YOHJI YAMAMOTO: Refinement, grace, glamour. In an age obsessed with hip, such concepts are often thought of in a retro context, at least in fashion. Just ask the fashionites: Who epitomizes refinement? The Hepburns, Babe Paley — the instinct is to look past one’s contemporaries. But then along comes Yohji Yamamoto waving the banner of such traits, urging us to think of them not as quaint cogs in the retro rotation but as eternal virtues, relevant even today.
In the collection he showed Saturday night, Yamamoto made a dazzling argument, enchanting his audience with clothes that were breathtakingly beautiful and utterly modern.
Yamamoto spurns minimalism, and his clothes are not for the faint of heart. He believes in serious design, and at his best, makes it look not effortless, but nonchalant. Part of his strength is that he embraces references without becoming their victim. “Recently I’ve tried to transfer the sense of glamour of the past to our modern age,” he said last month. “Going to the future means you have to use your past.”
Or somebody else’s. In recent collections, Yohji has cribbed liberally from others — Coco Chanel, Penn, Dior — paying homage while taking the inspirations to a place they never thought of going. This season, his striped knits are part Deauville-era Chanel, part early Sonia Rykiel. But he shaped them in outrageously floppy proportions.
Key themes were a black and white palette and the combination of soft tailoring in fluid pants and skirts with long stretches of fabric that were twisted and turned to form suspenders, a halter, straps. These were worn with everything from chiffon scarf tops to crisp white shirts and loose jackets slashed up the back. There were also fitted jackets over long skirts and drop-torso dresses with exaggerated blouson backs. And almost everything oozed refinement. Only when Yohji went crazy with buttons or tricky appendages on black dresses and separates did he temporarily lose his grip.
The poise returned for evening, in short dresses and a long black coat shirred like Austrian shades. But it was with a group of black gowns — twisted, knotted and wrapped without a spec of pretension — that Yamamoto championed a fabulous alternative glamour. Artistic, yes, but not arcane. If one of these dresses doesn’t make it to the Oscars, all those Hollywood actresses should fire their stylists and start over.
CHANEL: Leave it to Karl Lagerfeld to go against the grain. In a season of overstatement, both in clothes and in manner of presentation, Lagerfeld sent out one of his most restrained Chanel collections ever.
Of course, this was something of a surprise since Lagerfeld, perhaps fashion’s wittiest player, is a long-time champion of both the well-placed runway joke and the tongue-in-cheek contrivance. But there was none of that here, since, for the moment at least, Karl is operating in anti-spectacle mode. “It’s not about references, not a flea market, not a costume show,” he said last week.
Lagerfeld billed this collection as an exploration of the life of Coco Chanel in six segments. In reality, however, what he did was explore what many women would consider rational ways to dress. Even at their best, huge, rustling multi-layer skirts and elaborate Japanese pilings are not for everyone; Lagerfeld offered a range of smart, sane alternatives.
The prevailing mood was one of refined ease. Within that, there was loose and there was lean, long and short, tailoring and knits. Slouchy suits with oversized jackets look quite timely, and even Karl’s lean jackets had the feeling of a cardigan, discreet and unforced. In a Deauville moment, he dropped the waist for numerous dresses, often accented with thin chain belts, and he showed a series of spare ivory knit dresses with gentle ruched embellishments. And finally, at the end of the show, he brought on the tweeds: colorful, embroidered versions with a homespun-chic look for all sorts of suits and chemises.
At night, there were plenty of options, as well: chic columns, long, constructed sheaths and frou-frou evening contrasted against crisp white shirts.
Some in the audience found the discretion perplexing, and one did long for just a hint of the mysterious romance that made Lagerfeld’s spring couture show so brilliant. But brilliance has many guises, and one lies in remembering those women for whom the clothes are ultimately intended. This time out, Karl chose to embrace only unapologetic, obvious reality — which should make all those real Chanel customers out there happy indeed.
JEAN PAUL GAULTIER: Jean Paul Gaultier said his collection was inspired by a provocative, mythical rendezvous between Frieda Kahlo and Marilyn Manson. The result was indeed like a painting — a glorious, intricate painting one longs to return to again and again.
