Multi-layered statements of simplicity

Image of Vanessa Friedman

It’s hard to be a game-changer; expectations are so high. When you have set the agenda, renegotiated the terms of engagement, altered the conversation – when everyone is looking at you, waiting to see if you can keep it up, if you will succeed or fail (and maybe hoping you will fail) – what do you do?

Well, if you are Phoebe Philo and you are the creative director of Celine, and you are the one who, last season, single-handedly swept away the last vestiges of fashion’s bubble-born frivolity by replacing it with a vision that had strength and clarity at its core, then you stay on-message. You keep your head, even if all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you – or at least following you. (Kipling has many unexpected applications.)

“Strong, powerful and reduced,” she said of the principle behind her second collection for the brand, and indeed, it was.

There was strength in the rigorously cut, lapel-less navy coat dresses and jackets with a double row of buttons at the chest and a slit at the leg where the two sides did not quite meet, to show a perfectly framed length of leg, and there was power in the long white shirts worn under ribbed sweater vests with luxuriant polo necks, cut longer in the back than the front, and there was reduction in the allure of a black column dress worn over a sheer T-shirt and topped by a sequinned capelet that coddled the collarbone and curved around the shoulder to the back.

Which is not to say it was in any way reductive; by being so sparing with her seams, Ms Philo imbues each piece with meaning. There is an economy of thought to her work that defines its appeal, and makes other, less concise statements seem over-blown and directionless.

This was the problem at Ungaro, where the designer Estrella Archs (with or without her artistic adviser Lindsay Lohan, whose position was unclear at the time) was likewise in her sophomore season; and where 1980s-inspired fuschia and green strapless satin numbers with hip or shoulder draping crashed against leopard spots and Prince of Wales check and polka dots. And it is also the problem at John Galliano, but for entirely different reasons.

If Ms Archs seems unable to articulate an identity for her house, Mr Galliano has over-articulated his, to the point where it is now as all-consuming as quicksand, and he is stuck deep in the middle, unable to break free of the need to exaggerate and adorn and otherwise over-egg his creations, be they voluminous embroidered tweed skirts, or bias cut chiffon dresses sprouting hearts of yak fur inspired by “nomads ... crossing imaginary borders in search of a new land”.

Once upon a time these had a once-upon-a-time appeal – this time they just feel like they belong backstage in the costume department of the Opera Garnier. Or put another, rather more poetic way, he dreamed, but he let dreams become his master.

Somewhere between the poles of Ms Philo’s elegant refusal and Mr Galliano’s baroque embrace lies Hussein Chalayan, who shares an affinity for the strict with first, but this season went on a narrative road trip like the second, albeit one rooted in reality (specifically the map of the US) as opposed to fantasy.

So terrifically cut men’s overcoats both long and short gave way to Amish-derived white shirts, which then came with silver Fortuny pleated insets at the shoulders as urbanity intervened, which then became roads of silver twisted around the torso, segueing into leather sprouting ribbons of “Mexican” ruffles, and Vegas-worthy gowns paved in crystals. The show was titled “Mirage”, but it wasn’t clear if the reference was to the Nevada casino or a visual delusion: wearable clothes masquerading in an intellectual conceit.

Such is the risk of a multi-layered statement – ask any politician, or see the collections at Akris, Sonia Rykiel and Stella McCartney, which each in its own way has made a virtue of simplicity: the first, this season as always, creating trousers and tunics and jackets with a Mies van der Rohe simplicity and the luxury of double face cashmere; the second offering a collection of happy, bouncing knits with an edge of French sex kitten; and the third show-casing a pared-down upmarket hipness with a 1960s Pierre Cardin edge in beige-and-black striped tunic tops over slim cut trousers, flat-lapel flannel car coats with a notch at the waist, and evening dresses of matte paillettes with a sheer overlay cut like a T-shirt in the front and tails in the back.

Like Ms Philo, these designers stuck to their usual script – it just didn’t demand the same attention. For that, only Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci created a platform that resonated with similar force (possibly because the two are peers and their references are rooted in the same aesthetic period: the rise of the Belgians – Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester – in the early 1990s, when intelligent minimalism overthrew 1980s glitz).

Mr Tisci built his argument on the tuxedo: three-quarter length and white over cropped trousers for day; paired with black and white lace T-shirts for evening; re-imagined in neoprene with a subversive zip at the waist inched down to create a collar-like fold at the hips and topped by skin-tight sport-derived alpine knits; crystal-studded and, finally, matched by a white backless ostrich feather tank trailing iridescent wings.

Classic in form and contemporary in execution, they were also convincing. He filled the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run – no Ifs about it.

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