Remember the Ladies

Paris Fall 2012 Fashion Week: Are Designers Bashing Women?

At Paris’s Fall 2012 Fashion Week, some designers offer little in the way of respect for their female customers.

Getty Images (2); Sipa / Newscom

It’s dangerous pop psychology to talk about which designers “like” women and which ones do not, but it’s certainly fair to have a conversation about respect when Rick Owens mounts a runway show that features women wearing cagelike masks, emerging from a flaming backdrop, to the throbbing repetition of the word “bitch.”

Owens, an American designer working in Paris, has always had the ability to find romance and poetry in the shadows. The power of his work comes from a sensibility that rejects classical definitions of beauty and femininity. His point of view allows for eccentricity and for flaws; he constructs a place for outcasts.

When he is at his best, Owens cuts sensual garments that do not rely on flamboyance or exhibitionism to evoke sex appeal. Instead, he hints at a woman’s physique through translucent materials and through the subtle curves that are revealed when a slim skirt pulls taut in the midst of a strong gait.

There were moments during the presentation of his Fall 2012 collection, which is part of Paris Fashion Week, when he offered clothes to savor. His cropped leather jackets with their dolman sleeves were perfectly proportioned over his attenuated, back-slit skirts. His work with fur, combining white and gray mink, was skilled and sophisticated. And his sweeping overcoats evoked modern day grandeur.

But it was hard to shake the discomfort brought on by his soundtrack, a nearly-15-minute loop of a Zebra Katz rap called “Imma Read,” that essentially launched into a laundry list of the things the auteur-rapper planned to do the verbally maligned woman. Katz says in an interview that the song is about literacy—OK, and perhaps, in a context of his own making or in his own head, it is—but played uninterrupted within the context of Owens’s fashion show, it landed like a verbal assault, an aural pummeling of women’s dignity … as if the face masks were not problematic enough.

Fashion is surely the only commercial industry that is so disrespectful of its primary customer. It is hard to imagine an automobile company engaging a chorus of women to shout expletives at men as they peruse the North American International Auto Show.

Every designer deserves a degree of poetic license, leeway to shock and provoke. But in exchange for that generosity, the designer has a responsibility to make clear his ultimate goal, to ask himself whether the ends justify the insults and bruises along the way. In this case, they did not. Just because runway shenanigans are self-consciously weird or provocative or discomforting, that doesn’t elevate them to art. That doesn’t make them good.

Perhaps if Owens had created a collection in which the women on his runway were taking ownership of such a term, the impact would have been different. If the models’ faces had been wholly visible, if their expressions had been proud, strong and determined, if a woman’s voice had dominated the soundtrack…if, if, if.

Instead, the most memorable aspect of Owens’s Fall 2012 runway show was not his palette of moss, mushroom, and cocoa or his splendidly balanced proportions, but a single, unshakeable question: What’s his beef with women?

Owens only provided more fodder for intellectuals and critics who love to look askance at the womenswear industry and its enthusiasts. To them, fashion is a constant negotiation over how women will be defined and how they will be perceived. And because so many of the lead designers are men, there is the uncomfortable reality that women are not creating their own costuming for the public stage, but are at the mercy of men and their whims. To embrace fashion, the critics say, is to relinquish control.

To some degree, that is true. But there is another argument—a more sound argument—that sees the fashion industry as merely providing the building blocks for constructing a public image. A designer, on his runway, offers one option among many.

While Owens directed a presentation that ultimately belittled women, designer Peter Copping at Nina Ricci took great delight in creating a collection that blended loose tailoring with lingerie references. A champagne-colored dress in lining silk was beautifully rumpled; a knit skirt with French seams was comfortably roughed up and a purple tweed coat looked warmly aged.

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Roland Mouret often overcomplicated his dresses and jackets this season with folds and pleats that did little more than add bulk to his usually aerodynamic shapes. But when he was not tempted by origami tricks, his delicate prints and embossed fauna patterns brought charm to what could have been uptight silhouettes.

And at Christian Dior, where the industry’s attention has been turned in breathless anticipation of a new boldface name to take over as creative director, the house was frankly all the better for not having a heat-seeking personality at the helm. With a collection that celebrated the classic silhouettes and dove gray palette of the house, interim design director Bill Gaytten offered women quietly beautiful clothes that recalled the handcrafted femininity and gentility that so many associate with the venerable French label.

Actress Natalie Portman underscored that history when she walked the Oscar red carpet in a vintage Dior gown last month. But she just as easily could have been wearing one of the gowns from Gaytten’s Fall collection. In particular, the finale gown, worn by model Karlie Kloss, was a study in elegance: plum tulle, draped on one shoulder, light as a cloud, magnificent.

The daywear focused on a soft skirt, a nipped and belted waist, and a jacket that was often set back from the neck with a portrait collar. Understand this was not a retro collection—no matter its significant debt to the house’s history. These were contemporary clothes for the kind of woman who enjoys the pleasures of dressing up and looking chic, but who does not necessarily believe that being perceived as hip is the ne plus ultra of style.

When the final model left the runway, Gaytten stepped into the spotlight to take his bow. He was alone, without any members of the extensive team of assistants and seamstresses who keep the house chugging along. Whether this was the last collection under his leadership or one of many more to come, Gaytten acquitted himself well and, more important, made clear that when the divided allegiances of the fashion industry are all sorted, he stands on the side of women.