September 30, 2011 10:30 pm

The strong pull of the past

The old cliché about learning from history or being doomed to repeat it – the one that has been much in the news lately thanks to the Palestinian push for statehood and the current European and US economic situation – is an axiom one would think fashion might know something about; after all, designers have been studying the past and trying not to repeat pretty much every season since seasons began. How else would they get anyone to buy anything, and thus avoid their own destruction?

Perhaps more than anything, however, fashion demonstrates how difficult this actually is. There are limits to how much anyone can change a dress, and sometimes they come from tradition and sometimes they are just self-imposed.

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Vanessa Friedman

Witness Nina Ricci, a house with a long-ago couture history and a recent fragrance one, where designer Peter Copping has been struggling to craft an identity that bridges past expectations and present reality.

That he has done this in only a few seasons is impressive; that the identity he has settled on is a notably frou-frou jolie madame aesthetic is more problematic. It speaks too much to his fealty to the house, and too little to the present and the future.

So this season he went back to the archive to uncover a 1930s and 1940s collaboration between Ricci and Russian artist Zina de Plagny, as expressed in texture and pattern and florals.

This was best when juxtaposed with modern references, as in lurex “jean” skirts under cropped jackets veiled in tulle, or leather biker numbers with a little frill at the back, possessed of an alluring prettiness when watered-down in a pair of ultra-light red cocktail dresses.

But it felt seemingly irrelevant when brocade bras topped a patchwork of more brocade and lace, or a satin sheath was ruched and worked to an eye-boggling extent. The technique is impressive, and the result definitively coquette – but that woman, well, she feels like a relic.

This is always a risk for a heritage house, where there are expectations and archives and an inherited aesthetic – even if it is one found in a perfume bottle – but less of a problem for a new house such as Roland Mouret, where the identity is not received, but created. To do so, however, it is almost impossible to avoid antecedents (a skirt is a skirt is a skirt, and much of what one might want to do has been done before), and indeed, Mr Mouret, has chosen to ally himself aesthetically with certain historical signifiers: the tight hourglass silhouette of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s and the square shoulders and portrait necklines of the same period.

Though in the recent past this has given his clothes an overdose of the arch, this season Mr Mouret toned down the references and relaxed, walking the edge between individuality and idiom with finesse. Body-hugging skirts topped by a blouse or jacket had just the suggestion of a clavicle-framing edge, the hint of a stronger shoulder; full-skirted sundresses were cut with humour in winking eyes along the edge; and cocktail frocks not-quite-surreally embossed with tulips just skimmed the skin. As an example of selective memory, it worked.

By contrast, however, there are designers such as Hussein Chalayan and Rick Owens, whose main point of reference is their own mind; they tend to treat clothes less as generational connective tissue than thought-processes made cloth.

In Mr Chalayan’s case this season, that meant a meditation on the basics – jackets, smocks, tuxedos – but abstracted beyond first principles, so a jacket might start with a bit of exaggerated length and then get slit up the back, then sport a lapel transformed into a scarf and so on.

Model on the catwalk

Rick Owens

Dresses were tabard-shaped in front and back but truncated up the sides to reveal shorts; the tuxedo vest came perfectly tailored but asymmetric, with one side trapping a gently pleated skirt; silk knit dresses mutated into trailing scarves and skirts at the back.

By sticking to such well-worn shapes and then transforming them, Mr Chalayan avoided getting lost in his own head, as did Rick Owens, who is as much a self-invention as any designer working today. Mr Owens works in a sartorial vernacular made from the couture tropes of old combined with a patently punk rock sensibility, which should be an oxymoron, but in his hands becomes simply elegant. As a result, the only history he can get trapped in is his own.

This is not necessarily a bad thing – it makes his clothes consistent and identifiable – but it can also make collections feel like slow-motion evolution sequences. So signature floor-seeping bias cuts took elongated, structured shape for spring/summer, with a deep cowl at the back or around the bottom to create unexpected drapes and sack-dress-like curves, jackets came empire-waisted with drawstring ties, and tunics were rendered in feather-light knits over harem trousers.

The net effect was of clothes for royalty in the real world, which is to say, they were worth the wait. You just have to get time and tide to agree.

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