In the end, there was no revolution. While there was something mythic about the idea that Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane, presenting their first ready-to-wear collections for Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent respectively, would change (as many media reports hyperbolized before Paris Fashion Week got started recently) the face of fashion, the spring 2013 season was not reduced to a duel that ended with one designer on top. How could it be when so many other designers showed such strong collections? If anything, the eight-day event, which ran from Sept. 25 to Oct. 4, provided a twist on the old cliché: It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you step up your game.
In the end, all that buildup over Simons versus Slimane produced a ripple effect more pronounced than any single moment in seasons past; suddenly, everyone seemed compelled to try a little harder.
There had been something anomalous about the fall 2012 season, with its vivid hues and surface detail. It was gorgeous, but also inexplicably eccentric. That was clothing that warranted a glass vitrine when it wasn't being worn. By contrast, the clothes to come offer impact through shape, sheerness and a judicious use of colour and print. Graphic is the new watchword.
Indeed, several designers – Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin – distilled their collections into a precise (but no less detailed) look.
"The hype about competition – apart from inspiring the designers to do their best – was pointless," said Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, who took in her fair share of Paris shows. "Nowadays, we're long past the idea that one look will emerge and dominate the world."
It was impossible, though, to deny the ubiquity of black and white. There it was at Rochas and again at Gareth Pugh. It was used as a graphic harlequin print at Balmain and as a checkerboard motif at Louis Vuitton. For every black Dior jacket that played off the classic Bar silhouette, there was a white one, distinctly boxier, at Chalayan. Compared to last spring's saturated pinks and blues, the black and silver dresses at Viktor & Rolf were positively severe (although mirrored rose and ribbon cutouts livened things up). If not for all the lingerie layering, the richly romantic collections from Haider Ackermann and Peter Copping at Nina Ricci were so rooted in black they could have been mistaken for fall wear. Slimane's take on black played out as bohemian goth, an entirely different message from Elbaz's sharply suited, obi-belted femme fatales. Whereas the black bodices with plunging sweetheart necklines at Maison Martin Margiela evoked John Singer Sargent's Madame X , McCartney applied giant black elliptical shapes to finely pleated white dresses as if channeling Richard Serra's paintstick canvases. Black is back – get the drift?
Then there was Dries Van Noten, the cerebral outlier. The Belgian designer showed a stellar collection that riffed on grunge and couture in equal measure. What appeared to be a penchant for plaids, floral appliqués and pyjama dressing was really a broader head butting between masculine-feminine sartorial tropes.
"It's a collection of clashing clichés," he explained, pointing to the oversized sweaters and slacks paired with filmy underpinnings and sweeping organza over-dresses. "But to clash, you have to do things that are also quite recognizable; otherwise it's a mess. There's no reference point."
To be sure, fashion today is far more referential than radical. And there's nothing wrong with this as long as the references suggest forward momentum, strengthen brand identities and offer people something they will actually want to wear.
It's an elusive equation and Van Noten achieved it. One could argue that Slimane almost did, too. The skinny suits with floppy bows, bohemian dresses and laced suede jackets are signatures of the house he now occupies and might well prove commercially popular. But his debut Saint Laurent collection ("Yves" has been stricken from the brand name) will be as memorable for what didn't work as for what did. Slimane, who had never previously designed women's wear, got stuck in the codes instead of charting new territory.
With any luck, he will end up on a trajectory similar to that of Valentino's Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, who firmly understand how the label's past informs its present. All those floor-length, puff-sleeved dresses, lacy bibs, floral cutouts and demure white-collared blouses summarize their stealth, detail-driven approach to the sexiness championed by Signore Garavani (who took in the show beside Jennifer Lopez).
Meanwhile, it was impossible not to love Lanvin this season, as Elbaz followed up his 10th-anniversary collection – recall those ruffled party dresses and round-shouldered suits – with strict, square-cut deconstructed tuxedos and bodysuits with low-slung trousers.
Lagerfeld, who devoted his past two seasons to water and earth, harnessed the wind for spring 2013. If this wasn't evident from the 13 enormous faux wind turbines placed on a runway covered in a solar-panel pattern, it came across in the airy Spencer-style jackets over mini-dresses, pinwheel appliqués and coastal cool separates in sunset shades of pink, violet and electric blue. Chanel doesn't need to be reinvented. And yet Lagerfeld always manages to generate excitement.
Excitement could have proven a liability for Simons, especially after his well-received foray into haute couture last July. But when his impeccably tailored jackets gave way to striped dresses covered in iridescent organza, it was as if he asked the Dior woman out on a date to a pinball arcade. The clothes were electric. And panels of beading up the inside of jacket vents and paillettes set on their sides to form spacey floral shapes confirm that he's no minimalist.
Neither, for that matter, is Jacobs, despite his new columnar silhouettes. This marked the first LV ready-to-wear collection that eschewed the monogram. In its place were all possible permutations of the familiar Damier check – in micro sequins, sheer mesh and feathers. In a glossy site-specific installation conceived by artist Daniel Buren, the models appeared in Pairs, descended escalators and walked the yellow checkerboard runway. The choreography resembled performance art, while spoken excerpts from Philip Glass's Einsteinon the Beach added yet more impact. In short, everything about the show was moving, all while underscoring the brand using nothing but a pattern of squares.
"One of the core fantasies with modern contemporary fashion is that there's this expectation of a revolution, but the reality is that's not quite how fashion works," Steele said. "It's about evolution and small changes."
Duly noted. But in Paris this season, it was ultimately about checks and balances.