March 6, 2013 4:37 pm

Paris Fashion Week: runway report 7

Empowering clothes that make women feel wonderful

There’s something fitting (pun absolutely intended) about the fact the autumn/winter womenswear season ended just before international women’s day began. After all, what is fashion but a tool for women: to make their lives easier, to express their changing identity, to telegraph their status to the world? There’s a cosmic symmetry to the timing. And it begs the question (always a good question for a finale) in those terms, how did it finish up?

Comme ci, comme ça.

The last lap began promisingly enough, with a small Alexander McQueen presentation, reduced in scale and content because McQueen’s creative director, Sarah Burton, was on maternity leave after having twins (score one for women: brand acknowledges and accommodates personal life). However, the product on the runway was, if anything, more theatrical than ever: 10 looks that referenced “nuns, popes, angels, Virgin Queen”. No pressure there.

Hoop-skirted off-the-shoulder white lace Petit Trainon frocks came with a matching pearl ruff and generously belled sleeves; long leather skirts and matching caped jackets were encrusted in pearls and sported jutting, padded hip bones; a gold-embroidered bodice ended in an enormous skirt; and a puff of white feathers enveloped a dress like a cloud. It almost made a mockery of the whole idea of ready-to-wear: these clothes are clearly too elaborate to ever be produced, though they may be available to order, and while there are probably derivations in the showroom, there was no such hint on the runway.

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Vanessa Friedman

However, if Shekhar Kapur ever wants to make a third instalment of Elizabeth, he would know where to source his costumes.

So what was the point? To show what an atelier could do? (Amazing stuff.) To pay homage to the idea, if not the reality, of feminine power? To let imagination soar and provide sartorial escapism from the humdrum of everyday life? Maybe all of the above. But fact is, the way to really empower women is to give them clothes that make them feel wonderful about themselves as they go about their day, not suggest they assume the guise of an archetype, no matter how extraordinary.

By way of example, in an odd coincidence, at Moncler Gamme Rouge designer Giambattista Valli was also thinking about royalty, animal and human, but grounded by the constraints of the brand’s outerwear remit; though the combination of alpine puffa and angelic wolverine princesses might sound weird, it translates as really fancy warm, largely water-resistant coats. And that, in its own way, is useful.

Perhaps that also explains the connection drawn by Miuccia Prada in her Miu Miu line between sportswear, literally defined (quilted down, ribbed knits, lots of zips) and a more classic silhouette, via a thread of navy and elongated belted shapes, lightened by the occasional Pepto-Bismol pink polka dot or candy stripe. It was a neat picture of the duality inherent in many women’s lives, and an argument for the fact that, if well co-ordinated, you can have at least some of it all.

As for Hermès, Christophe Lemaire was clearly making clothes for the town car, if not the sidewalk, with a big nod to brand identity: cashmere-soft leather or suede trousers and skirts and shirts; goats hair coats and shells; silk scarf shirts; and tuxedos to finish it all off. If it was all a bit obvious (and for a silk and leather house, it was), it was also impeccably on-message; a show of separates for women who want to pick and choose their pieces for themselves.

If they won’t necessarily spark up a life, they will at least cushion it in luxury, unlike Vionnet, which seemed likely to overcomplicate matters.

In her first full show for the brand, owner Goga Ashkenazi focused on the house’s famed signatures – bias-cutting, draping and the rectangle – to a slightly overwhelming extent. Interesting when applied to a thick navy knit paired with skinny pants, the cuts became distracting in dresses, especially when paired with Amazonian metal “disc” belts.

It wasn’t until Louis Vuitton, however, that a designer demonstrated the way a woman could own her stereotypes, invert them, and rework them to her advantage. Using the clichés of womenswear (and many of the trends that have been on view this season), from dressing table florals to feathers to menswear to lingerie dressing, 1940s suiting and 1930s gowns, and maybe even a brothel (the jury was out on this one: some saw the set, which involved door after door, as a hotel corridor; others saw something more suggestive) Marc Jacobs leeched them of fragility or any wannabe dimension, and then built them back up into the definition of soft power: clothes that looked as satisfying to wear as they were to watch.

By the time a herringbone gown came out – long-sleeved, fur-trimmed, winking with sequins like stars – it seemed possible to dominate a room with grace instead of by demand. Not just for a day, but for as long as desired.

Or until next season, anyway.

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