PARIS — Some institutions rest on their laurels. Happily, that’s not the case with the institution of Paris fashion. A slow Milan season left the fashion pack thirsty for ideas, or at least those beyond the notion that Madonna has donned some nifty duds in her day. On the first day of major shows, Paris came through with a lot more.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the aristocracy of unique thinkers — Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo — on Sunday showed two polar opposite collections, the former embracing elegance and grace, the latter pushing last season’s punk insolence toward militaristic aggression. Such dichotomy makes for great discussion, especially in a season with so little else to talk about. But nobody wears a deep thought. What makes the work of Kawakubo and Yamamoto so magnificent is that their high-mindedness comes wrapped in beautiful clothes that also display brilliance of skill and innovation. And this season, neither disappointed. At the same time, four younger designers — Junya Watanabe, Bernhard Willhelm and the Viktor & Rolf duo — showed strong, highly individualistic collections.
Yamamoto and Kawakubo, probably forever destined to be compared and contrasted for many reasons — including but not exclusive to their nationality — couldn’t have been on more disparate wavelengths. Last season, Kawakubo switched gears from a gentler attitude to major punk mode, and here she carried on with a natural — and naturally caustic — evolution of that direction. She mixed elements of numerous countercultural youth movements — punk, rave, even an unlikely Mod nod — over which she cast a hard-edged military belligerence. Forget about Butch Chic. This was Survivor Chic with a vengeance.
Kawakubo showed in a tiny space for Comme des Garcons, the better to show off her models’ determined scowls. Who else would add Scotch tape to her maquillage, or accessorize everything with elaborate chapeaux crafted of refuse — garbage bags, bubble wrap, industrial “caution” tape, swirled flowers made out of brown paper?
These topped off a strong, complicated lineup. Kawakubo opened with suits cut in menswear fabric, wide camouflage strips running down the length of the leg in front and defining the waist of the jacket in back. Throughout, almost every piece carried those strips somewhere. As for the jackets, for all her post-modern anger, Rei’s collection highlighted that most traditional of items, and proved that, yes, you can make it look new. She cut the backs with volume in loose pleats, and also showed looks that appeared to be suits, but somehow morphed into dresses in back.
Kawakubo broadened her singular focus with optic hologram patterns and some flimsy camouflage-bordered printed dresses which, though their roots may be in rave and grunge, would be just perfect for that garden party in a war zone. She piled it on — piece upon piece, pattern on pattern — with all the discretion of a B-52. There was the protective audacity of a clear plastic raincoat and jeans worn over other pants, although some people noted the pretend practicality of the latter. With colored tights, a tough girl could have countless wardrobe options, while sweating off those unwanted pounds along the way. The designer delivered it all with an intentional restlessness that became too much at times, but at least it was too much of a gutsy and very good thing.
If Kawakubo felt the need for militaristic muscle, Yohji Yamamoto begged to differ. In recent seasons, he has embraced highbrow style, including last fall’s romantic Himalayan trek with a storybook grandeur. For spring, he has returned to the here-and-now for a more restrained take on chic.
Yamamoto’s elegant perspective informs everything he does, whether he is reworking his own dissonant past or creating de-facto couture. This collection was Yohji in quiet mode, without the dramatic exuberance of his extravaganzas. But then, his whispers carry a greater wallop than the shout of many other designers.
For starters, Yohji worked a tuxedo theme with surety. He cut his jackets and coats with ample details — asymmetric lines, frayed hems, a zipper up the back seam. His other big message was about softness, which he delivered in tunics and dresses — usually long languid shapes, draped to one side and secured at the wrist as if the wearer were carrying a train. The overall mood was one of the most refined simplicity, achieved paradoxically with the utmost attention to intense and intricate detail.
But wait — in the midst of such artistry and pure chic, was Yohji making his bid to get in on fashion’s increasingly frantic accessories fray? Just maybe. He showed every look with a black bag, from the smallest pouches to a wonderful big fabric sack on wheels, while some of the dresses had handbag extensions. The most obvious: the funny-chic halter skirt made out of a giant coin purse. As for the show’s final look, a gorgeous gown punctuated in back with a handbag bustle, it may be a pickpocket’s delight, but sometimes a girl just has to sacrifice for fashion.
