On the Runway

Balenciaga, Dries Van Noten Kick Off Paris Fall 2012 Fashion Week

A muted opening with shows at Balenciaga, Dries Van Noten, and Ann Demeulemeester.

Getty Images (2); Reuters / Landov

The Paris Fall 2012 collections have started with a gentle thud: with breathtaking settings that often outshine the clothes that should be the stars. The Belle Époque architecture, the views that sweep along the Seine, and the ubiquitous presence of that masterpiece of urban iconography, the Eiffel Tower, have all threatened, and at times managed, to relegate the clothes to the shadows.

Indeed, the collections so far have ranged merely from gently surprising to perfectly pleasant and patently dull. While not nearly enough designers have unveiled their collections to declare this season to be one in which there is a crisis of creativity here, there does seem to be severely limited energy and a lack of audacity.

The collections that have engaged the eye thus far have been those that have continued on a reliable trajectory. Chief among them was that of designer Dries Van Noten, who presented his fall line in one of the grand rooms of the Hotel de la Ville, a space that made the Sistine Chapel look minimalist and Las Vegas seem discreet. Van Noten focused on tailoring, with menswear-style blazers belted at the waist and worn with trousers, both slim and wide-legged. Each jacket was brushed with a print or decorated with embroidery down a single sleeve or along one side of the body.

The tailoring focused on shades of black, olive, gray, and taupe. Where there was bold color—and plenty of it—there were prints. Asian and art deco in feel, they enlivened a blazer, turned a dress into a virtual tapestry. The prints dominated easy dresses and simple shirts that floated on the gentle breeze as the models moved slowly and gracefully down the long stone corridor.

It was the kind of collection that exuded both peace and confidence, suggesting that it was created by a designer who felt no burning necessity to be loud, controversial, or surly in order to get noticed.

It was also pleasure to see the designer Cédric Charlier—formerly of Cacharel—show a collection under his own name that was confidently and quietly refined. He resisted any desire to shout his aesthetic intentions, instead quietly reciting them.

Charlier greeted his guests as they arrived—a particularly gracious gesture and one that suggested he felt sure enough about his collection that he did not need to be wholly ensconced backstage for last-minute stitching and tweaking. No Project Runway–style chaos for this young man!

His collection was tailored and minimal, with echoes of Jil Sander and Celine in its silhouettes, but also a slightly glamorous sensibility that was decidedly his own.

Navy coats with high collars were dotted with copper-colored metallic buttons. A copper-colored, ribbed turtleneck peeked from beneath a knee-skimming navy coat. Elegant sheaths bore the marks of copper zippers snaking up the back and around the neckline.

It's not often that a new designer appears on the tightly controlled Paris fashion calendar—rarer still when he arrives with such a clear voice. But Charlier injected energy into the season, not by doing anything shocking but by adding another point of view that did not rely on a palette of black and a subversive attitude.

So many of Paris's next generation of designers showing in these early days seem stuck in a black hole—offering little but layers of ill-defined tunics, skirts, shirts, and whatever else, all in varying textures of black. Each has something to recommend them. At Limi Feu, designer Limi Yamamoto (daughter of Yohji) this season injects a bit of color into her work, along with references to cafe society, with her rounded-back coats and jaunty hats. Nicolas Andreas Taralis offers distinctively cut jackets with asymmetrical lines that spiral around the torso. And perhaps the best that can be said about Nicola Formichetti at Mugler was that with his black, birdlike runway creatures, he did not reference Lady Gaga. Since he is her stylist, this has been his most pronounced claim to fame but also his most unfortunate inspiration. This collection—which also emphasized white and included strokes of tomato red and marigold yellow—hinted at strong tailoring but still did not fully commit to the idea of clothes over costume.

It took Ann Demeulemeester, with her depth of experience, to really bring poetry to such an impenetrable palette. Her jackets and skirts were cut slim and on the diagonal. Her dresses often had hemlines that fluttered along the floor. But each piece embraced the body with precision. Jackets gathered at the waist, creating feminine softness at the hips. And collars rose up and blossomed wide to beautifully frame the face.

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The somber palette was broken by a shade of deep blue iris that was like twilight to this midnight-hour collection. The hair, jutting out at angles, was sculpted rather than styled. And the models had a look that was both exotic and otherworldly.

Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière also transported his audience to another world—the 27th floor of an office tower in a new business district in Paris. The far-reaching views down the Seine and across a neighborhood filled with construction cranes were given an eerie ominousness thanks to a thick, foggy haze that hung low in the morning sky.

Men and women in stretch trousers and sweaters stood as sentinels lining the entryway and silently gestured toward banks of elevators. Each guest was seated on a gray-cushioned stool modeled after the 1960s classic by Warren Platner. It was a setting rich with promise. Surely the architecture would allow Ghesquière's love for women as sci-fi heroines to be unleashed. Instead, the fall collection lacked his usual finesse at blending disparate elements into something seamless. Translucent dresses in shades of fuchsia and purple were topped with voluminous jackets in stiff, sculptural shapes. His fabrics, which typically draw the eye closer, this season repelled it. His silhouettes, which so often make a woman appear aerodynamic and agile, this season left her looking grounded and sluggish. Graphic prints on sweatshirt-style tops practically glowed against their black backdrop, veering toward lurid rather than charmingly kitschy.

Ghesquière almost always succeeds with his high-wire balancing act of pop culture, historic art, and modern technology. But this time, from high atop the futuristic towers, the collection was not as enchanting as the view.