A bleached canvas, beholden to neither archives nor obligatory homage. That’s how Clare Waight Keller approached her spring couture collection for Givenchy. “[It’s] about really starting fresh,” she said after her show on Tuesday night. “Really cleaning the house. I wanted to start with nothing, and then put incredible color in it, incredible techniques, all about silhouette, architecture, structure and just beauty.”
The result was bold and often beautiful, if at times confounding. Bold because Waight Keller has a thought in her head beyond flou-flaunting red-carpet fare: Hers is a tougher take on couture, not only for day but for evening as well. Despite her “bleached canvas” assertion, the notion isn’t baby-out-with-bathwater brand new, but one she started to explore a year ago in her first couture collection. It’s based on co-mingling sharp, architectural lines with softness and light, the former dominating the message. (She took the same approach to a smattering of smart, interesting men’s looks.)
Essential to Waight Keller’s vision: the reimagined smoking, sometimes baring a good deal of skin, and molded, structured corsetry. At times, Waight Keller struck a fetishistic note — latex will do that. Though hardly indigenous to haute, she called it “my couture leather…the most bespoke fabric in terms of getting that second-skin feeling,” along with “super modernity, super shine and super color.” And there it was, opening the show in black leggings under a short, spare smoking with white lapels. The material would return in a single royal blue sleeve and red bodysuit, each injecting a black gown with unexpected guts. Waight Keller continued her power message with silvery, futuristic-chic diamond-patterned cages over HotPants and short skirt. She also worked corsetry with a superhero vibe and great sophistication.
Yet some moments perplexed. In her quest to explore fresh territory, Waight Keller seemed to meander onto other people’s turf. Fair or not, giant tent gowns tend to say ding-dong, Valentino, and that was the case here. Similarly, giant padded, butterfly-winged backpacks evoked John Galliano’s tony survival gear for Maison Margiela. Those apparent references felt particularly curious because Waight Keller’s overall message wasn’t derivative in the least; it can be viewed as not only savvy but profound. Small picture, she’s carving out a smart, clearly defined commercial niche (in as much as couture can be considered commercial) marked by a strong, modernist attitude — power dressing by night — in a world in which traditional romance reigns. Big picture, she is taking a cultural stand at this moment of self-directed women’s empowerment. Tough to do with a dress lineup, but Waight Keller seems up to the challenge.