The Labour party, in Manchester for its annual conference, is not the only gang thinking about austerity at the moment. Today a new law goes into effect in China banning government officials from purchasing luxury goods.
Known as the “frugal working style rule,” it is aimed at ending the gift-giving/bribing culture endemic in the country. Apparently, to help enforce the rule, police inspectors are being taught how to recognise luxury goods by their bling.
And what, you ask, does this have to do with the womenswear shows held over the weekend in Paris?
Vivienne Westwood said it best before her collection of signature destroyed milkmaid dresses, shredded knits, and Les Misérables finery held, pointedly, in the British embassy, with a quite chuffed looking ambassador Sir Peter Ricketts in attendance, pink tie and all: “You absorb the world around you and carry it on to your projection.” In other words: it’s globalisation, stupid.
An official anti-luxury policy would presumably hit the fashion industry hard. Except increasingly, it seems, many houses have not only anticipated the issue, but addressed it, turning away from the clichés of luxe (logos, sparkle, gilt) toward an altogether subtler, more content-filled kind of creativity.
Indeed, at Comme des Garcons, Rei Kawakubo faced it head-on, with a collection that seemed to be built on the leftovers of fashion, the discarded parts: the canvas toiles, literally, that form the beginning of a pattern. They were ruched and bunched into almost-ruffles on one-shouldered shirts and dresses, combined with lining fabrics like silk or nylon and otherwise patchworked together so the arm from a jacket might be visible here, a puffed sleeve there, the neckline of a shirt tacked down to form a curving seam, the whole seeming to suggest that inspiration can be found even in the seeds of fashion’s own rejection.
And Ms Kawakubo wasn’t the only one finding beauty in the unfinished; the best parts of Yohji Yamamoto’s somewhat confusing grab-bag of a collection (a sheer pastel chiffon sarong? Huh?) were the rough-edged Edwardian gowns that opened the show, not to mention the tatty metallic tweed suits – though their allure was matched by the work of those designers who saw elegance in the unknown.
At Maison Martin Margiela, for example, the anonymous “team” produced their best work yet for the house, with classic feminine shapes – the strapless sheath dress, the pencil skirt, the bustier – given a slight edge with zippers at the seam that could be opened as far as desired at will, so a skirt might be unzipped to the waist to show cropped trousers underneath; the sides of a tunic undone to create capacious pockets. It was smart and sexy and understated, and absent the house’s usual forced humour, which was a good thing.
Similarly, at Loewe, Stuart Vevers stopped trying to be cool and instead surmounted the season problem (spring/summer is a hurdle for a leather house) by challenging the brand’s artisans to show their skills via coats created from an open lattice of suede strips; or a black leather dress with a woven front panel to let the air in. The branding was in the workmanship, not any name.
This is something Phoebe Philo has focused on from the beginning of her time at Céline, when she stripped the extras off to let simplicity in, and this season was no different, with cropped trousers in strips of glossy fabric or slouchy, sheeny silk paired with sleeveless tops, the back knotted round the front in a twist, seams left exposed like a frill behind. Dresses were mid-calf and racer-backed, cut into deep Vees at the front that were then filled in by open-work, fisherman-like nets, and the whole effect was sexier and more insouciant than ever before.
Beyond the logo, desire, both emotional and consumer, is sparked by suggestion. Haider Ackermann, for example, has always made the feeling his clothes evoke – and it’s never greed, but rather longing – their hallmark, which is perhaps why they seem increasingly relevant.
Witness the familiar parade of undulating jackets over skinny trousers in glowing silks, but also the relaxed pyjama pants, and, most effectively, the silk empire-waisted dresses in contrasting graphic polka dots and diamonds, the bust bound by a braided leather strap and suspended from the tiniest filaments, worn over beat-up leather leggings. They were romantic and vaguely medieval and hard to pin down, as was Junya Watanabe’s exotic hothouse of athletic couture, which combined silk nylon and mesh and neon colours and classic tropes (bias cutting, portrait collars) in a gorgeous and wholly invigorating parade of new ideas.
Looking at these dresses and quasi-suits (OK, body-conscious tops and matching trousers), the suggestion that luxury is defined by carat seems meaningless. There is luxury, rather, in surprise and line and movement and technique – values, that in turn have their own value.
There’s so much for the anti-bling brigade to buy!