It’s still too early to say, but with only a few collections under their belts, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Viktor & Rolf seem to have drawn a line in the sand. Their couture efforts have been lofty expressions of breathtaking skill, presented with artistry and, some would say, pretension. On the other hand, their ready-to-wear debut last season was a low-key, gently kitschy affair that featured a stars-and-stripes motif and an adorable Dutch girl singing folksy renditions of all sorts of American tunes.
Apparently, the live entertainment thing got to them, because this time they co-opted the old Andy Hardy refrain — “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” — and they ran with it. Or tapped with it. The designers imported 19 dance students — aged 12 to 17 — from their native Holland to shuffle and high step their way through the collection to the strains of a soundtrack big on Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. The girls were done up with sparkles around their eyes, Louise Brooks wigs and — chubby thighs and all — charmed the cynicism out of their audience. In fact, this is the only instance that comes to mind of real people (if imported adolescent tappers can be so classified) looking good in a show. Certainly the dancers proved that these are anything but runway-only clothes. Horsting and Snoeren have developed a style of tailoring that is neither especially young nor edgy, yet has a certain flash in some exaggerated Seventies shapes. They opened with chorine-worthy takes on the tuxedo, a three-piece suit here, a sleuthy trenchcoat there, great jeans and big-collared Buster Brown white shirts. If a few pieces could have hailed from the dressing room of the June Taylor dancers — a white tuxedo edged in rhinestones can get there fast — for the most part, these are smart, wearable clothes.
But not perfect. Since the designers are only in their second rtw season, it seems a little mean to mention that they didn’t really show anything new, or that the presentation eclipsed the clothes. But then, some would say that this is a mean business, and so far they have shown a limited range. Nevertheless, Snoeren and Horsting are two extremely talented young designers who have already been influential and could become serious industry leaders.
While the Dutchmen went Hollywood, another young designer, Bernhard Willhelm, took a different approach, believing, like Dorothy from Kansas, that there’s no place like home. As guests filed into the Lycee Montmartre, the German-born Willhelm kept them entertained with a home video of his mom in her kitchen back in Ulm, whipping up some savory-looking desserts. The whole thing was so innocently charming, but were there darker motives? Willhelm’s program notes declared that “the strongest women today are to be found in their kitchens+ Did you ever plan a revolution on an empty stomach?”
Not that Willhelm is the revolutionary type. He prefers to focus on life’s simple pleasures, Bavarian-style. His collection had a childlike quality, one with elements of innocent fantasy and what he called “the darling housewife look.” She had shades of waitress, flight attendant and Nurse Ratchett, but then, a housewife wears many hats — not to mention nifty little shirtwaist dresses. And because mom has to be let out of the kitchen sometimes, Willhelm’s other big theme was storybook pastoral. For this, he celebrated his homeland with naive embroideries on dresses and skirts, and a lineup of sweaters done up with delightful scenic motifs.
A long-time veteran by comparison, Junya Watanabe was also thinking of the great outdoors — Deauville, to be exact. But instead of a literal ode, this was a typically inventive effort by Watanabe, who has become one of fashion’s most unpredictable designers. He moves from theme to theme with a range that can seem random, but is always rooted in the possibilities of fabric technology. All the eccentric fluff and stuff of fall? Gone, and replaced by pared-down clothes infused with a kind of humor that never crossed over to fashion folly. For example, glow-in-the-dark clothes that don’t look ridiculous — you have to love them. As for his fabulous dessert print — including a flan that was a ringer for the one on Mrs. Willhelm’s kitchen table — who knew that such caloric indulgence would ever be a fashion trend? (Then again, why not — if you can’t eat ’em, wear ’em.)
For his Riviera romp, Watanabe savored bright, swingy tunics that fell from multiple strands of wrapped and twisted pearls. These looked especially jaunty over little briefs that just might have brought a slight flush to the cheeks of Mademoiselle Coco. But then Junya moved on to classic futurism, taking a page from those Sixties couturiers who pioneered fashion’s enduring plastic-coated image of the approaching unknown. He put big plastic discs on colorful little shifts, and if it wasn’t exactly new, it at least gave a twist to this Eighties season. In fact, while not the peak of invention by Watanabe’s standards, this collection was still a breath of fresh air, and got Paris rolling in the right direction.

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