Despite Oscars, Paris designers go for elegance not entertainment

The question of whether ready-to-wear shows are becoming more like entertainment “shows” has been creating something of an existential identity crisis in the fashion world over the past few seasons; sparking a spate of general self-questioning and soul-searching among designers and producers and viewers alike about the purpose of the collections and how best to convey them. After all, the terminology itself, not to mention the celebrity involvement and constant live-streaming, begs the question – highlighted this weekend by some brands being sandwiched between the French César awards and Hollywood’s Oscars – perhaps more than ever.

Would designers raise their eye-catching game, up the leap-off-the-small-screen ante? Would they try to compete with that other fashion show, the red carpet? Would they finally acknowledge what many already believe: that the NY-London-Milan-Paris circuit is one fabulous month of Reality TV? (Really, you couldn’t make it up.)

Nope. They would not.

If anything, midway through the Paris shows, brands seemed to have opted for a kind of general tactical retreat. How else to explain the fact that Viktor & Rolf, the Dutch duo who made their name with a sort of performance art couture, opted for a live soundtrack courtesy of indie singer Joan As Policewoman, but then sent out what may have been their quietest (and best) collection to date, predominantly in grey, black and white, where the only game was in an abstracted trompe l’oeil cabling? Or the fact that at Maison Martin Margiela, where the visual puns can often overwhelm the visual merchandising, the design team eschewed tricks and twists to simply riff on menswear via gracefully cut Harris tweeds and Prince of Wales checks, feminised courtesy of the occasional lacy lingerie piece and Victorian undergarment stripes?

Or, that at Yohji Yamamoto what could easily have felt like a haute sleeping bag circus, thanks to the use of giant padded duvets as trapeze coats, enormous dresses, even the occasional startling faux pregnancy bulge, was done with such restraint it rather forced a rethinking of volume? Even when covered by hand-painted work from Yasuto Sasada, the Japanese graffiti artist, from pop-eyed crazy-coloured gremlins to butterflies to cog wheels.

The change in direction didn’t get any more obvious than at Kenzo, where designers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim collaborated with director David Lynch, whose films they said inspired their well-orchestrated mash-up of twill jackets and shaved kangaroo skirts and shattered glass print all-in-ones, all layered atop each other and all adorned with contrasting wood and metallic embroidery, which should have been a cacophony, but looked surprisingly appealing. When wild flights of imagination become less cinematic and more idiomatic, you know something different is going on.

Even at Christian Dior, where Raf Simons, artistic director, is committed to the power of the set – this time a ceiling covered by variously sized shapes of purple and green lights to mimic an “abstracted . . . garden” in a cityscape – and the house’s celebrity relationships ensure a screaming throng of paparazzi and star-seekers, the garments themselves were decidedly . . . corporate.

Trouser suits in wool and cashmere were paired with coats slung over the arm in contrasting brights – burgundy and fuchsia; black and sunshine yellow – and often occasionally laced up the back or side like a corset (or a sneaker, the interpretation is in the eye of the beholder), sometimes layered over little silk dresses. Cocktail numbers curved neatly over the body in the classic bar shape or layered two deep and off-centre or quilted like an ultra-thin puffa; and evening gowns were simple short tank dresses under sheer diamond-bedecked floor-length T-shirts.

They were highly functional clothes in saturated colours but they were clothes that aimed to be worn, not paraded. As was clear at Sonia Rykiel, where the house’s easy knits had an elegant, but unfussy update in tonal sweaters, trousers and shearling (like a new suit – but not), not to mention waffle knits, rose knits and velour dresses that barely looked like knits at all (but were), this is really about “moi”. Meaning the person inside.

In case you missed the point, Rykiel actually knit the word into garments, like a logo.

Still, it could just as well have applied to Haider Ackermann, though he’d never be quite so obvious as to spell it out, and his earthen-toned trousers – loose in wool or skinny in snakeskin – slouchy sweaters and floor-sweeping overcoats. They had an understated power, as did a slim ankle-length grey tunic sliced up the side and worn over matching pants. It’s not that they fade into the background, but rather that they thrust the woman inside to the fore. They never fall into the trap of costume, the biggest risk when fashion skews towards entertainment, as was clear at Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Entitled “Brits in Space”, the Gaultier show began with a multilingual announcement the audience should buckle their seat belts, and then took off with flight suit of green trousers and astronaut jackets complete with bubble helmets and bubble-helmet-like shoulder appendages; asteroid prints; clear vinyl trousers over shorts and a silvery foil onesie. Next came the “Brit” part – punk via tartan and zips and fishnet – and then more space suits and then more punk and then it all just fell to earth, weighed down by cliché.

At least when Vivienne Westwood, who also has a tendency to raid the dressing-up box, does so the hair and make-up (and anti-fracking message on the back of cropped sweatshirts) doesn’t overwhelm the timelessness of her signature bawdy-but-bountiful evening gowns. By contrast, even the trenchcoats Mr Gaultier cuts better than anyone – and they were in there – or the chic of a black one-sleeved draped column, could not transcend the camp. It’s doubtful a disaster movie was really what they had in mind.

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