There was another key inspiration, as well — the designer’s fabulous fall couture collection, specifically the full-skirted sweaterdresses he showed over huge tulle skirts. Those dresses were jumped on by editors the world over and published everywhere, and Gaultier obviously decided to take a great idea and run with it. Along the way, he provided a case study of one of the key issues of fashion today, or at least of the show system. If ready-to-wear is becoming, like the couture, another big-budget photo op — and it is — Gaultier is leading the way. This was a consummately editorial show.
Gaultier presented the clothes against a stage setting of an open-air market, rich with vibrant color provided by wooden crates and burlap sacks filled with lush fruits and vegetables. His models looked beautiful, Frieda unibrows and all, as they sashayed around the runway, almost always in elaborate arrangements of rustling layers, delivered with a Latin flavor.
Often, the skirts swept the floor, but Gaultier also showed short versions. Out they came, variation after variation of a single theme: pile-ons of tank tops, sweaterdresses, aprons, overskirts, huge draped silk scarves. Gaultier worked with a wide range of exquisite fabrics — laces, knits, painted silks, beaded embroideries, even crisp blue denim — so that each look, though rooted in a single thought, was utterly distinctive.
Sprinkled throughout were a handful of other ideas: great baggy jeans with a gingham top or a sparkling twinset; a beautiful twisted and draped short dress in sheer black over white with a black shirt; a sub-tasteful religious undercurrent marked by Sacred Heart accessories, crowns of thorns and an upside-down Christ painting on a scarf. There was also a handful of Gaultier’s classic roomy suits, often with bras or midriff tops, no doubt a mere hint of what’s back in the showroom.
Spectacular, yes. And incredibly beautiful, even if much of it veered toward the costumey. Broken down, many of the component parts are highly viable for real life, and Gaultier’s grander strokes offer a great new way to look at night.
HELMUT LANG: With austerity on the wane, what’s a minimalist to do? Helmut Lang is practicing his addition. In the collection he showed on Friday, Lang added all sorts of embellishments to his clothes, and like so many others this season, he has also looked East for inspiration — specifically to the world of Rei Kawakubo. The results were a fascinating progression, even if some found it a bit labored at times.
In truth, Lang has been tempering the austerity quotient for some time. Over the past year, he has been determined to luxe up his collection, no doubt to distinguish it from his jeans line. He started subtly with satin banding and sashes, but now he seems to have thrown all caution to the fashion winds. Lang is not only luxing up, he’s souping up, with more detailed cuts that are often pleated, draped, bunched and fastened in place with visible safety pins. Sometimes he — or his stylist Melanie Ward — even tossed a plastic Hawaiian lei around the neck or waist for cheesy-sweet effect.
The collection centers on a relaxed silhouette, one that plays down the distinctive Lang tailoring that has been the source of so many knockoffs. “We’ve always had a block of very formal jackets,” Lang said last week. “Now, we’re focusing on other things.” There were gentle dresses and pleated skirts, both with big box pleats and sliver-thin versions that look like folds of paper. And there were high-interest fabrics, such as distressed organzas and netted silks shot with abstract metallic embroideries. Along the way, some of the more elaborate pieces had a distinctly makeshift feel, as if they had been whipped up at the last minute just for the show.
But that doesn’t mean Lang has abandoned simplicity completely. Often, the skirts were shown with single or layered tank tops or crisp shirts, and he opened the show with a series of white lab coats over pants and skirts. Lang’s knits looked terrific — both the artsy gossamer mohairs and the refined twinsets with long ribbed cardigans over little shells.
Still, the driving current seemed to be the urge to embellish without losing that essential sense of cool. And, for the most part, Lang did it quite beautifully, even if at times that beauty seemed more than a tad contrived.
CHRISTIAN LACROIX: Pretenders, beware — eccentricity can be feigned, but not for long. Christian Lacroix is no pretender. He is not only fashion’s ultimate anti-minimalist, he is also one of its genuine eccentrics. Lacroix embraced lavishness years ago, not for the sake of excess, but for the sake of self-expression — his own and that of his customers. And he believes in fashion as celebration — pile it on and revel in it.
