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March 10, 2010 2:00 am

Echoes of the past recrafted

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Fashion and history are antagonistic bedfellows: on the one hand, fashion is predicated on refuting the past of only a season ago; on the other hand, it finds nothing quite so attractive as an archive – the older the better (ah, the relief of someone else's ideas).

How to reconcile short-term demands with the exigencies of the long term is a central challenge. Some designers run towards ye olde glory days with arms open in wide embrace; others glance and look away; and still others stand their ground, helplessly sneaking peeks again and again and again.

This is most often the case, of course, with designers who have taken on a house founded by someone else, especially when that someone else was a famous fashion revolutionary – and put their name over the door.

It's a pickle, really: they have to learn from history not to avoid repeating it, but to repeat it with a fresh twist. Think of David Cameron's gentler Tory rhetoric, or Tony Blair's New Labour, and you'll get the idea. Sounds different, but the underpinnings are the same.

Never was the problem quite as clearly illustrated, however, as it was last Monday. Just as Stefano Pilati debuted his autumn/winter women's wear show for Yves Saint Laurent at the Grand Palais, across the street at the Petit Palais a retrospective entitled (natch) "Yves Saint Laurent", with hundreds of the last designer's pieces, opened. To turn left or right, experience the past or the future? The industry loves a dramatic visual, but this was a little too close for comfort.

Turn right, as anyone on this eternal circuit was bound to do, and it was clear Mr Pilati is doing his best to honour the house's father while at the same time creating his own sartorial vernacular. (He even cut pictures of women in the original YSL's clothes out of magazines and made gold charms based on their silhouettes.) But it often seems an uncomfortable task - which occasionally creates uncomfortable clothes.

Though little black dresses shawled through the shoulders, swishy skirts and silk shirts that referenced the original Saint Laurent's work in Belle du Jour had an elegant je ne sais quoi thanks to contemporary fabrics, flying nun capelets, occasionally lined in emerald or sapphire fur, created an odd religious overtone. All-in-ones had a Le Smoking chic with a utilitarian edge, but satin cocktail dresses in classic YSL primary shades of fuschia and jade sprouting skirts or funnels of rose ruffles just looked bushy.

The problem is that unlike, for example, the house of that other famous French designer, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent left his heir with silhouettes and ideas - sexual and physical liberation, gender-bending strength, an affinity for the art world - but not catchy little symbols. And while ideas require mediation and recontextualisation, and are thus complicated to negotiate, symbols – well, they go with everything.

So, while the camellia and the rope of pearls and gold chains and the interlocking double-C represent Chanel the brand, today as yesterday, within that framework designer Karl Lagerfeld has freedom to realise his own point of view.

This season that meant snow angels and yetis set against melting iceberg, with brown tweed bouclé jackets topping shaggy fur trousers and skirts, little black empire-waisted dresses, and white angora mixed with lace and crystalline embroidery - all bedecked with ropes of costume jewels and worn with spectator pump Wellies; recognisably Chanel, but with a large dose of creative licence. For both good (in the case of the fairy frocks) and ill (the sasquatch trousers).

At Kenzo, designer Antonio Marras likewise has certain effective tropes to draw on (a jumble sale approach to gender stereotype and ethnic celebration) marrying pinstriped suiting to flower power, encrusting grey flannel with beads, buttons and sequins, and otherwise stirring the wardrobe melting pot with great good humour.

But at Thierry Mugler, which is relaunching a full women's wear collection this season, Rosemary Rodriguez has had a harder task - Mugler being best known in the 1980s for its power-shouldered, wasp-waisted sexual aggression. While leather dresses with articulated hips and moulded hip-length jackets are an interesting start, it is clearly a line in evolution.

Of course, when a house has no history it has the opposite problem: to situate itself in the fashion continuum, to claim legitimacy, it has to give itself a back story. And the fastest way to do that is to associate itself with a important fashion figure.

Case in point: Giambattista Valli, who launched his eponymous line five years ago. Usually focusing on the socialite set, this season he relaxed some of his formerly fussy cocktail wear into 1960s-like colour-bloc shifts with little bows encircling the hips; navy pea jackets finished in a midsection of sheer chiffon that segued into a swish of ruffles; and swaddling fur coats.

Only the finale of body-conscious red carpet gowns exploding into topiary frou frou below the knee seemed an exception in a collection that looked like it was influenced by no one so much as . . . Yves Saint Laurent (the one on view at the Petit Palais).

Then again, come spring/summer, he may well change his referential leopard print spots.

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