Paris Fashion Week

Whispers of Brilliance at Balenciaga

Designer Nicolas Ghesquiere Shows a Confidently Reserved Collection for Spring 2013. Robin Givhan reports from Paris.

Chris Moore, Catwalking / Getty Images (3)

The first model down the runway at the spring 2013 Balenciaga show was wearing a simple pair of black trousers—slim-cut and sitting at the natural waistline. They were paired with a white top with a classically articulated bust line that also called to mind a modern breastplate. Her heels were high, but they were sturdy, with the dimensions of a brick. Her wavy blonde hair was clipped back. Her face looked almost free of makeup. Simple, unique, and modern. She looked great.

This is the sort of sensibility at which designer Nicolas Ghesquiere excels—clothes that are fit for contemporary life, that are aerodynamic and yet seem firmly rooted in our cultural history.

To present this collection, he returned to the stark loft space on Paris’s Left Bank, which had long been the show’s designated home, after several seasons in the ornate salons of the Hotel de Crillon and one in the space-age penthouse of the brand’s parent company, PPR. This place suits the collection best.

The bare stone walls offered a contrast to the ruffles that curved along the hems of skirts. They grounded the curious and unexpected fabrics with their texture and patina. And they suggested a certain practicality that gilded rooms cannot.

For Ghesquiere, whose flights of fantasy have in the past transformed models into aesthetically superior superheroines, this was a more restrained collection—a more visually accessible one, too. And in many ways, that made it more of an accomplishment. It’s takes a great deal of skill to make a suit look interesting and to prevent ruffles from turning saccharine.

The flamenco-esque ruffles called to mine the history of the house, one in which founder Cristobal Balenciaga injected his Spanish heritage into the rarified world of French ateliers. But where the namesake’s ruffles were soft and flirtatious, Ghesquiere’s had a sharp edge that conjured up an austere moodiness. The black ruffles spiraled around the hems of skirts that fell to mid-calf. The hems were slashed open horizontally—as if a ruffle was in danger of spinning right off the garment.

There were cropped trousers worn with a sharp-shouldered blazer with slits at the cuff. Jackets were almost two-dimensional in their simplicity. And white underpinnings consisted of strappy, tailored tank tops that looked a bit like the bindings of some Amazon warrior.

Thigh-skimming skirts and jackets in a mélange of blue and yellow were cut from fabrics that at a glance looked like tweed, but after a lingering gaze resembled satellite images in which cities turn into a blur of shimmering dots and squares against a dark field. Colorful blue patchworks created a leather-lace effect on sleeveless dresses. And ivory knits were sculptural rather than sensuous.

The best fashion tells us something about our time, hints at the way in which we engage with each other, and reflects the cultural mood. This was not a loud and boisterous collection; we do not need another shrill message of right and wrong from an insecure messenger. It was not filled with silly gestures, nor was it pessimistic. The times are serious, but dour fashion would only compound the misery.

There was distinct tailoring and reality-based silhouettes. But in each piece there was also a bit of daring-do, a reminder that you don’t have to yell in order to be heard. Because a confident voice, with an original message, can whisper and still capture our attention.