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What happens when a fashion business is missing its creative heart? Two houses in Paris are currently without a creative leader: at Lanvin, the 14-year union between Alber Elbaz and the house founded by Jeanne Lanvin in 1889 was severed in October when the 54-year-old designer was let go by its majority shareholder, Shaw-Lan Wang, the Taiwan-based businesswoman who appointed him after taking control in 2001. Elbaz was fired following political disagreements and a slide in profits at the house he had so deftly resurrected: revenues doubled to around €240m in the four years to 2013, but the company prediction of a loss of €2.5m in net profits for 2015 proved to be his death warrant.
Mrs Wang better ready herself for a further slide in revenues, if AW16’s offering was any sign of its health. The collection, designed by the members of the atelier, was a pale simulacrum of its former self, big in the Elbaz signatures he spent so long shaping at the house — black grosgrain ribbon ties, asymmetric draping, jewel embroidery — but none of the emotional energy or finesse. The collection was clumsily punctuated by hard-edged accessories — studded handbags, a lace stiletto, a flat boot. The pressure to deliver “hit” accessories caused much of the strife that led to Elbaz’s departure. Lanvin is still very much a ready-to-wear line (believed to represent 80 per cent of its business) and Elbaz repeatedly talked of the expectation on him to deliver ever more bag designs. “They want me to do everything. And it ends up being nothing,” he explained, weeks before his departure.
There was little evidence here to suggest that the good times are going to roll any time soon. The show was functional but charmless: the fabrics were often ugly and the references wayward. Talent is replaceable. But even if she finds it, Mrs Wang will find it harder still to replace the house’s heart.
At Dior, meanwhile, we wait expectantly for news of Raf Simons’ replacement. The 48-year-old left the house in September, citing creative exhaustion and the need for personal space. Unlike at Lanvin, however, he left behind a tidy and highly competent atelier and no feelings of ill will. Dior is a multi-billion-dollar house with a booming handbag and beauty business to keep its wheels turning. Finding a new designer has been less urgent — but that hasn’t made me any more patient.
In the interim, the studio heads Serge Ruffieux and Lucie Meier have been appointed de facto designers: a Dior spokesperson said that it may be as late as May before the next creative head is announced. The pair already made their debut at couture, which was perfectly OK. AW16 was much better.
They started with a black silhouette “as crisp as the sheets of white paper on which they spring to life”, and opened up the looks to include intarsia knits, Devoré velvets and pretty silk fil coupé. They had taken one of Christian Dior’s original sketches as inspiration: heritage can be such a terrific cushion to fall back on. And yet despite placing their emphasis on the “whimsical, eccentric and adorned”, this multi-varied and large collection still honoured Simons’ rigour and discipline in its design.
Moreover, unlike couture, which at times seemed somewhat sloppy, these velvet Bar jackets and jacquard separates were masterfully tailored and excellently well fit. A poppy knit sweater with balloon sleeves with a light blue jacquard sang with colour, while navy and beige crepe dresses were simple and sophisticated. The whimsy was restrained: the squawk of a parrot print knit was pretty and not playful.
And there were some fantastic bags — as not seen in some time at Dior; compact, like scaled-up wallets, bead-encrusted and, as at Loewe, often left hanging open to display their innards. Some dangled soft-shape sunglasses cases or small purse offspring alongside. The trend for wearing multiple accessories was here too.
Dior may be missing a vital organ, but it’s in safe hands, for now.