PARIS — “Why, Paris, what big fashion you have!”
“The better to thrill you with, my dear!”
After four days of shows in the City of Light, the thrill is on, and it feels great. Forget ho-hum, quiet, mundane. And while you’re at it, forget discretion, reserve and playing it safe. Those are for wimps, and this city didn’t become the world’s Mecca du Mode by giving aid and comfort to the likes of them.
The Paris stage is for the boldest of fashion’s performers. As we’ve seen again and again these past few days, they come from everywhere — England, Japan, Holland — into this melting pot of chic, and this season, they’re stirring the brew brilliantly, happily dispensing with all that political correctness that says that flagrant displays of fashion are somehow inappropriate. This is, after all, a feel-good business, a reality that requires no apologies. “We felt the need for fashion to escape reality,” said Viktor Horsting, half of the wunderkind Viktor & Rolf duo, in explaining a show that captivated its audience with blue-screen technology. “We use fashion for fantasy. We try to use fashion to create our own utopia.”
It all started with John Galliano’s brilliant reverie at Christian Dior, and then over the weekend, a number of shows got the fashion juices flowing higher than the Seine. Consensus? On some shows, but not all. But that’s not the point. Paris is rich with material, material to love, to mock, to sink your teeth into.
The teaser of the week came in the form of Alexander McQueen’s invitation. The house opened the commercial collection in Milan, and retailers couldn’t ladle on enough praise. The invitation, a child’s school notebook, came with a word written across the front: “Supercalifrajilisticexpialidoucious.” Inside, scary-cute drawings by Tim Burton graced the pages. The better to confuse us with, my dear: Mary Poppins-perky or on the dark side? Those with knowledge of McQueen’s particular bravado might have guessed both and more, and they would have been right. Guests arriving at the Conciergerie (the grandly arched edifice where Marie Antoinette was held just before her head rolled) were drawn to the back of the vast room, where, in a dramatically lit, raised loft space behind bars, a pack of real wolves prowled back and forth, the kindly trainer off to the right bearing treats. Of course, the talk started. Two wolves would walk in the show. No standing crowd, so as not to distract them. House model Laura Morgan, who would escort the animals out, had spent quite a bit of time with them over the past week, so they could get used to her scent.
To start the show, she, done up as leathered Little Lavender Riding Hood, made her entrance with two wolves on leashes. It didn’t quite achieve the intended drama, since the crowd-and-lights ambiance had one of the poor animals terrified and the audience sitting not in fear, but sympathy.
It was McQueen’s only misstep, because he then let loose with a remarkable collection. Chic and sexy, it played on all of McQueen’s typical audacity while attaining an approachability sometimes lost in his wildly imaginative presentations. With almost every look, you knew that there are women out there who will lunge for those clothes like a wolf on a rabbit.
As for the three-decker storybook motif, McQueen has always liked a motley crew. He had a naughty schoolgirl in a pink-piped blazer, pleated skirt and thigh-high boots on the premises, but she had to share floor space not only with her prim school marm, but the designer’s S&M sirens. Yes, they’re back, but not nearly as aggressive as they once were. In fact, sometimes they even veered toward sweetness; when a girl puts a harness on over frills, she can still work the skirt.
Make no mistake, however: McQueen does love a harness. He saddles one on over everything, from those frothy dresses to more expected dominatrix duds such as suits with killer curves. Then again, such is this designer’s range. McQueen has tons of ideas, and for fall, he put them all out there in a collection that, for all of its diversity, held together beautifully. From the tough-glam pink trench to paperboy shorts, and from tight jeans to milkmaid romance, McQueen showed one stunner after another, including an evocative finale based on the Victorian photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron.
Now, with the management of his company in place and production under the Gucci auspices for the first time, McQueen has the opportunity to channel his remarkable talent into a commercially viable operation. And when he took his bow, ultra-svelte and so-bespoke, he looked more than up to the challenge. It’s no wonder retailers are ready to pounce.
Speaking of that good old dance of art and commerce, Horsting and Snoeren are two who seem oh-so-ready to tango. Smart money men with job openings might want to line up for a spot on their dance card. The collection Viktor & Rolf showed on Saturday was brilliantly conceived and near-perfectly executed.
The designers were inspired by the Yves Klein quote, “Long live the immaterial.” According to Horsting, those words moved them to “try to create something that goes beyond the product, beyond the object, something higher, more sublime.”
Now, before you toss aside this paper and wish for these boys to get a grip, just wait. Because, for all the high-mindedness — some might say pretense — of concept, the clothes looked fabulous, and most, although not all, were wearable.
The idea was to play to that desire for fantasy through the use of blue-screen technology, the kind used in TV weather reports and “The Lord of the Rings” movie magic. That required getting the color just right for all sorts of materials, from the wool and silk velvet to leather for boots and bags. Then the designers made a video that covered “all elements of life,” from bucolic nature scenes to war. When they projected the video onto images of the models, the blue absorbed the visuals.
