his guide.