In today’s fashion landscape, where designers now turn out six collections annually and models are considered ancient at the age of 23, a decade represents an eternity. Which helps explain why the most recent Paris Fashion Week will be remembered as the season that designer Alber Elbaz celebrated his 10-year milestone at Lanvin with a festive runway show sandwiched between Champagne toasts.
But it will also be remembered as the season in which Louis Vuitton custom-built a functioning steam-engine locomotive that, filled with models, pulled into a tent designed to resemble an old-fashioned railway station. Each girl, more decadently dressed than the next, was accompanied by a porter who carried various hatboxes, sequined, monogrammed or fur handbags and oversized ostrich carryalls.
After the show, Yves Carcelle, chief executive officer at Vuitton, told The New York Times that the train would be used again (unsurprisingly, costs for the production remain undisclosed). So for whimsy’s sake, let’s hop on and take a little trip.
First, a detour to … 2002.
Over the past month, fashion pundits have been monitoring – and feeding – the rumour mill on the talent turnover. Jil Sander’s designer, Raf Simons, ceded his job to the label’s namesake; Yves Saint Laurent announced Stefano Pilati’s departure and Hedi Slimane’s appointment; speculation on successors to John Galliano at Christian Dior continues (among the contenders: Marc Jacobs, rookie Maxime Simoens and Simons).
But rewind to the year Elbaz assumed his post at Lanvin and a similar pattern emerges. Olivier Theyskens (who now oversees Theory) was recruited to reinvigorate Rochas; James Aguiar began a short-lived stint at Nina Ricci; after nine years, Oscar de la Renta stepped away from moonlighting at Balmain (Christophe Decarnin stepped in); Alexander McQueen ended his run at Givenchy in 2001, passing the baton to Julien Macdonald; Giambattista Valli was overseeing Ungaro.
Nearly every major French fashion house has experienced creative rotation over the past decade (with four exceptions: Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Jean Paul Gaultier and Lanvin). If patchwork fur and Angelina-worthy slit skirts fall under the heading of micro trends, then this shuffling is a macro trend, which is to say nothing new. Fashion industry veteran Robert Burke, president and chief executive officer of the New York-based consultancy Robert Burke Associates, describes this moment of flux as “a little bit like musical chairs and the music is still playing.”
Ah, the know-it-when-you-see- it notion of newness. In Paris, this arose out of a redistribution of volume. After many seasons of upside-down triangles (broad shoulders, streamlined legs), designers such as Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons, Hussein Chalayan and Jacobs are examining attenuated A-lines and what happens when fabric is manipulated to create a flare far more dramatic than the currently ubiquitous peplum. In Kawakubo’s hands – flat, felted wool pieces that appeared as if stapled together – it’s an intellectual conceit; but it’s also easily adaptable. This was just the beginning.
Uncharted territory (sort of)
Where theatricality and styling are concerned, Karl Lagerfeld competes only with himself. For his fall ready-to-wear collection, gigantic stalagmites burst through the ground of the Grand Palais and models’ eyebrows were frosted with jewels. Most radical, however, was the layering of cuffed pants under almost every outfit. “Creativity is a lot about trust, confidence and being able to have the resources to take risks,” Chanel’s long-time président des activities mode (president of fashion activities), Bruno Pavlovsky, told me before the show. “He develops and interprets all the codes with modernity.” (Actually, Prada, Chalayan and Jacobs also showed pants under dresses. It’s a look that echoes the traditional Southeast Asian shalwar kameez, the trouser-and- tunic combo.)
Runway music has always set a mood and a pace for models, but, increasingly, some brands are using it as a means to underscore the specific codes of their collections. At Rick Owens, there was a palpable discomfort among guests unfamiliar with the subversive rap track Ima Read by Zebra Katz. Laced with a word that rhymes with itch, the song’s pulsing baseline matched the procession of ominous, asexual models clad in cobweb-knit face masks and draped robes topped with cropped leather jackets. On the flip side, the finale of Sarah Burton’s collection for Alexander McQueen was queued up to Good Vibrations. As the models looped around the Salle Wagram (a once popular, nostalgic venue choice), the myriad layers of fabric, feathers and Mongolian lamb that erupted from the dresses looked like wavelengths depicted in 3-D. In what was an extraordinary collection for Burton, there was none of McQueen’s darkness. And Good Vibrations drove that point home.
A new uniform
When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, his biggest image asset (aside from his blinding smile) was the white shirt. It’s a U.S. election year once again and the emergence of the white shirt on Paris runways is almost certainly coincidence. Still, it poked out of gamine suiting at Carven and stricter, androgynous looks at Hermès. Stella McCartney showed a white pique shirt overlaid with electric blue acanthus leaves and others stripped of their collars that buttoned high up the neck. The white shirts at Valentino acted as a counterpoint to black leather capes and knee-length skirts.
At first glance, designers appeared to be anticipating the next ice age; rare was the collection that did not feature fur. But in fact, the broader message was how designers worked with fur, applying it in segments running down sleeves (Rick Owens) or as a way to add fullness to skirts (Gareth Pugh). Furs were dyed in crayon hues at Céline, Jean Paul Gaultier and Lanvin, sometimes patched together like an abstract expressionist painting. Viktor & Rolf showed sheared pelts more stylized than the pups paraded at the Westminster Dog Show. But given all the fur, there was a dearth of correspondingly winterized footwear. Colourful pumps (Chalayan), Mary Jane hybrids (Vuitton, Dior, Nina Ricci), chunky heels (Dior), taffeta loafers (Valentino) and embellished heels (Chanel) or soles (Lanvin) proved more popular than knee-high boots (one exception: Givenchy).
Surely anyone with a long-range view of fashion could have predicted a reaction against the “investment-piece” timeless dressing that defined the deep recessionary years of 2009 and 2010. The baubles, spangles and beads that began in earnest this season with Marc Jacobs in New York and Prada in Milan appeared in Paris at Lanvin, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and, to a lesser extent, Dior. You know that the clothes are highly ornamented when they refract light into the audience. “The market got saturated with extremely wearable pieces,” Burke explains. “And while it was right for the time period, the customer gets bored. You have to give them something new to see and want and desire.” And while hologram and glinty bits are an easy way to elicit a wow, they were applied to couture-like effect (Chalayan’s use of palladium would also translate into couture prices, should the dresses be produced).
The designers who showed control over their labels this season pushed a specific design element and appeared to have a solid sense of their customer Stella McCartney, Guillaume Henry for Carven, Valentino’s Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, Gareth Pugh and, of course, Elbaz.
Next stop, Dior
Dior has proved resilient without a megawatt designer at the helm and Bill Gaytten has now delivered three laudable collections. Thanks to slightly updated shapes, flattering waist emphasis and a soft colour palette, the latest one was elegant, polished and utterly unobjectionable. Yes, all of this is very good. But shouldn’t Dior be great? Indeed, what we’re seeing now is a house that venerates its past while chugging ahead. The question may ultimately come down to how Dior wants to be perceived: assertive and directional or consistently elegant. Perhaps neither is the wrong choice.
After the last Lanvin model disappeared behind the stage, Elbaz, heartfelt and enthusiastic, serenaded his guests with Que Sera Sera and invited everyone to sing along. “Whatever will be, will be.” It was a fitting choice for an industry that – to thrilling and maddening extents – never, ever slows down.