There is a certain logic to the fact French President François Hollande made his state visit to the US during New York Fashion Week, the beginning of the autumn/winter season that will end in Paris in three weeks’ time. After all, prêt-a-porter is presumably a shared cultural currency. Yet while President Obama took his “oldest ally” on a tour of Monticello, and while Mr Hollande has a planned jaunt to Silicon Valley, he did not make it to any shows. Which feels a bit like a missed opportunity. Because if M. le Président had popped north on Tuesday he might have been surprised by what he saw.
For while there’s no doubt Vera Wang nodded liberally to the recent grunge trend set off by Dries Van Noten and Saint Laurent via grey and black plaid shirts and chiffon skirts, oversize ribbed sweaters, Bermuda shorts, and layers upon asymmetric layers (though she did it in her own witchy way, with the addition of jewelled beetles and a “Don’t bug me” slogan), for the most part, what was on show on day five was fashion that reflected a peculiarly American identity: the melting pot.
Throw in a cultural reference here, a pop artefact there; add archetypes, put in designers’ brains and stir. You never quite know what will come out.
Consider, for example, Sophie Theallet, whose roots are in Paris (she worked with Azzedine Alaïa before opening her own brand) and who may be the most under-appreciated colourist in the city. But this season she combined a very Gallic palette (raspberry and caramel and teal) and a classic cocktail curve with a new rock ‘n roll edge. Slim trousers were yoked in leather at the hip or came in gold lurex; and all her dresses displayed a dual personality, marrying one fabric (velvet) to another (silk). Just in case you missed the “bit of this/bit of that equals more than the sum of their parts” point.
Or consider Oscar de la Renta, who toughened up his Cipriani-wear by sharpening the shoulder, nipping the waist, and mixing pinstripes and peplums, tweed and brocade, only to finish with a flourish of ball gowns clearly destined for the Met Ball’s red carpet, and the show Mr de la Renta happens to be sponsoring: Charles James, aka “America’s first couturier”.
Even Narciso Rodriguez, who eschews overt influences for geometric exploration (of the body, seams, what can be done with a line), embraced both the vertical – strips of burgundy, orange, black, grey and nude fabric pieced together into a shift – and the curve, cutting dresses to sit just off the skin, and embroidering shells with what looked like a sketch of sequins, to create a glimmering impression that had less to do with shine than shading.
It all reached its apogee, though, at Rodarte, where designers Laura and Kate Mulleavy offered not so much a collection as a tour through the aesthetic cauldron of their brains. So what looked like “Love Boat” evening wear – pastel chiffon palazzo pants and dresses, the bodices smocked and speckled with diamanté – gave way to Ali McGraw striped sweaters and sleeveless tartan coats, which segued into Greenwich Village art student-layers (off-the-shoulder sweaters and crafty embroideries over paper bag trousers). It got a little more CBGB (bright blue and pink and bronze metallic coats with fur collars), before evolving into a Princess Bride parade of lace and velvet embroidered gowns that culminated in a long white Star Wars finale complete with silkscreens of C3PO and R2D2, Luke and the Death Star on the floor-sweeping skirts.
Got that? Probably not, but know this: there was plenty for retailers to like (Those coats! Those knits! That black velvet-and-chiffon galaxy dress!), and in its absolutely committed idiosyncrasy, it did what really good fashion should do: recast the familiar so it becomes something seemingly unknown, and in doing so embody reinvention and possibility.
That is something, presumably, Mr Hollande might well appreciate.