By  on October 27, 2008

Paris: City of Light, City of Reason?

You bet. While prized for its imaginative flights of fancy, and the occasional flirtation with the avant-garde, the most recent Paris Fashion Week paraded collections that were strong and well executed, yet restrained and largely free  of theatrics—not counting the odd puff of mist and a few sandy runways.

“It’s about reality, it’s about going back to the essence,” muses Alber Elbaz, creative director of Lanvin. “We all see how fragile and insecure everything is.”

“I think the shows were more ‘grounded,’ but had even more wit and spirit this way,” says Christian Lacroix. “Artists and designers have antennas, intuition that enable them to translate this feeling of sober times, disconnected from the foolish circus some houses have indulged in recently. They went deeper in their work and found an interesting realism in tune with next summer’s expected crisis behavior. We had less ‘spectacular,’ but more poetic, moments.”

Few designers consider themselves experts on economic matters, but agree there are two main responses to the widening international economic crisis that overshadowed the fashion season: One, duck and cover in gloomy clothes for gloomy times, or two, face the difficulties with chic defiance in clothes to empower women and make them happy.

Most seem to be of the latter school, while stressing the need for a modicum of restraint.

“Fashion is very much about reflecting the times, listening to the woman, and this season was the right time to focus on the clothes,” says John Galliano, who, with a wild styling touch or two, dialed down the decor and theatricality and ramped up the finesse at both the Dior and Galliano shows. “You must never give up, never loose your focus, and I think these collections reflected determination to survive and how the dream will continue. Women will not panic and just stop caring about how they look—clothes are an important key to survival, to maintaining image and morale. Now, more than ever, luxury, excellence and crisp, graphic cuts feel right.”

While acknowledging the option of going “harder, more aggressive, darker” to reflect the times, Elbaz says he preferred to throw some light into the equation. “We react by trying to make women look good and look happy. They’re going to buy less of certain things, but I think they’ll go back to emotional clothing, desirable clothing,” he says. “That’s why we have to push the limits and bring that to her.”

To be sure, some designers preferred not to let the outside world impinge on their work.

“Journalists are quick to try to find a relationship between the economic mood and the collections, but for designers who are interested truly in creation, there is no connection whatsoever,” charges Rei Kawakubo, whose white fright wigs and radical all-black silhouettes, some resembling deflated footballs, stood out in a season of safety. “My collection this time had strictly nothing to do with any global headlines. I made my presentation according to the theme of the collection. Black has become as boring and habitual as denim, so I wanted to find tomorrow’s black.” If anything, she says, “in sober times, we need even stronger creation.”

Karl Lagerfeld also takes a devil’s advocate stance, suggesting that, in difficult moments, people might just want the opposite of what people expect. “And don’t forget, those clothes come out six months later, and the world may have changed again by then,” he adds.

Lagerfeld says a crisis reminds him of the need to “work harder than ever” and be more alert to changes in the world. But it warrants neither crazy escapist fantasy nor “boring wartime clothes. We’re not in London during the Blitz.”

Jean Paul Gaultier, a jolly sort who bounds down the runway, his arms whirring at the end of every show, allows that if he woke up every morning thinking of the financial crisis, he might not get out of bed. Instead, he designed his spring collection like every other — based on what inspires him — and propelled  by the conviction that, in tough times, people need to dream even more. Still, the clothes were accessible and understandable. Modern dance was Gaultier’s couldn’t-miss-it theme for next season, prompted by working with choreographer Angelin Preljocaj earlier this year on a new production of Blanche Neige, or Snow White.

Yohji Yamamoto is also a designer who continues to do things his way. Asked if the global financial crisis infringed on his designs, Yamamoto remarks: “Fortunately or unfortunately, my customer has always been a minority in terms of numbers. So it doesn’t affect my creation.”

Even if his collection was inspired by funerals, and the dignified ways women tend to dress for them, Yamamoto insists he’s more of the sunny-side-up ilk. “Although fashion is not a necessity, sober times always remind me of the expression ‘people need art to live.’”

Lacroix, prized for his Baroque and colorful creations steeped in his Arlesian roots, says it would be “silly” for him to design sad black or pared-down pieces. “I felt I wanted something both ‘very Christian Lacroix, very me,’ and more connected with the times, with embellished off-white and beige daywear and  little dresses, without too many complicated mix-and-matches or too long and theatrical ballgowns,” he says. “This is my version of escapism, needed in these times, without being stupid.”

“Exceptional doesn’t mean extravagant,” agrees Jean-Jacques Picart, a Paris-based industry consultant. “It’s more difficult to design a simple—not boring, not too classic, but not too exaggerated—black dress than to do some completely crazy, extravagant and embellished fur coat.”

Picart says the best collections for next spring and summer marked a return to the philosophy of Gabrielle Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, two greats of 20th-century fashion of the never-more-than-what-is-essential approach to fashion.

Picart argues that the spring shows signaled an end to many of the recent ills of the fashion industry, most notably its penchant for excess and hype. The impact of celebrity endorsement and star designers, for example, are bound to fade. Products that are “done in a lazy way” or are overpriced will be  weeded out, he asserts, also predicting that certain designers and labels that show on the runway might opt for presentations instead.

“I’m very excited because we’re going back to rigor, to sanity,” he says. “People will agree to buy something because it’s worth it—not because Paris Hilton wore it, or because Tom Ford is so handsome.” Picart says the shift puts the focus back on “real values” in fashion, such as desirability, wearability, correct pricing and brand identification. “Identity will become a more and more precious value,” he predicts.

“The most interesting, clever and obviously good shows were those that were the most personalized, far beyond global trends,” Lacroix notes. Galliano stresses that brand identity and consumer satisfaction are what guides creativity today. “I have been at Dior 11 years, and Galliano is in its 24th year. I think I know  my client pretty well by now,” he says. “I cater to a woman who wants luxury as well as some fantasy. I think that you have to produce key pieces, objects of desire, as much as collections with commercial appeal. But I think the big key is to not lose faith in yourself, in your house, in what you do, in your vision. If you panic, it shows in your work, in your designs, and if a collection lacks integrity, honesty, it lacks strength, and strength, attention  to detail and excellence is what you should strive for now. Whatever the global economic situation, you will not survive if you do not know your brand, your aims, your dreams and your clients.”

Yamamoto says customers’ desires are “becoming more conservative these days,” meaning designers need to carefully balance their DNA with just the right dash of trend. “I have been working for a long time to fi nd something not like what’s new, what’s next or what’s fast,” he explains. “When a brand is always searching for what’s fast, they’ll naturally lose their identities.”

On a positive note, Lacroix points out that crisis periods tend to usher in new fashions and lifestyle behaviors: short hair and skirts after the First World War, Christian Dior’s extravagant and controversial full-skirted New Look after the Second World War and Japanese and Belgian designers in the pared-down late Eighties.

Lagerfeld agrees, pointing out that Mainbocher launched his fashion house in the middle of the Great Depression, and it was an important period of growth for Elsa Schiaparelli, too.

“There’s always time for fashion,” says Lagerfeld, also touting his own propensity to keep on spending on fashion. “Luxury and fashion provides million of jobs. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s better than speculating on stock markets.”

“Perhaps the next crisis will be a good opportunity for a new generation of designers on both sides of the Atlantic (and worldwide, as well), giving unexpected talented and realistic answers to a new way of living on this planet, with a brand-new elegance and style,” says Lacroix. “Since forever, fashion is an immortal human need, whatever the situation is.”

Not that it’s an easy task, as Kawakubo points out in her take-no-prisoners way: “There is never anything easy about creation. It is always difficult.”

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