March 4, 2014 5:47 pm

Paris Fashion Week: Ready-to-wear is having a Warhol moment

From Saint Laurent to Chanel, brands play the packaging game

Is fashion having an Andy Warhol moment? I am beginning to wonder. Hedi Slimane, aka the Saint Laurent creative director/recluse who designs every part of his brand image from the stores and their furniture to the fashion show sets (and the clothes), sent out an invitation to his ready-to-wear show that was, as is his wont, a book. Specifically, it was a black book filled with reproductions of the photographs and written work of the Santa Monica artist John Baldessari (we will recall Mr Slimane is based in Los Angeles), who is known for his use of appropriated photographs and texts.

Its very presentation telegraphed “collectable” as opposed to “disposable”, an attitude only reinforced by the show set-up, which involved multiple bronze beams cutting across the runway that, when activated, rose up like drawbridges to frame the catwalk like so many shiny sentries. Expectation was palpable. What visionary collection could merit such a build-up? What clothing deserves such high culture company?

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Vanessa Friedman

What fools these mortals be.

What came out was one of the canniest, most unabashedly commercial collections of Paris Fashion Week thus far.

Full of appropriated 1960s iconography, YSL and otherwise: Marianne Faithfull hair and black-and-white striped mink coats; Penelope Tree eyes; Twiggy-style sparkling, embroidered and jacquard mini dresses; Belle de Jour double-breasted wool coats and sweet bow blouses.

You could say perhaps the whole thing, from the Baldessari book to runway, was a meta commentary on fashion itself, which is continually appropriating and recycling other people’s ideas and other decades and other artworks to its own end (because, really, who has time for original ideas on the hamster wheel of continual collections) and the fact there is nothing new under the sun except interpretation, which seems like the obvious point but also seems like spouting the party line.

Just consider the fact that almost every funky little mini dress, and there were many, was paired with an elegantly high luxe (adult-worthy) coat or a cape, not to mention a troika of limited edition sequinned “Baldessari” dresses for the couture-inclined, balanced by awfully accessible glittery Mary Janes and knee-high Sergeant Pepper boots. Take it all apart and there are almost as many revenue streams as there are grains of sand on Venice beach.

That’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea: it was great merchandising dressed up in the trappings of art. And in its clear calculation, it made almost every other collection feel naive by comparison.

This is fine, of course, when it comes to Valentino, where designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have made a signature out of purity (undercut by a hint of the deflowering to come) and a belief that the power of craftsmanship can triumph above all; their unadulterated sincerity is the point. Thus, this season, “we wanted to look at pop, but as a sensible, individual proposition”, they said and that meant terrific graphic separates in red and white and pink and black, in leather as supple as cotton, all inspired by 1960s Roman artist Giosetta Fioroni and her peers.

But there were also sequinned butterflies on a grey flannel cape and butterflies woven into a tapestry coat, and more simple flannel trousers, all culminating in an array of pristine tulle ball gowns embroidered in sparkling flora and fauna. It was lovely and in its refusal to embrace irony, stubbornly powerful. By contrast, Giambattista Valli’s parade of awfully pretty skating dresses – in black and white wool jacquard, or shell pink silk, roses climbing the shoulders, or cool faux fur, dirtied up with silver – were almost too transparent in their desire to be liked. And Fausto Puglisi’s Ungaro, while restrained in its embrace of the go-go 1980s when compared with his debut collection last season, looked as though it had been reined in by a (corporate) parent, the better to appeal to the broadest consumer base with its tiers of flamenco ruffles, Swiss dot blouses and multiple rose prints in pleated trousers, suits and skirts.

Indeed, possibly the only brand that can compete with – and even trump – Mr Slimane’s Saint Laurent on the level of mastering the fashion game is Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld has been appropriating symbols and signs since Mr Slimane was California dreaming back in his high school bedroom.

Material World

Material World

Dressed up: Vanessa Friedman blogs on the fashion/luxury industry from both a corporate and consumer point of view

This season, Mr Lagerfeld took on mega-market shopping, constructing an entire hypermarché in the Grand Palais, from Chanel-branded yellow, red and blue shopping carts to aisles of Chanel pasta boxes, detergents, a fromagerie and so on. As for the clothes, they were similarly “fast Chanel”: matching knit leggings and sweater sets under big, sporty tweed coats; suits and dresses based on a corseted waist under a blouson silhouette; leather shorts atop leather trousers under bouclé jackets; mesh dresses with petals of rough cut chiffon at the top and bottom; and all of it worn with Chanel sneakers and sneaker boots.

Oh, and there were Chanel headphones and Chanel gloves; Chanel belly chains and Chanel bags; Chanel accessories galore. It all had a certain supermarket sweep high-octane energy, and it was funny, sure, but it was also hard not to wonder what exactly Mr Lagerfeld’s message was.

The generous interpretation might be “fashion is food for thought” but, perhaps, given the set, “fashion is a smorgasbord of tastes and everyone just takes what they want”. Or maybe, more accurately, “fashion is a Campbell’s soup can”.

If you can swallow that.

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