September 30, 2011 10:30 pm

On a runway to nowhere

Models on the catwalk

From left: Balmain and Christian Dior

The other history, asides from that of the brand, that designers get stuck in is the history of the designers who came before. Such was the case with Balmain’s new creative director, Olivier Rousteing, former first assistant to ex-Balmain designer Christophe Decarnin (who left the house under confused circumstances last season). And such was the case with Dior’s interim designer, Bill Gaytten, former studio head of ex-Christian Dior designer John Galliano (who left the house in notorious circumstances last March). To be loyal to the aesthetic that came before, or to go your own way? – that was the question.

Unfortunately for both men, in their debut women’s wear collections the solution they came up with was a compromise between the two – which left them really nowhere.

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Vanessa Friedman

At Balmain, for example, where Mr Decarnin had established a trash-couture, high-energy, low-culture sex bomb style, Mr Rousteing claimed inspiration from bullfighters and country western stars and opened with wide-legged faded denim under a white shirt – different! Lighter! – that almost immediately gave way to thigh-high gold-beaded minidresses, brocade leathers, and a lot of blingy fringe. The biggest difference between then and now was in the trousers, which were slouchy more than skin-tight, the fondness for white shirts (even if they had gold epaulettes) and the half-hearted embrace of the kitsch. These are promising signs of a change, but too insubstantial; how can a designer expect consumers to commit, when they also seem unconvinced?

Meanwhile, at Dior, where the house’s trademark pearl grey benches and carpeting lined the runway, Mr Gaytten said he went back to the early years of “iconic Dior” (the New Look period) for his inspiration, possibly in order to circumvent Mr Galliano’s years – except Mr Galliano also went back to the archives in his work, so in a way it just reinforced the connection. Still, shoulders were curvier, necklines wider, peplums smaller, and skirts not quite so crinolined, for a net effect that was “more controlled; more cool”, according to Mr Gaytten.

Ultimately, though, as a black-and-white checkerboard jacket over a cloud-light nude skirt was followed by a black version of the same jacket over cigarette pants was followed by a series of sweet chiffon cocktail dresses in mostly beige (with only the occasional shot of coral), which was in turn followed by tiered or lace or embroidered gowns in black and white and ice-blue (and beige), it felt too controlled and too cool: a house living in monochromatic stasis instead of colour.

Given that Mr Gaytten is only “holding down the fort” until a new designer can be named (CEO Sidney Toledano promised an announcement before the end of the year, if not in the next few weeks), and given the famously unrestrained nature of his former boss, perhaps this is understandable. It’s just not very inspiring, or instructive.

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