By  on October 27, 2008

Eerie. Strange. Surreal. Whatever adjective one invokes,there’s no getting around the utter oddity of the spring ’09 collection season. At its outset, WWD posed the question, “Can Seventh Avenue be Saved?” By the time the shows ended four weeks later, everyone had fallen prey to obsession over a broader question: Can the worldwide economy be saved, and, in song-of-self mode, how do four-digit dresses fit into the picture? Strange, indeed.

On the surface, the fashion crowd functioned as always, herding into this show and that, retailers booking appointments, market editors scheduling endless re-sees and coffees. But off-duty talk was as likely to turn to the Congressional bailout vote, the presidential and vice president debates shown live in the wee hours in Europe and whether one had yet YouTubed Tina Fey as about runway goings-on —except to wonder exactly who’ll be willing and able to buy it.

Before the financial world as we knew it fell apart, the New York collections proceeded in typical fashion, a zillion major shows, minishows, presentations and viewings crammed nonstop into nine consecutive days, a span which, in a nod  to tradition, still goes by the moniker of fashion week. Among the “special” doings were anniversary events for Calvin Klein (40), DKNY (20) and Boucheron (150), which got into the New York swing with a celebration at a performance of Spiegelworld’s Désir at the South Street Seaport. As always, there was a celebrity glut, beginning with an impressive showing at Fashion Rocks and continuing right through to the end. Elegant diva? Check (Jennifer Lopez). Gossip Girl? Check (Leighton Meester). Oh! And another one. Check (Blake Lively). Pretty boy? Check (Chase Crawford). Rock legend writing songs for girlfriend’s show? Check (Mick Jagger). Pop dreamboat not performing, as had been rumored, at his own show? Check (Justin Timberlake). And on and on, through supportive wife (Courtney Cox); supportive friend of supportive wife (Jennifer Aniston); former “It” couple together for a fete, Esther (Canadas and Mark Vanderloo); supposed-but-maybe-just-teasing lipstick lesbian (Lindsay Lohan); sports star (LeBron James), and countless others. Throughout, photographers kept flashing, crowds kept gawking, bodyguards kept shoving in a manner that led one delicate flower who’s been there before, Winona Ryder, to demur, upon being blinded by the ever-flashing paparazzi bulbs during the typical Marc Jacobs door frenzy: “I was basically like Helen Keller.” Once upon  a time, as in a few short years ago, such endless mayhem would have produced an iconic moment or two —who doesn’t remember George Clooney at Versace, Madonna at Gaultier, Derek Jeter at Jacobs? Each a moment talked about for days  and remembered forever. Now, however, celebrities-at-shows status has shifted from exciting novelty to expected same-old, with even the biggest names, and there were some highfalutin A-listers about —Lopez, Uma Thurman— no more surprising in the front row than Stephen I. Sadove or Jim Gold.
As always, the celebrity turnout lessened in Europe, though it’s doubtful the Second Coming could incite the camera-wielding maniacs more than Claudia Schiffer did at Chanel. And there were other distractions, including a mini shocker: the abrupt dismissal of Alessandra Facchinetti from Valentino after a lovely show, a move she said she learned from the press. On a lighter note, a half-hour’s drive from Paris afforded showgoers an ample juxtaposition of joy from Jeff Koons at Versailles, and in a moment of comic relief, word came that Oscar de la Renta, who had angrily gone on the record with his pro-American designer beef with the Metropolitan Opera, got over it in time to attend the opening night soiree, just as he has for 20 years or so.

Yet nothing distracted for long from preoccupation with the economy and the U.S. election. Not surprisingly, campaigning for Barack Obama was rampant, even by those not eligible to vote. Stella McCartney, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Sonia Rykiel all offered shout-outs of one kind or another, although Rykiel’s vote came courtesy of the California Mulleavy sisters, whose guest design for her 40th anniversary bash featured Obama’s name on a T-shirt dress.

As for the season’s less-partisan fashion, an oddness settled in as the economic news worsened: Here was this pack of people who congregate twice a year like clockwork to look at often wildly expensive clothes and were doing so  once again with the luxury bubble having clearly burst. Business as usual? Yes  and no, but no one had a clue how to deal with the negative side of that equation. Thus, in the midst of all the fear, uncertainty and psychological torment, the shows must, and indeed did, go on.

By the time that last day in Paris rolled around, it felt like a long, slow season interrupted by a handful of dazzling shows. With the benefit of two weeks’ hindsight, however, the season had considerably more to offer, including  terrific shows by small and emerging designers such as Koi Suwannagate, who delivered a breakout collection that garnered her first appearance among WWD’s Top Ten. A few majors offered some stunning theatricality, namely Alexander McQueen, who presented his save-the-planet motif against a beautiful, mesmerizing set populated with intriguing-cum-creepy taxidermy animals, great and small. Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquière flexed his own showman’s muscle with a futuristic show suggesting how changing light can impact perception. And Martin Margiela tossed one heck of a 20th anniversary show, which, of course, he declined to attend.

Yet, save for a few notable exceptions (Rei Kawakubo comes first to mind with a terrific Comme des Garçons show that was dark as could be, literally and figuratively), the collections that felt most right radiated much-needed positive vibes. Ralph Lauren, for example, took an elegant Arabian turn. At Calvin Klein, Francisco Costa tempered futurism with a silvery white glow, while at Nina Ricci, Olivier Theyskens offered a treatise on girlish romance via airy cutaway gowns. Among WWD’s Top Ten, only the Rodarte girls lingered on the dark side. Otherwise, Giorgio Armani went beautifully understated, Dries Van Noten put the chic back into sportswear and Raf Simons’ Jil Sander shimmered with fringed sophistication. Suwannagate, meanwhile, imagined Louise Brooks as a poetic nature girl.

Then there were the overt up-with-fashion shows, which seemed to stare down the  economic funk with unbridled fabulosity. Cases in point: Jacobs’ twin stunners, for his own house and Louis Vuitton, and Alber Elbaz’s Lanvin, lush with reality glam. And at Dolce & Gabbana, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana spun a joyful bedtime story in pj’s and pink brocade. And finally, Chanel. Run scared? Please, the man’s name is Karl Lagerfeld. He showed his best ready-to-wear in years against the facade of number 31 Rue Cambon, re-created to perfection under the stately dome of the Grand Palais. Lagerfeld’s collection, like all of the others, was conceived long before the economy went nuts, so a suggestion of cause-and-effect bears zero legitimacy. But one can certainly argue that, in hard times, if a girl’s going to spend on fashion, she’s more likely than not to be attracted to feel-good clothes. With his gleeful romp filled with gorgeous, iconic fashion, Lagerfeld telegraphed his confidence that, if the worst comes, Chanel worshipers will be the last gals standing, and should they go down, by God, it will be in a blaze of quilted, tweeded, double-C’ed glory.

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