Blame all the recent elections, which pit man against man (or woman, in some cases), or simple boredom with the talk about austerity measures and bad job figures and so on and so forth, and the corresponding desire to drum up some drama, but either way this Paris Fashion Week is being framed, broadly, as a face-off between Raf Simons at Dior and Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent. The two designers will show their debut ready-to-wear collections for their respective historic houses this season: Simons on Friday and Slimane on Monday.
Indeed, though the men themselves have been doing their best to distance their brands from what they insist is a made-up media moment, to read the fashion (and even the mainstream) press, you’d think nothing else was going on.
Which is too bad; because the opening days of the Paris collections were actually very good. Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale, suggested the level of anticipation for the Simons/Slimane showdown might cause other designers to raise their game and, thus far at least, he has been proved right. Mostly.
Admittedly, this wasn’t the case for Rochas, where designer Marco Zanini seems to be retreating ever further into some idealised past world of perfumery. Cropped shirts were worn over hoop or hobble skirts; wide, ankle-length trousers came with midriff-baring tops; and a ballgown was reimagined as an enveloping taffeta shirtdress that looked like a couture schmatta and made no contemporary sense at all.
At least at Thierry Mugler creative director and ex-Gaga collaborator Nicola Formichetti and his womenswear designer Sébastien Peigné are inching their way past latex and showmanship and into more realistic territory via nipped-in mini-hourglass silhouettes and slick trousers, albeit with a Star Wars-in-Japan vibe. But it was at Gareth Pugh that the eponymous designer, often seen as a goth Mini-Me version of mentor Rick Owens, took an enormous step forward, adding dimensions and a soft romance to his repertoire.
So signature leather leggings were paired with sharp jackets that nipped in at the waist and soared up at the neck to swaddle the shoulders and frame the face; sleeves – and the lower legs of slick trousers – were trumpet flared and exaggerated; sleeveless handkerchief tunics in airy wool with fringed hemlines sported draped necks to the back; and dresses in strips of silk that drooped into balloon shades on the skirt skimmed the hips in a dancing silhouette.
It was as if Mr Pugh had finally realised elegance didn’t have to be worn as a challenge to the world; it could simply be assumed. This is a sartorial truth Ann Demeulemeester has always understood, and this season expressed to regal effect. Tailored jackets with flowing chiffon sleeves that created a train unto themselves, glinting trouser suits in amethyst and silver shantung, and billowing sleeveless silk dresses in cloudy sky shades, sometimes caught by a spidery leather harness – all were a potent reminder of the risk of overlooking the familiar in anticipation of the unknown.
In case you missed it, however, this was reinforced at Balenciaga, where with each piece designer Nicolas Ghesquière had a new point to make.
In a fully realised collection that, he said, “told the story of a mythological battle”, Ghesquière began in antiquity with cropped tabard tops, moved on to medieval rough ruffled couture-like skirts sliced up one leg to the thigh, and ended in modernity, building from idea to idea, wardrobe element to wardrobe element.
It happened by way of ultra-mini tweed skirts with little tweed jackets, pinstriped high-waisted narrow trousers with pinstriped cropped capelet tops, and one beige single-breasted coat in an unrecognisable fabric. And it culminated in a series of mixed-media dresses in silk and knit and laser-cut, leaf-like leather (or lace; it was hard to tell), embroidered in black threads that resembled nothing so much as barbed wire.
That may sound uncomfortable, but it was the fashion equivalent of beating swords into ploughshares. And it was beautiful.