As the Paris shows headed into the weekend, the British ambassador, with the support of UK Trade & Investment, threw open the doors of his residence in honour of British designers. The very same evening there was another cocktail party for the opening of an exhibition at Paris’s Hôtel de Ville, or city hall, entitled “Paris Haute Couture”, and honouring, well, French designers, past and present.
The timing was coincidental, but telling: there is a real effort under way in most of the cities on the prêt-à-porter circuit to position fashion at the heart of the state; suggestion by association that it is a core national resource/industry that is recognised at the highest levels.
Sometimes this is overt, as with the residence and city hall, and sometimes it is covert, on the catwalk – where thus far it has been represented with varying degrees of success.
Simply consider that at Balmain, designer Olivier Rousteing emphasised his maison’s roots in French fashion history, describing in great detail his “profound investigation of couture techniques”, and the continuum from Paul Poiret through Christian Lacroix to his runway, all of which seemed a promising start.
It was hard to see how this worked on the catwalk, though, where a display of Dynasty-era sartorial muchness in the form of gold and silver lamé “sarouel” trousers (harem-full in the thigh, but pegged at the ankle and wrapped across the pelvis), or ultra-minis swagged over the thighs, both paired with giant satin-lapelled jackets and diamond-patterned
crystal-studded leather set the tone.
From there it just got more over-the-top, with a metallic emerald moiré jumpsuit; a fuchsia one-shouldered top over even brighter fuchsia trousers; and pumped-up purple numbers. There were astonishing textile skills involved, no question – it’s just hard to see them when you are being blinded by so much bling.
By contrast, another, more effective, method of communicating the same message came from Peter Copping, Nina Ricci’s creative director, who put famed Gallic piano duo Katia and Marielle Labèque front and centre, in his runway and with them the idea of French artistry. As the sisters played Philip Glass’s “Two Movements for Two Pianos”, Copping sent out a collection of finely calibrated jolie madame whimsy with just enough of a modern sportswear sensibility not to tip over into the cloying.
There were great cherry red duffels and skating skirts paired with little knits; charmeuse and lace lingerie-inspired cocktail frocks; narrow mid-calf skirts with neat taffeta jackets; and evening dresses with blooms created from crushed fabric and seamed on to shoulders and hips. It telegraphed both literally and metaphorically la vie en rose, as did Lanvin, where designer Alber Elbaz offered a collection of greatest hits, as seen through a Piaf lens.
He said he was thinking about “what’s next” and “how the skills of the French atelier are precious and relevant”. And he showed it in dresses layered over thin nude body suits, and based on variations of the LBD: in velvet, brocade tiered on one side, a slim wool sheath gathered in a knot on one hip. There were prints – butterflies on bias-cut crushed silk – and appliqués of dragonflies, and slightly off-centre tweed suiting. The whole thing felt entirely evocative of the moment, and how the present has been a bit undone by the past.
Necklaces touting the words “cool” and “help”, culminated in one that said “happy”, which was – a neat way to describe the emotional progress of the show. The je ne sais quoi was hard to miss. It was also behind Roland Mouret’s expression of grown-up elegance, which combined geometric colour-blocking with animal print in an exacting line-up of pencil skirts, body-skimming long-sleeved sheaths and tailored jackets (though some extra flaps on the fronts of garments were ideas better left behind). “Paris has its own definitions in the ‘dictionnaire de la mode’, ” said Mouret; his runway being a case in point.
Indeed, the growing emphasis for many brands of this sort of French connection was underscored by the two shows that didn’t have the same imperative: that of London-based Hussein Chalayan and American Rick Owens.
Chalayan, whose link to Paris lies more in his willingness to push his own creative boundaries than in any historical reference, continued his quest to balance superbly constructed jackets and coats with a more conceptual side. Thus the idea of “spirit leaving the body” translated into multicoloured and textured digital prints with a kaleidoscopic appeal, intelligently married to very simple shapes – including dresses that transformed from cocktail to black tie with a simple flick of the wrist.
Owens, who has made a signature out of combining petites mains reference points – narrow arms, trapeze backs – with the rock ’n roll tropes of his past, went further off piste. Specifically, with a detour through Asia via wide, kimono-inspired sleeves, and another through – well, it wasn’t entirely clear (his imagination?), via long tailcoats with quasi-tails dragging from the back.
Things got back on track with giant toggle buttons on short duffel coats and hoods that could be unzipped down the centre to create face-framing folds, while silk dresses tacked flat at the front but folded to form capes at the back, either trapped under shrunken sweaters or left free, were lovely. But the singular Japanese moment served to highlight how many designers have been eschewing any obvious nods to the eastern mega-market this season, opting instead to emphasise the “Made In”.
If in doubt, simply note that Dior’s show was held in the environs of the Invalides – aka Napoleon’s tomb. As a setting that equates a brand with a national treasure, it doesn’t get more direct than that. As for the clothes, shown in a room full of giant Mylar hot air balloons that acted like enormous distorting mirrors, designer Raf Simons noted: “This collection is more connected to passions we [he and Mr Dior] share.”
However, Simons seems to have loosened up enough in his second Dior ready-to-wear season to start having fun with history. So classic mid-calf strapless dresses sported both surreal line drawings on the bodice and an Andy Warhol-inspired shoe on the skirt; an opera dress with a big bustle at the back was remade in leather; and the stuffing was taken out of traditional shapes, including elaborate peplums, by rendering them in black and white cable knits. Even the 1920s-inspired chiffon and organza slips with random star-and-shoe bursts of embroidery were simply used to veil a very 21st-century minidress.
The net effect was cool and classic, telegraphing the brand’s local antecedents and taking them forward with a little moue and a lot of style.
It’s one way to fly the flag.