Horsting and Snoeren started with black coats, pants and dresses trimmed or accessorized in blue, adding more and more of the color as they went along. Throughout, the video continued to roll. Yet, for all of the projection value of the show, few women, one presumes, will make a point of standing in front of video projectors to show off their dual-action clothes. They won’t have to, because as mere clothes, these are knockouts. Horsting and Snoeren are remarkably skilled technicians; they cut and detail their clothes impeccably, and with remarkable distinction: A pinstriped suit shaped with ease and refinement; spring’s double-waistband pants here cut down to realistic size. True, there is not likely to be a run on the giant two-tone argyle motif, nor probably the plaid pants. But their tailoring presents a wealth of other possibilities. Perhaps most interestingly, despite their own youth, these designers seem to have no desire to court that wildly exaggerated, if not hallucinated, market — really young and really rich. They prefer clothes for a more sophisticated clientele, the one that really does have cash to shell out for clothes. In fact, some in the audience found the clothes on the matronly side. It’s too bad that, somewhere along the line, adult clothes for adult women got that bad rap. If anyone can change that, it might just be these two.
Much of the wonder of Paris lies in its diversity. While the young team of Viktor & Rolf went high-brow-techy, a designer who has often delved into intellectual matters du mode is now entertaining a more proletarian point of view. Oh, for the sporting life: That’s Yohji Yamamoto’s mantra these days, as for the past year, he has used his runway to celebrate his association with Adidas. In lesser hands, the three-times-and-you’re-out rule might have kicked in, especially since the street sensibility is hardly driving fashion right now. But Yamamoto’s range is seemingly limitless, and his work is probably fashion’s best example of the fusion of creativity and discipline. While last spring, the athletic theme took a spiritual turn, for fall the designer took on a more playful attitude, as he let loose with an ingenious display of technical skill and imagination. Throughout, his brilliance of cut and construction left one awed, but so did the practical tweaks that utterly transform a classic, cutting a peacoat with three-quarter lantern sleeves, for example.
Unlike his past athletic outings, this was a wide-open field rather than a one-note lineup. There were once-upon-a-time street urchins in wistful but sturdy layers; make-love-not-war military types in frilled fatigues; girls with a penchant for that Eighties kind of boyfriend dressing (read XXL suits), and there was lots of denim, nipped, tucked, cut away and reassembled. Part of the intrigue of Yamamoto’s clothes is discovering just how they work, and certainly with all of the twists, turns and metamorphoses going on, not everything was wearable. But most of it was, starting with the fabulous lineup of outerwear — a raincoat with multiple borders at the hem, jaunty cutaways, a retro number with a fur collar and single fur pocket flap, countless of those lantern-sleeve versions.
Yamamoto loves the look of long wool skirts, both charming and substantial. He showed these with little baseball jackets or sweaters for a touch of that varsity flair. Throughout, he worked mostly in dark neutrals, adding a flash of color in a red baseball jacket, or a thick knit in vibrant orange. Almost always, his sweaters were something other than basic, swathing the torso in inviting folds. On the other hand, his warmup jackets and sweatshirts were riffs on the classics, many printed with a set of wings on back, in a collection that really took flight.
Twisted elegance. And we don’t mean Grace Kelly with a penchant for S&M. The princess, yes. Hard core, no. Instead, in her fall collection for Comme des Garcons, Rei Kawakubo embraced the refined life with seemingly pure motives, sans irony, and angst. It just so happens that she twisted it a bit, until it spiraled down the body like half a helix, oh-so-chicly, of course, to the strains of an all-Sinatra soundtrack.
Kawakubo has been in refined mode since last season, when she showed a stellar all-white collection on models with their hair papier-mached in newsprint. This time, the glam factor started with the beauty: fresh, pretty makeup and a surprisingly serene French twist. What’s not to love, right? At first, absolutely. The show started with models in spectacularly crafted black sweater knits that swirled down the body in graceful diagonal lines, one over leggings, the next, grazing the floor. And out they came, one after another, remarkably sexy despite the heft of the knit. Some appeared as off-kilter coats redraped as dresses, the collar falling over one shoulder, a pocket flap resting on a shoulder blade, with double-breasted orange buttons conforming to the body’s curves.
Throughout, long, full skirts swayed with girlish ease, sometimes gathered or twisted at the side. Kawakubo did her part for two big trends of the season, the cutaway coat and the shag-rug sweater, and she sometimes offered the diversion of a simple sweater over leggings.
It all made for a wonderful reminder that clothes with an aura of calm need not be lean on fashion — this runway brimmed with it. The trouble was, it brimmed over with too much of one look. For all of their gentility and swirls, so many swirls could induce the fashion vapors.
Redundancy aside, however, Rei did provide us with a slogan for the week, courtesy of old Blue Eyes, who, to close the show, crooned. “I Love Paris.” So do we, Frank. So do we.