September 27, 2013 1:38 pm

Paris Fashion Week: Clothes that make you think

Rick Owens celebrates diversity with non-models from US colleges

Whoever thinks fashion, especially runway fashion, has nothing whatsoever to do with everyday life should come on over to Paris for the spring/summer 2014 season. Something relevant is happening here.

It began with Rick Owens’ . . . what? It’s hard to say. Not a show exactly, or a piece of performance art, but something akin to an “in-your-face-fashion-doubters” explosion, courtesy of 40 largely African-American college students from four sororities who had been flown in from Los Angeles, Washington and Brooklyn to showcase a form of percussive movement known as step-dancing, which involves using your body to make syncopated, impossible-to-ignore sound.

A model presents a creation by Israeli-American designer Elbaz as part of his Spring/Summer 2014 women's ready-to-wear show for fashion house Lanvin during Paris fashion week...A model presents a creation by Israeli-American designer Alber Elbaz as part of his Spring/Summer 2014 women's ready-to-wear show for fashion house Lanvin during Paris fashion week September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes (FRANCE - Tags: FASHION)©Reuters

Alber Elbaz

Wearing the origami folded shorts and tunics and harem shift dresses, the laced and zippered leathers of Mr Owens’ collection, in black and white and beige and olive green, the students stomped and kicked and sneered and otherwise tried to intimidate all viewers, ultimately joining together in what looked like a rumba line, but was actually the chain developed during the civil rights movement to navigate through rioting crowds. It had nothing to do with putting on a show, but everything to do with fashion.

Because it telegraphed, through the choreography and the non-models and the clothes themselves: you complaining about lack of diversity in fashion? (Fashion has been complaining about this for months.) Here’s an answer.

You worried about body image issues, and too-skinny models, and fashion’s culpability? Check these women out: stocky, powerful, muscular, chunky, beautiful.

You worried about the lack of female presence in the upper levels of power hierarchies, and women’s willingness to lean in? Here they are, hear them roar.

And you know what? They can do all of that, in all these different sizes and all these different colours, and all these different rhythms, in these supposedly highfalutin’ frocks. In fact, the clothes help them do it, which is one thing clothes can do.

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Vanessa Friedman

But they can do more.

They can make you question your own assumptions – at least about what is a shirt or a jacket, a towel or a gown, as they did at Chalayan’s “breeze corridor”, where culottes sliced up one leg fluttered with the stride, little dresses came with integral extra topping – shrug it on or off, hands-free – and corseted structure segued invisibly into silk.

They can be the heralds of a new generation: see Yang Li, a young Australian-Chinese designer, whose sophomore debut mixed military references (colours and camo and crisp camp shirts) and raw grace (sweeping skirts of the lightest linen, the edges unfinished).

Or Julien Dossena at Paco Rabanne, who wisely focused on an aerodynamic sportiness in the form of patent shift dresses, silver trouser with crisp white shirts, and chain mail tank dresses under neoprene minis and nylon in his debut.

And they can even be tongue-in-cheek nods to the commodities boom of recent years, the money made and behemoths built; for proof simply see Lanvin, where designer Alber Elbaz sent out a minefield of gold and silver and bronze (and rubellite and emerald and black gold and so on) lamé and metallic jackets, trousers, flapper cocktail numbers and trenches, all cut with an easy insouciance that belied the richesse of the fabrics and allowed for a certain physical liberty more associated with jeans and tees.

It was, in its excess, helplessly celebratory, a final over-the-top party before the sobriety of morning, and the reality of the marketplace. Not that Mr Elbaz ignored the latter, as a trio of plain black and white halters and pencil skirts, belted and tracing the body, showed.

But because fashion can, and should, be all of the above, when it completely fails to deliver, it is striking. Such was the case at Balmain, where designer Olivier Rousteing went all-in for the 1980s, from the overblown houndstooth suiting – complete with big shoulders, gold buttons and big gold chain belts – to the quilted leather overalls, the denim and the diamanté.

There were sheer mint green chiffon shirts peppered with pearls and crystals, paired with matching quilted mint leather trousers; jeans-and-gold-chain suiting, and gold pinstripes without an edge of irony in sight. Let’s go back to the bling? Been there, done that, sold the stuff at auction.

It’s not that fashion needs to be making big meaningful statements all the time (it’s exhausting just considering it), but when there isn’t much to say, it’s not a bad idea, really, simply to focus on something pretty.

Consider, for example, Nina Ricci, where Peter Copping sent out an indubitably lovely parade of white lace and eyelet fragility, intelligently mixed with crisp menswear references – white shirtdresses and grey suiting – and some tougher sportswear. A skirt and tank of mirrored shards irregularly interspersed with fragments of ruffle were a particularly fine interpretation of the inexplicable love affair with sparkle designers are having this season, and if, in the end, they didn’t have the urgency that drives need, they were still clothes that would lift a wardrobe.

Similarly, at Roland Mouret, a move towards a graphic sensibility that combined Niki de St Phalle’s palette with the striped column installation in the gardens of the Palais-Royale gave the designer’s signature Parisienne sheaths and sharp suits notable verve. Even though it got a bit bogged down later in too many folds and flounces, it’s still a step (dance) in the right direction.

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