October 3, 2011 11:58 pm

Face-off on the catwalks

The most mesmerising luxury battle of the year – the LVMH/Hermès tussle in which the former bought a chunk of the latter without the latter knowing, the latter got upset, with name-calling and share-ringfencing ensuing, leaving the fashion world rapt – reached an interesting stage on day five of Paris Fashion Week.

Although the situation has reached a sort of stasis, the show schedule created an unofficial face-off, with four LVMH brands presenting their spring/summer collections on the same day as Hermès. (Maybe the Chambre Syndicale was having a little fun.) As a result, the industry at large got to judge at least one of the claims and counter-claims that have been lobbed in the fight.

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Vanessa Friedman

To be specific: Hermès’ assertion that if LVMH were to get its hands on Hermès it would attempt to turn the house into a trend-driven label, as opposed to the above-the-fray, artisan-focused place it is. LVMH’s response was that it had no interest in changing anything, but was happy to be a supportive, silent shareholder, and anyway, it takes all its brands on their merits.

In the end, collections speak louder than words. Princess Charlene of Monaco summed it up when she said, while watching Akris’s show of streamlined separates inspired by John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Grand Prix, that fashion gave her “a new way to see Monaco”. The fact is, fashion provides a new way to see lots of things, including, each season, brands. Enter Hermès.

Which was resolutely unfashionable. In his second season designer Christophe Lemaire continued some themes he started exploring for autumn/winter in the context of the Hermès history – the east, scarves, skins. These took the shape of knickerbocker suits (always a mistake), the truncated trousers generously draped in the front; long pleated skirts slit up the sides to the thigh; enveloping kaftans; and blousy leather jackets, tunics and shorts, ending with a troika of deep purple, blue and green silks.

The shapes were classic, but the proportions ungainly, and the net effect frumpy. Refusing to take part in the seasonality of fashion is one thing, and though legitimate (many consumers would cheer), that doesn’t have to mean eschewing the elegance of the house’s famous bags. Indeed, the only way it makes sense is as if to say Hermès’ antipathy to fashion is such that it doesn’t care. Fair enough. But if that’s true, why have a show to begin with?

After all, Kenzo (LVMH) didn’t, because its new designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon (of Opening Ceremony, the New York emporium) are still feeling their way into the house. Instead, it started with a presentation: of two-tone patterned silk pants and tops, colour-blocked taffeta and a few nods to Kenzo’s wildly creative print past in the form of tropical bird-bedecked silks. It was limited, but didn’t pretend to be anything more than a cute group of separates. It will be interesting to see whether, and how, it develops.

Such was the case at John Galliano (LVMH), where in a difficult situation (Mr Galliano was fired from his eponymous brand in March after uttering anti-Semitic remarks) new designer Bill Gaytten showed allegiance to the brand’s signature fantastical romanticism but made it modern by means of tailoring mixed with organza and the usual bias-cut chiffons: pretty, but more practical than usual.

And such was the case at Céline (also LVMH), where Phoebe Philo’s signature aerodynamically easy sportswear was elevated by the addition of couture-like detailing.

The focus was the white cotton shirt – given curving, structured, sleeves, an empire waist with a peplum, a cascading river of frock-coat ruffles – as well as trousers, cropped with a knife-edge and turn-up or extra wide. The tuxedo was also reimagined in white, the trousers veiled in black chiffon at the front, the jacket not a jacket but a shirt backed with pleated chiffon.

It was a great nudge forward, wholly consistent with Ms Philo’s insistence on incremental change, just as Stella McCartney’s show was a more sophisticated expression of her signatures. Ms McCartney is an outlier in this particular context. (Her brand is a partnership with PPR, which presumably is watching the LVMH/Hermès to-do keenly.) She took the pillars of her aesthetic – the boyfriend suit, the all-in-one, the minidress – and reframed them via a smart mix of diamond prints and paisleys, edged in rococo waves instead of straight lines for an unexpectedly cool, very clever take on the ornate.

By contrast, at Givenchy (back to LVMH) Riccardo Tisci picked a concept – “influences from the waterworld” – and incorporated it into his razor tailoring, which meant undulating ruffles on jackets and vests and dresses worn over sheer T-shirts and skirts cut on the curve, often with two tentacle-like appendages dangling down either leg.

The latter were weird and distracting, but the jackets were great. A pale pink version covered in clear sequins had a slithery, aquatic allure. One that, when added to the other shows, made it impossible to draw a single lesson that applied to all, other than: punch; counterpunch; don’t look away.

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