What happens when someone – a big, important, global, heritage brand – sends a major “up yours” to fashion? When a designer says: “Forget heritage and DNA and all that rubbish we natter on about”? How do people react?
On Monday night in Paris, Saint Laurent’s creative director Hedi Slimane found out. In the Grand Palais, in the same hall where he had debuted a first collection seemingly full of Saint Laurent references, from long gypsy skirts to safari dresses and le smoking, Mr Slimane sent out an ode to California grunge: oversized plaid flannel shirts and mohair sweaters, leather ultra-minis and leather bra tops; crystal studded fishnet body suits; little floral vintage-y dresses under grey suit jackets; and white collared sparkly baby-doll frocks.
There were ragtag furs, but there was not one pair of tailored trousers, not one high heel (the shoes were chain-studded Doc Martens) and not one handbag. This at a house that has an important leather goods business, at a time when three other designers at rival houses are launching handbags.
Also no references to classic couture shapes, no mink – none of the fashion and luxury tropes that have appeared so often over the past five days they are edging into cliché.
It made a big chunk of the audience furious. “It’s like bad Topshop!” hissed one retailer as the audience filed out. “So disrespectful!” said another.
And yes, it kind of was. Saint Laurent has recently started to take on the elevated, and static, aura of French Fashion Treasure, even though once upon a time (fashion has a very short memory) it was actually French Fashion Rebel. And yes, this sort of grungy fashion is not really rebellious, since it has been done before – by Marc Jacobs when he was at Perry Ellis, to the same horrified reception back in the 1990s, and most recently by Dries Van Noten, last season – so it was also a bit of a postmodern pose, with a Hedi (not Atlas) Shrugged aspect to it.
That’s the generous interpretation. The non-generous reaction would see it as blowing a raspberry at all the folks who gave him flak last season for being high-handed. Either way, undermining expectations is a risky thing, and in this show Mr Slimane undermined everyone who dared to suggest they knew what Saint Laurent was about: retailers, consumers and, probably, executives. In doing so, he also undermined the whole fashion bargain, which says a designer shows a nice collection full of accessible but elegant clothes that stores can support, because after all, this is a business. In fact, he barely showed fashion at all, though stripped of the styling there were plenty of commercially desirable tailored jackets, oversize sweaters, furs, and leather dresses; mostly, he showed attitude.
Hate it or laugh out loud, the show provoked probably the strongest reactions of any collection this entire season. And in getting everyone so het up, Mr Slimane exposed the vacuum that has been at the heart of so many other collections, which were all those things his clothes were not: respectful and luxurious and terribly polite.
Such was the case, for example, with Giambattista Valli’s chiffon and mink and lurex and crystal ode to the days when women had repartee and men cigarette lighters. Though beautifully cut duffel coats added a whiff of modernity, mink accessories, from belts to polo necks, were pointlessly decorative in an MGM way. (Mr Valli, by the way, is one of the designers celebrating a new bag line.)
And such was the case at Ungaro, despite the fact that it had a new designer, Fausto Puglisi, charged with breathing life into the somewhat confused brand. Unfortunately, his solution – broad-shouldered jackets, two-tone trousers and little Lego-yellow and sky-blue minidresses – was not the answer. Sure, the polka dots-meet-leopard spots-meet pinstriped print mix was an Ungaro trademark, but the execution was overly 1980s, and hard. To wear and to swallow.
Mr Puglisi was presumably trying to work within a semiotic framework, the model for brand revival in effect invented by Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, adopted industry-wide as standard, and rejected by Mr Slimane (and, it is worth noting, his much-feted peer, Céline’s Phoebe Philo, who once observed: “Céline is what I say it is”). And though it still works for Mr Lagerfeld – witness his bouclé suiting, this time given a dark metallic sheen, bulked up with a curve, and paired with a mini; elongated knits; and long sheer organza shirt dresses, all punked up with flat boots, thigh-highs, and a splash of shredded denim, and set around a giant revolving globe, in case anyone had any doubts about Chanel’s global power – perhaps it is time to reassess its effectiveness.
Of course there is a middle way, as evinced at Valentino, where designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have suffused the brand that red gowns and ruffles built with a youthful, more fairytale ethos, paying honorary lip service to the heritage while in effect going their own way on the catwalk. It’s not that they ignore history; they simply float lightly above it.
This season they said they were inspired by Flemish old master paintings, the tensions between severity and grace and the glorification of the everyday, from Delft pottery to tapestry carpets, and all were apparent in the signature chastity of line – high-necked, high-waisted, long-sleeved – containing a treasury of embroideries, leather cut like lace and floral weaves, whether nun-long or thigh-high.
Was it very Valentino? Absolutely. But Valentino on its own terms. After all, if we demand that a brand move forward (and we do), we have to acknowledge it cannot be bound by the past.