“Women and power,” said Phoebe Philo backstage after her show of graphic shapes with even more graphic prints – primary coloured graffiti-like brush strokes of red and green and yellow, black and white. “I didn’t want any references; just power.”
But what, exactly does power mean these days, once it’s placed in the context of gender, which is to say, womenswear? Does it mean power of the institution, as with Angela Merkel, or Marigay McKee, the new president of Saks and one of a group of women recently ascended to the top spot in various luxury brands? Is it about internal or external projection – how you see yourself or how others see you – and is it, in fact, possible to extricate the two? Does it mean the ability to influence your own destiny? Freedom? Control?
These aren’t theoretical questions. In an image age, when even Harvard Business School is doing a case study on itself to improve representation of the sexes, appearance can be the beginning of the end of stereotype. Designers understand they have a responsibility here: it’s why they have been grappling with the issue since the New York shows began.
Indeed, as the weekend drew to a close in Paris and the final four-day countdown began, a plethora of brands (mainly, though not all, designed by women), joined the discussion. The only thing that’s clear is that, in 2014, power clothing will no longer mean power shoulders or power trouser suits.
Beyond that, it’s variations on a theme, some more convincing than others.
For Ms Philo, for example, strength had to do with colour and clean lines; the way she built from the bottom up, starting with simple stretch knits tanks that reached to the hips, and micro-pleated skirts, on top of which might be layered a coat sporting an enormous grommeted opening trimmed in a metal ring, the better to see what was underneath, or an oversize tunic. Generous swishing skirts with a symmetric line never hampered the body beneath, and others came trimmed in extra long fishnet fringe.
The whole telegraphed both iron control and a willingness to play (thanks to the Legoland colours and building block shapes) as well as a certain physicality. It woke you up and sent you striding; the kind of clothes that looked as if, just by wearing them, you could get twice as much done in a day.
Pointedly, a different approach to the same problem (multitasking consumers with too busy lives) also preoccupies Chitose Abe, who has built her Sacai collection on the premise that what may look complicated should be made as easy as possible – see what seems to be, say, a grey cotton waffle knit under a green nylon blouson, but turns out to be a single garment, the pieces joined imperceptibly.
Or see argyle vests and even twinsets atop shirtdresses that are actually one and the same; ditto lingerie layers peeking out from under; transforming not just the entire concept of “separates”, but the amount of time and effort required. It’s not only about streamlining the garment, but the process of dressing itself, and reducing the mental space clothes require. Never to have to worry about whether your shirt is properly tucked in or pulling out is advance indeed.
Meanwhile, Stella McCartney upped her usual quotient of confident luxe via print and texture, with her signature simple shapes – slouchy trouser suits, all-in-ones, swingy dresses and skirts and tees – reimagined in crocodile scales appliquéd on organza, daisy-print silver jacquard, and layers of lingerie lace for evening. The result was effortlessly impressive (though it takes a lot of work to achieve such ease), and when a high-waisted trouser appeared under a matching cropped jersey top, curves negotiated with the flick of a seam, the reaction provoked was a sort of involuntary Yes.
It all made the “high summer feeling” expressed at Chloé by designer Clare Waight Keller – in the form of intricately pleated and cut military-toned blouson trousers, halter tops and airy dresses – seem relatively unambitious. The clothes were pretty, especially when the olive green gave way to white versions of the same silhouettes, and elegant when a black crinkle pleated tux shirt appeared over black shorts speckled with gold, but – literally and metaphorically – lightweight.
Still, at least they weren’t bogged down in their own complications, which is what happened at Akris. There the allure of elegant prints inspired by the striations of the earth’s topography, cobwebbed lace, and pebble-like textures, were overwhelmed by odd northern exposures: sliced out triangles and rectangles on the torso.
It may have been about the power of nature – or, as designer Albert Kriemler said, “fabrics and nature, moved forward through technology” – but practically, if any woman put on one of those dresses she’d probably be rendered powerless in the face of extreme midsection self-consciousness. Such tricksiness just isn’t necessary, as one beautiful black pony skin sheath with a deep vee in front and dual halter straps showed. In such a dress, you would feel utterly secure, and security is its own form of strength.
As is risk. Witness Riccardo Tisci’s superb Givenchy show, in which Africa crashed into Japan (there was a car pile-up amid the catwalk, in case you missed the idea), the conflict resolved in clothes. So long jersey dresses in Kalahari colours were elaborately looped and gathered, sometimes banded by leather, and interspersed with kimono-ish jackets over narrow trousers; which then gave way to metallic dresses paved with sequins, enormous tromple l’oeil ropes tracing a giant loop over a Masai-patterned front; followed by lace and sequinned gowns, the classic evening fabrics pieced together in stripes like tribal blankets.
It was vaguely barbarian and vaguely couture and very powerful, and it all could have gone very wrong. (Africa bangs into Japan? Really?) Which may be the real point about power and clothes, or even the power of clothes; it isn’t about a silhouette or armour any more, it’s about enabling the person inside: to move faster, think more, take a leap. Take your pick.