March 3, 2013 2:55 pm

Paris Fashion Week: runway report 4

Gaultier’s old hits and Céline’s functionality with finesse

Compromise is in the air in Paris, and in the conversation – will François Hollande adjust his 75 per cent tax pledge on millionaires? will his party let him? – and yet it isn’t much present on the catwalk. This is a new development.

Usually, when things are complicated and uneasy in the world, fashion is also complicated and uneasy; when two sides need to meet in the middle, grey becomes the predominant colour in the collections. But there’s no denying that the stark contrast between black and white is probably the single most dominant trend at the moment. You’d think the French créateurs were spending all their time looking over the ocean, to the sequestration and the White House-Republican stand-off, instead of at the Assemblée nationale.

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Vanessa Friedman

For other than some unfortunate to-and-fro-ing at Maison Martin Margiela – where a new move into a subtler, winking sartorial humour as seen in pinstriped suits splashed with a neon graffiti stripe suddenly backpeddled into ye olde sartorial slapstick with logo placard evening silks – over the final weekend of the women’s ready-to-wear season brands seemed to stake out clear territory, each on their own.

There was no meeting in the middle: no nods to wearability, or explanations, or oversimplifying. It looks weird? Tant pis. As a result, many designers seemed to be having more fun than they’ve had in years.

Case in point: Yohji Yamamoto, who eschewed mournful historicism for a rockin’ ode to clothing geometries: little black dresses composed of three-dimensional prisms; full hoop skirts suspended from the shoulders by pleated twists; and colour-blocked knit tubes of skirts and contrasting body-conscious off-the-shoulder tops. It didn’t look like anything else, but it looked good.

And so it went. At Junya Watanabe, all the designer’s obsessions – motorcycle jackets and couture shapes and streetwear and tweeds – came together, so leather would be patchworked to blown-up bouclé, which would be patchworked to jersey, the whole seamed via zips into a classic curvy shape in dresses and coats and high-minded jackets paired with low-slung jeans that together added up to exponentially more than the sum of their parts.

At Haider Ackermann, the mood was uncoddled elegance: loose trousers, jackets seamed to cushion the body or sharply contain it, sleeveless houndstooth print satin evening halters paired with contrasting print pants, all without the sometimes overly complex layering and flinging of fabric the designer has been known for. It takes a certain confidence to know that a big ribbed sweater slouching its way over skinny python jeans is really all anyone wants, and a certain self-control to leave it at that.

And at Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo issued one of her signature gnomic utterances – “the infinity of tailoring” – and then defined that with a collection that twisted the fabric of typical men’s suiting, houndstooth and lightweight wools, into typical feminine-signifiers (roses, bows, ruffles), and then did the same in classic “girlie” materials such as velvet and riotous florals, all in the confines of a basic masculine line.

Unlike usual treatments of male/female dress dichotomies, however, the clothes didn’t distinguish between the two, adapting one to the other or using them in opposition; via technique it transformed them into an integral part of the other – a point well made. Literally and metaphorically.

Which suggests that instead of reflecting the current malaise, fashion has decided to reject it, at least in this city. If in doubt: do your own thing. It’s a solution of sorts in a period where no solution seems to be forthcoming anywhere else. Still, it is not without risk, as was apparent at Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Though Mr Gaultier said he wanted to mark a new beginning (his ownership by Puig, and his new manufacturer), and hence moved his show from its usual home in his headquarters to an old ballroom near the Étoile, the show seemed like nothing so much as a rehash of old hits.

Cone bras? Check: revamped as cone-seaming in studded breastplate jackets. Logo? Check: “Gaultier” spelt out in colourful letters inside “windows” on fur jackets, with the same windows displaying provocative silhouettes. Ethnic? Check: patchworks of suede and sequins and fur; gypsy chiffons.

Mr Gaultier can still cut a fantastic coat, but overall it felt irrelevant – not because the clothes didn’t speak to the larger world, but because they didn’t even really speak to themselves; they just repeated themselves. Over and over. And that is the route to cliché.

However, when that conversation is projected outward, as it was at Céline, the results can be liberating. “I just went on instinct, and the effort to create desire,” said designer Phoebe Philo of her alluring collection of narrow skirts with a languid flare at the knee; cropped tailored trousers; funnel-necked tops that flew out from the body at the back; and drop-shouldered crombie coats and shoulder wraps; all in sorbet shades, with the occasional deep navy thrown in. There was no external decoration at all, and none necessary: the attraction was embedded in the lines.

In making what she wanted, Ms Philo also tapped into the sort of clothes many women would want, telegraphing as they did grace under pressure, and functionality with finesse. Proving that sometimes, at least when it comes to a wardrobe, beauty, utility and individuality can coexist. No compromise necessary.

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