Within the fashion industry, there's a constant struggle between the personal and the professional, between our most intimate feelings about our body and the fully armored version of it that we place on the public stage.
The best designers somehow place these opposing forces in perfectly balanced tension. Marc Jacobs did this with a moving and inviting Louis Vuitton presentation in the courtyard of the Louvre. For the debut of the spring 2013 collection, the company constructed a temporary edifice in the museum's courtyard and inside that white box the central set piece consisted of four shiny escalators that delivered the models onto a wide, glossy yellow stage as if they had descended from some celestial department store on a bright sunny day.
As has become his tradition, Jacobs opened the doors to his show space early, served a few refreshments and then began promptly at the appointed hour of 10am--if not a few moments before. It was a sad sight to witness a pair of tardy guests, decked out in paparazzi-bait finery, arriving as other guests were filing out of what was a sleek and extremely pretty show. But there surely must be a special place in heaven for such a prompt designer. And indeed there is nothing to be gained in hype, anticipation or enthusiasm from a chaotic door policy.
Jacobs was inspired by the work of French conceptual artist Daniel Buren--a name not likely to be familiar to those outside the art world. But visitors to Paris’ Palais Royale would recognize his most famous work, “Les Deux Plateaux,” which consists of 260 columns in three different heights all forming a grid within the 17th century courtyard. The work caused controversy when it was installed some 25 years ago, as it was one of the early invasions of contemporary art into a historic site here, and was recently given a face lift. It was the idea of the grid that reverberates through the Vuitton collection and Jacobs used the brand’s signature "Damier" checkerboard as his dominant graphic pattern.
Jacobs sent his models, with their beehive hairdos, down the escalator in pairs who were dressed in complimentary styles. The clothes were highly linear and simple in silhouette -- reminiscent of mod 60s styles. The collection lacked the lushness that defined Jacobs' work for fall, but it had a sleek effervescence thanks to abstract floral prints, lattice checkerboards and fabrics washed with pinhead sequins.
As the last models rode up the escalator, a man's voice on the soundtrack ruminated on a question posed by his lover--a poetic overture from the Phillip Glass opera “Einstein on the Beach” : “How much do I love you? Count the stars in the sky," he responds. “Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon; number the grains of sand along the sea shore."
It was a magical and embracing reminder that fashion at this level is ultimately not about fabric and embellishment, but about how it makes us feel.
Chanel certainly stirs deep emotions among its fans. They may not be feelings of romanticism or even sensuality, but when the Chanel brand is on display, the company’s clients turn out in full designer kit accessorized with an ear-to-ear grin.
There is always a sort of rugby scrum at the entrance to the Chanel show. Even after the invitation has been procured, there are a few additional hurdles that must be cleared before a guest can settle into a coveted seat. Perhaps having to endure a bit of inelegant pushing makes the victory--a view of designer Karl Lagerfeld’s current creations--that much sweeter for the dedicated fan.
The collection for spring was unveiled at the Grand Palais on a field lined with multi-story, white windmills. They turned slowly and gave the Art Nouveau building a suddenly contemporary appeal. This was a collection powered on both color and volume. The show opened with black skirts that hung away from the body and jackets dotted with gumball-sized pearls. Slim trousers appeared to have been constructed of a kind of mesh, the tiny holes aerating the physique. The pants were often topped with cropped jackets that were loose and light-hearted.
The collection was at its best, however, when it moved from black and white into denim and Technicolor with red-checked baseball-style jackets, printed shirt dresses in an oversize silhouette and beach playwear in shades of cobalt and violet.
There was no sense of intimacy or the personal in this presentation, which was on such a grand scale. This was pure corporate swagger. Still, Lagerfeld has expertly drawn a direct link between Chanel’s contemporary customers and the history and legacy of the brand. For those customers, the personal connection is not with Lagerfeld--he is the untouchable rock star creative director, dressed in a candy-striped shirt and tie for his runway promenade--but with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel herself.
Chanel represents Paris fashion with all of the pathos and stardust that implies. When these customers elbowed their way through the doorway of the Grand Palais, they were stepping into a part of French history that resonates as deeply as the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower. And as they stood and posed on the Chanel runway in the moments after the show, it was clear that fashion had made history both personal and real.
At a brand like Valentino, the success story for designers Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri is rooted in their ability to inject soulfulness into their work. Their collection for the house was filled with tablecloth lace, delicate pleats and ankle-grazing dresses with high necklines and open backs. It was such a beautiful, dignified and sensual collection that one could virtually see the hands of the designers on each garment.
The duo have had the daunting task of holding the creative reins of the house following the retirement of its founder and moving it forward without ever losing its authenticity. While Valentino was known for a signature shade of red, there was no cut or silhouette with which the house was associated. Instead, the legacy was one of graceful femininity. The clothes had a light and frothy quality but never looked silly or immature. Fundamentally, the heart of Valentino rested with the taste level of its namesake. This was an extremely personal brand.