Now, in a season of grand gestures, Lacroix seems more in step than he has been in some time. Recently, he has infused all of his lavishness with an oddball sense of the street, and the result has been a more youthful mood. In the collection he showed Saturday, Christian went further still: There was an undercurrent of happy insanity to his runway, as if it had been taken over by a band of bohemian hippie sprites. Of course, there were the luxe fabrics all mixed up; the sculpted, theatrical jackets, the play of hard and soft. There were ribbon knits, lace knits and tulle-swathed jersey dresses. Christian continued with those playful chiffons appliqued with flowers and butterflies for dresses and pants, and he did a big fishnet and macrame number for asymmetric skirts and tops.
Yes, he went off on tangents — an eccentric’s prerogative. Yes, there were some doozies, such as the tricky jersey dresses, and the sensory overload left many heads spinning. But Lacroix’s true kindred spirits will find ample treasures, and even curious nonbelievers might find happiness by the piece.
JOHN GALLIANO: There’s no question that John Galliano is the greatest showman of our time. Once again on Thursday night, he staged a riotous extravaganza, luring his guests to the outskirts of Paris and into a series of stately rooms in a grand military chateau.
Once the crowd had had time to soak up the surroundings — the great murals, the gilded furniture, the charming touches of bonbons and fruit in silver dishes — Galliano absolutely out-camped himself.
This time, the ruse was an ode to the actress Dorothy Dandridge. Instead of vamping it up apparently oblivious to the crowd, the models went to town, chatting with the audience, passing the candy dishes, kissing favorite editors, sitting on the lap of a blushing retailer or two.
This behavior was a kitschy metaphor for what Galliano considers dressing down. “It’s a much more chilled-out way of dressing,” he said last week, “not stuffy or uptight.”
In truth, only some of the girls worked the room — the happy-go-lucky types, decked in dresses “in a gay mood,” according to the program notes. Shalom, for example, fresh off her charming spoof of a spoiled supermodel in “In and Out,” wore a frilly pink frock to match her pink marcelled wig. She glistened and gleamed, looking like Donna Reed at a Christmas party. On the other hand, there were lost souls with wild dreadlocked hair and unfocused eyes, who felt their way around the rooms, dazed and confused, in an amusing takeoff on heroin chic.
As for the clothes, Galliano said only last week that he didn’t want them to take a back seat to his story. He must have changed his mind — even Galliano can’t know too many people who run around in see-through lace party dresses over satin rompers. Yet that’s what he showed, and yes, there was a subtle waft of news — a new bias shape that moves away from the body rather than hugs it: “Think of the romance and movement of Ginger Rogers,” he said.
He also showed some slinky knit dresses, beautiful short, tight jackets. On an exotic note, there were huge, boldly colored ikat patterns for dresses and suits, and some fabric melanges that looked like early Christian Lacroix.
Delightful? Absolutely. Nevertheless, Galliano is on a precipice of sorts. There’s a lot to be said for entertainment, and as usual, everybody had a ball. But it’s time for Galliano to lace the theater with a few more of the clothes that he leaves back in the showroom, especially those strong knits and tailored pieces. John is a great designer who has almost single-handedly brought a sense of glamour and fantasy back into the reality of fashion. For that fact to be lost would be theater of the absurd.
CERRUTI: Is there life after Narciso Rodriguez? Yes, though it’s a quieter, safer life. With his premiere collection at Cerruti, Peter Speliopoulos showed us that good clothes don’t need to be full of gimmicks, even in a season of overwrought design. Instead, Speliopoulos delivered straightforward, wearable clothes. Now and then, the collection ventured into too-safe territory — but so what? Not every woman wants to be edgy. These clothes have a far wider appeal for the legions of women who only want approachable fashion. Sexy split skirts, polished python jackets, delicate handknits and Fifties-inspired housedresses were some of the highlights, and, though the collection occasionally hinted at other designers — Prada, Jil Sander and, at times, even some Narciso bestsellers — it still looked good.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD: Outside the Crillon, striking hotel workers were chanting, “We want money!” But Vivienne Westwood is not one to allow anything to stand in the way of her show, so inside the hotel she was parading her spring collection — one of her best in seasons. Vivienne looked to the high seas for inspiration, with a nod to the l9th-century English couturier Redfern, but that didn’t mean she got all bogged down in costume history.
Yes, there were her signature Victorian suits and over-the-top ballgowns, but her latest take on English pirates was remarkably light-handed and fresh. Vivienne rode the waves with sailor-knot prints on sweaters and rhinestone embroidered dresses, shredded cotton dungarees and ripped chiffon dresses that were simply sublime.

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