The spring/summer collections came to a close just before Mitt Romney and Barack Obama faced off at the University of Denver and, in a funny way, it brought things full circle. The season began in September in New York just after the conventions put the US presidential election at the forefront of people’s minds, and it deposited them back there via London, Milan and Paris. In the process fashion waged its own debate: over whether in this economy it is wiser to play it safe or take some risks; go minimalist or maximalist; pay homage to the past or move into the future.
Ultimately, it was unresolved; as so many voters still are. Well, what did we expect? (And in fashion, perennial optionality is a good thing).
But after a week where minimalism seemed to be gaining the upper hand, Paris ended with an extravagant rebuttal. First, at Valentino, designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli took a position in favour of grace, subtlety and the elevation handiwork can bring to a garment, with their now trademark parade of neat day dresses – collared, puff-sleeved, knee-length – in simple black silk or nude leather, seams laddered to show a glimpse of flesh; beautiful white floral garden party frocks, the flowers hand-cut and layered on to a tulle shadow. Trenchcoats were in pliable python and evening gowns were covered up – and covered in dense golden embroidery.
The materials are super-luxe but never put on a pedestal, and though they can seem straight from a fairy tale or a Brontë novel, they adapt remarkably easily to everyday life.
Meanwhile, at Moncler Gamme Rouge designer Giambattista Valli constructed an entire poolside stage set complete with sand, diving boards and exercise bars – not to mention male models in white bikini briefs doing callisthenics. It was an over-the-top backdrop for a series of 1960s-style shifts in white mesh covered by white blooms, drop-waisted coatdresses glinting under clear sequins, and vintage photo prints of synchronised swimmers arrayed like flowers. It ended with the guys getting doused by a shower. Hopefully, they were well paid.
The set was also the thing at Louis Vuitton, albeit less kitschy. Artist Daniel Buren created a checkerboard runway, after the house’s Damier print, ending in four escalators: think Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”, but automated and with clothes.
As for those clothes, they were – well, checkered: in black and white, yellow and white, brown and white, green and white; in all sizes of squares; in cotton jersey or silk satin; occasionally punctuated by floral silhouettes; and based on “a perpendicular block” in three lengths, from ultra-mini to below-the-knee and ankle. Whatever the length, though, the line was lean and the mood was 1960s-fun. For once, lavish minimalism was not an oxymoron – and contrast was the point.
The brand is figuring out where to take the installation next (an art commission is an investment, after all), a question that also applies to Miu Miu, which filled the brutalist Palais d’Iéna with a forest’s worth of mahogany-tinted stadium seating and a runway 100 metres long. Along it strode elegant 1950s pieces – swing coats, pencil skirts, trapeze jackets, cropped tops, elbow gloves and stoles, all in crumpled duchesse satin with a tie-dyed sun burst at the centre, as well as mink, silk denim and patent leather. It was a moreish take on less, where the more part triumphed.
In the end, it was Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton who offered the best argument for the power of rococo imagination. Honeycomb jacquards in black and gold moulded into classic McQueen jackets were cinched by wide tortoiseshell resin belts crawling with crystal-backed bumblebees and left open to show the same gorgeous carapace topping a corset, all paired with mesh honeycomb skirting and narrow trousers, the silhouettes exactingly sculpted.
Jewelled cages formed corsets and hoops on the outside of skirts, which grew ever larger; 1950s-style cocktail dresses in draped chiffons parted to reveal black corsetry; and three enormous lampshade-like floral gowns swayed out in a royal convoy.
As a meditation on strength and sex and the limits often imposed on femininity, it was the sartorial equivalent of an oratorio. Later it will be diluted into brocade trousers and silk tailcoats for stores, but for now it just made a point, and punctuated it with a song. For, after the frenzied buzzing of bees on the soundtrack, there was a pause and a pop ditty by the Archies broke in: “Sugar/Honey, honey/You are my candy girl.”
If you can make a roof-raising statement and then leave ’em smiling, you might actually win.