But Piccioli and Chiuri, together, have an enviable eye that understands proportion and color. The fit of these clothes is just so. The antique shades of blush, sage and bronze are just right. The amount of embellishment is never too much. The plunge of the back never goes too far. The rise of the neckline is never too high. (For an example of a design eye gone terribly wrong, consider the Viktor & Rolf collection, which exploited the same 1930s and 40s mood, and see shades of pale pink clashing with cantaloupe, too broad shoulders turning models into linebackers and over-zealous embellishment leaving women looking like fashion topiaries.)
Piccioli and Chiuri are not revolutionizing Valentino, but they are proving that exquisite taste--refined, elegant and sophisticated--is rare. And when it is loosed, it is just as exciting as any fashion rebellion.
By contrast, at Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton has had the task of overseeing a house that was filled with distinctive imagery--from corsets and sculpted skirts, to molded bodices and elaborate gowns. Burton quickly proved that she has the technical skill and imagination to conjure dramatic runway finery. She can craft a voluminously ruffled ballgown just as well as the brand’s namesake could. But there is no passion, no emotion, and no soul in these garments. They are elaborate costuming for an untold story.
To a large degree, the brand’s founder, who died by his own hand in 2010, may have injected too much of himself into his collections. There was a rawness and impolitic honesty to his shows, many of which could make your heart weep. Burton has expressed no desire to use the runway as a therapeutic outlet for whatever demons may haunt her dreams. But she has also refrained from giving the brand a living personality. It cannot survive as merely an homage to its founder.
The spring collection was intended to expound on the female body, sensuality and skin--but not nudity. It was inspired by bees and incorporated open weave, honeycombed skirts; belts that looked like glistening amber; beekeeper hats; and dresses with patterns drawn from the elaborate architecture of a hive. The models walked out against the backdrop of a video showing bees at work and the soundtrack was dominated by the annoying sound of bees buzzing around one’s ear.
The clothes were marvels of architecture and sculpture, but wholly lacked personality. There was an emptiness to the collection because it lacked any urgent message, moving emotion or passionate belief.
Every collection doesn’t have to touch the heart--but those that do are the ones that stand out, that are memorable and that can drown out that inner voice of reason that tells a woman that a pair of trousers should not cost $900.
The Hermès collection with its floral prints, simple pullovers and wedge heels was wearable and pretty, but the object of irrational desire remains the brand’s signature Birkin handbag. Giambattista Valli showed a collection of sweet shifts decorated with floral appliqués, but his insistence on sending out model after model in a sheer pencil skirt worn over opaque panties stirred confusion and distress more than desire.
Bill Gaytten’s work at John Galliano focused on oversize shapes, origami folds and kimono silhouettes. It was a well-done collection but felt more like a space holder instead of a statement from a designer who has taken full ownership of the brand. Chitose Abe’s Sacai collection continues to play tricks on the eye with skirts that look like shorts from the back, layers of shirts that are in fact a single garment and dresses with skirts slashed open for a peek at a lace slip. Trompe l’oeil is Abe’s calling card, but one of the most enticing garments on her runway was a straightforward olive jacket with a hem of silky cobalt blue fabric and a hood trimmed in fluttering, chocolate brown marabou. No tricks, just cool.
Chloe’s Clare Waight Keller offered easy shapes, bold abstract floral prints and dramatic ruffles delineating a shoulder or a neckline. The brand is celebrating its 60th anniversary with an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo. The company was founded as an antidote to the rigorousness of French couture and has always had a bohemian sensibility. Keller is slowly finding her own path to expressing that in the 21st century.
The Paris shows came to a close with Miuccia Prada’s Miu Miu collection. It was a mix of crinkle-fabric slim skirts and swing jackets, paint-splatter prints, fur jackets and fur stoles. Indeed, Prada has become a vociferous advocate for springtime fur-wearing.
If there has been a theme to these collections, aside from the return of the pantsuit and rise of block heels, it has been change--not in terms of hemlines and color palettes, but the expectation that this would be the season in which women’s attire was revolutionized at the hands of the new designers at Christian Dior and Saint Laurent. Neither house overthrew the established order. And the disappointment was palpable among fashion insiders. But true revolutions are rare and they take time. They do not come in a single instance but in messy fits and starts.
Only fashion demands that a designer stay true to a house’s history while setting it off on a completely different path for the future--and demand that he accomplish that Herculean task in one effort. Films are screened and edited and re-cut before they are masterpieces. Restaurants have a soft opening and weeks of tweaking before critics come calling to bestow stars. Artists do countless studies before their final canvases are rendered.
Designers need time, too.
But without doubt, the impatience won’t end with Dior’s Raf Simons and Saint Laurent’s Hedi Slimane. Italian fashion titan Diego della Valle is waiting in the wings to unveil his reinvented Schiaparelli. And he amped up the anticipation, even before he has announced a designer, with a cocktail party in Elsa Schiaparelli’s former apartment on Place Vendôme. Paco Rabanne has a new designer. So does Revillon. And inevitably, there will be another house, and yet another one, looking to remake itself.
Fashion is fueled by this kind of brash change. But it thrives on something more complex and subtle. Fashion thrives when brands are brought to life with creativity, individuality and a well run back office. They must strive to help consumers manage their private and public selves. And throughout this endeavor, patience is a key virtue.