French dressing is more than a matter of taste

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Change is afoot in France (but not the hemline kind). A parliamentary panel has just proposed a ban on smoking in restaurants and cafés – zut alors! – and small towns in Provence are losing their classic Peter Mayle-observed identity to immigrants, industry and the National Front. No wonder the old icons are becoming ever more important.

Fashion, for example. It is in France, after all, that fashion was institutionalised; here where couture lives; here where a certain way of dressing is considered a national trait, passed down from mother to daughter (see, honey, this is how you do that scarf fling). And out of all the brands shown in Paris, there are perhaps none more totemic than Chanel and Hermes, the double C and Kelly bag as recognisable as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.

In other words, they’re critic-proof.

Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad agency, has a theory that ranks brands according to certain emotions they provoke in consumers: admiration; affection; momentary desire; etc. At the top is something they call a “lovemark,” or a brand that has managed to engender irrational adoration. This is, of course, the desired state for any label – it means that people will keep buying no matter what – and Chanel and Hermes both qualify (Cheerios does too).

So it doesn’t really matter that, while designer Karl Lagerfeld showed some terrific takes on the famous standards at Chanel – shortening skirts and pleating fabric to create movement and light, and veiling the classic LBD mini-sheath in black chiffon trimmed in gold or multicoloured sequins – he also showed some truly terrible ones. A neat bouclé jacket over sequined 1940s bathing shorts and a sheer shirt, anyone? Thought not.

Baby doll dresses and bourgeois-cum-rocker denim suits veiled in black chiffon also seemed out of place in a collection that generally walked that very fine line between youthful and immature. But who cares? Such missteps probably won’t make it into the shops, or even people’s heads, whereas the Chanel woman in that tweed bouclé suit is practically set in stone. (Besides, if it’s cool jeans you’re after, see the work of Nicolas Andreas Taralis, recently tapped for Cerruti and the righteous heir to Helmut Lang’s gender-bending tailoring skills.)

Lagerfeld knows this, of course, and it’s hard not to think he’s just playing around with the other stuff, seeing how far he can push his audience.

At Hermes, by contrast, designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, the erstwhile enfant terrible of French fashion, has always seemed more conscious of the responsibility involved in translating the values of a transcendent handbag into cloth. Hence his respectful use of the Hermes semiology – scarf prints; plaids; that orange; riding trousers and buckles – in elegant wide trousers, wrap-blouses and vests, and layered bias-cut chiffon gowns, the latter especially graceful in shifting layers of lace over faded pastoral prints.

If they were not show-stopping clothes, they were still notably chic and descriptively French in that je ne sais quoi kind of way (all, that is, except some strange satin short-and-waistcoat combos that seem to have wandered in from another show). How very reassuring.

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