By  on October 29, 2007

A melding of two worlds, with controversy beneath the spectacle.

Brooding fairies. Disheveled nymphs. Manic clowns. Art and sexual obsessions. Environmental friendliness. And those were just the fashion motifs. Add in the touching juxtaposition of experience and youth and a few key celebrity sightings, along with a significant dose of controversy, and the spring 2008 collections had it all. 

If not a watershed per se, this season proved extremely important for reasons that can be divided glibly into those too-tidy categories of art and commerce. Regarding the former, this was a season of spectacular clothes, the runways sites of such glorious goings-on that it’s hard not to proclaim optimistically that nothing else matters. First and foremost, fashion is about the clothes, and this season, designers offered a bounty to wear, yes, but also to provoke and challenge. Are Nicolas Ghesquière’s sleek—and difficult—pants looks a real alternative to red-carpet ho-hum, or a hopeful case of space-alien chic? Will transparency work in reality? Has the eco movement infiltrated the designer psyche for real, or is it mere posturing for the sake of a trend? By working with Louis Vuitton, is Richard Prince bringing art to the richest masses or merely selling out? 

Some of these questions may be answered at retail come spring; others make for delightful debate. (So, too, does the topic of celebrity. What, if anything, did the likes of Posh, Courtney, Sting and Kanye bring to the party?) But this season also saw some formerly smoldering practical issues burst into full flame. These involved the cherished commodities of time and money. For those in the business, editors more than retailers, complaining about timing—the crammed show schedule; its overall, multicity length, and its ever-earlier start date—has become something of a mindless pastime, much like talking sports or Britney’s latest meltdown.

This time, it finally took on a less whiny, more professional character, especially since, with the dollar in the doldrums, it now costs the various American editorial and retail entourages a fortune to do business as usual on the show circuit. And business “as usual” is, in fact, anything but. That is because, over the years, the show schedule has gotten longer and longer, and the start date, earlier and earlier, which causes particular dismay to Americans approaching the spring season. 

Silly though it may sound, it’s tough to make the psychological transition from Labor Day on Monday to fashion shows on Tuesday and Wednesday. That is, for those lucky enough to have had a Labor Day weekend, which, this September, did not include many design houses. (Couture-going editors and retailers also lost July 4. Again, whiny, yes, but who doesn’t look forward to the occasional holiday, especially when the
F-word—family—is considered?) For designers, the issue is not about reveling in that last romp of summer—how quaint the thought—nor even working in some much-deserved creative time to hang out and think. Rather, it’s about pulling together yet another collection on the heels of the ever-mushrooming resort and pre-spring, and doing so at the mercy of fabric deliveries from Italy in August lockdown.

This year’s especially early New York season (scheduled to avoid Rosh Hashanah) indicated the need for the major cities’ fashion machines to work together, first on dates, and then to address, and hopefully tighten, the endless stretch of shows. Not that any such dialogue would achieve consensus. While many people—including the WWD camp—loved the truncated five-day Milan schedule, others bemoaned the fact that they couldn’t get to every last show. That’s true—sometimes you had to pick and choose. But, as for the see-how-late-everything’s-running argument, inexplicably, it was no later than when we’ve spent eight days and counting in the city with the most outrageously priced hotels on the circuit. As for Paris, despite a powerful season, a strong argument could be made for chopping a day or two—at the end, when two days running consisted of just one major show in the morning and one in the late afternoon or evening, with little substance in between.

Timing, of course, factored into the season’s other great controversy—the one surrounding the two-hour late start of Marc Jacobs’ New York show. WWD quizzed guests on their thoughts on the delay, and few were amused, including the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes, who said she’d like to strangle Jacobs and thus never have to go to another of his shows. He responded in WWD with his thoughts on the schedule and the possibility that he might show elsewhere. Suffice to say, the story would not end any time soon, and in Paris, transferred to The New York Times’ Cathy Horyn’s blog, where tons of people weighed in, including Jacobs. (It all made for an example of fashion’s ability to bring people together, if only to bitch.) 

But back to the runways, where most of the news was fabulous: The first big thrill came at Jacobs’ New York show, which was no less remarkable for being late, a wildly witty romp in which he mused on common sexual stereotypes. Narciso Rodriguez’s serene yet intense collection amounted to a comeback of sorts after several quiet seasons. A number of younger designers whose businesses are still in their infancy, Doo-Ri Chung, Richard Chai and Adam Lippes among them, also delivered terrific collections. They could look to Ralph Lauren as a mega role model; let’s face it, who in this industry wouldn’t kill for a fraction of his success? Lauren celebrated his company’s 40th anniversary with a gorgeous party way uptown in Central Park’s only formal garden, the kind of refined fete all too rare in fashion these days. More importantly, his collection, inspired by My Fair Lady, matched the majesty of the party—it was stellar. 
As much as it celebrated his incredible career, it also felt like a genuine thank-you to those who have supported him over the years, making the event a poignant one. Even after his own blockbuster anniversary celebration in Rome, Valentino, too, had an occasion to note: He had announced his retirement shortly before his show. But he wisely played down the schmaltz factor while waving arrivederci to ready-to-wear, since his real goodbye will come during the January couture. And Alexander McQueen celebrated his friend and mentor, the late Isabella Blow, with an intimate show inspired by her style, especially her penchant for fantastical hats, realized in glorious collaboration with Philip Treacy.

As for the major trends, they started to emerge early, beginning with transparency, an essential element in Jacobs’ show. By season’s end, florals, figurative prints, elegant minimalism and rough-hewn, organic motifs all proved essential. Florals, for example, were often wondrously romantic, but lost their gentility completely at Balenciaga, where Ghesquière toughened them up via structured silhouettes and stiff couture fabrics rendered in a decidedly “done” effect. “No mix and match,” he said. Dries Van Noten went for softer fabrics and shapes, often mixing unrelated patterns in the same garment, which he then lavished with bold arrangements of semiprecious stones for a luxe bohemian effect. But, with the models’ slicked hair and little makeup, the mood felt just shy of aggressive. Miuccia Prada’s fairy prints for Prada were mesmerizing, indeed, delivered with Art Nouveau flourish and a distinct dark side. 

Throughout, one could extract fabulous counterpoint. While Ghesquière’s Balenciaga was structured and precise, Nina Ricci’s Olivier Theyskens dreamt up a brooding romantic vision of nymphs returning home, undone and dazed, from a rave. Even the most real of presentations had range, Stella McCartney going breezy and casual and Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz playing to a grown-up, chic woman who likes to dress up with minimal fuss. But perhaps the biggest direction sprung from art inspiration. At times, the painterly trend was worked modestly, as in Isabel Toledo’s crafty, hand-painted crinkled silks for Anne Klein (although how such looks will translate for production, who knows?) and Rachel Roy’s equally charming fare, shown for maximum effect in a gallery-like setting. Then there were the mega art shows: Dolce & Gabbana’s lavish ode to what the designers billed as contemporary art, though it played like grand romance of the Impressionistic sort, culminating in a lineup of breathtaking hand-painted gowns. These offered frothy opposition to the cartoon spunk and utter audacity of Jacobs’ collaboration with Prince for Vuitton, one stunning enough to keep the fashion and art worlds talking and the copyists copying for some time to come. 

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