And so the long-awaited moment finally came. The heavens (OK, some side doors at the Grand Palais) opened, the hordes ascended (up the stairs), and the sky fell (or at least some speakers dropped from the ceiling). A strobe went on, the music pulsed, and out came a girl in skinny trousers, a slick little jacket and a white blouse with an enormous floppy bow. And the crowd cried, “Hallelujah!”
Actually, that’s an exaggeration, although there were some mighty happy people in the crowd. What really happened was that Hedi Slimane had his debut womenswear collection for Yves Saint Laurent (the company, what he showed is known as Saint Laurent), which also happened to be his first ever womenswear collection. The debut had been surrounded by the sort of expectations usually reserved for new generation politicians, and the old YSL folks in the audience – Pierre Bergé, former chief executive; Betty Catroux, former muse; those whose blessing matters in the court of public opinion – were thrilled. Slimane gave them something they recognised. And therein lies the rub.
How does a new designer make his mark on an old house? Brands have been wrestling with this since corporations realised it was easier to jump-start a label with a recognisable name than to build one from the ground up. But then you have history and preconceptions to contend with, and your options are limited: you can tear it down, slowly, brick by brick, or shore it up, or repaint.
The latter approach was pioneered by Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, the first to do this job and show how lucrative it could be (for everyone involved), taking the “codes” Coco made – camellias, pearls, bouclé – and treating them with a sort of throwaway ease instead of awe. This season that has meant neat strapless columns or blouson skirts with trapeze jackets edged in leather and sprinkled with big faux pearls, A-line dresses or skinny trousers with sequinned “tweed” boleros on top (the cropped jacket is a big trend), some evening gowns with quilted shawl tops cut on the bias to swirl at the calves, and a lovely evening series of white columns embroidered with 3D iridescent floral boughs. The decoration was pure brand DNA.
This has become something of a model for the industry, and is what Clare Waight Keller has been trying to do at Chloé, though that brand, as a retrospective of its past 60 years at the Palais de Tokyo shows, is less about symbols than an idea – of freedom, lightness, independence – and that’s harder to express coherently in clothes. Hence the zigzag of her collection from a great start of crisp white dresses cut with a fillip and topped by a flounce, and cropped jackets over longer sheer vests atop city shorts or blouson trousers pegged in at the ankle, into a more puzzling series of pleated and stiff-frilled sheer pastel dresses atop white playsuits. Not self-consciously naive, but not really sophisticated either, they were an idea that hadn’t quite gelled.
As for Saint Laurent, Slimane seemed to be mostly chilling out in the House that Yves built.
So there were narrow trousers and slick jackets that are sure to contribute to the seasonal jacket revival. They were, in effect, deconstructed versions of the Saint Laurent signature, Le Smoking, but less matching, non-suit-like, and paired with frilled white blouses, the cuffs dripping lace, and those oversize new romantic neck bows.
Like Tom Ford, his one-time predecessor at the house, Slimane also explored YSL’s gypsy heritage, with a series of long black silk and chiffon dresses in tiers of ruffles or lace or gold spotted devore. There were no short skirts, only long skirts that had sometimes been cut short at the front. They came covered with floor-length capes, sometimes edged in crystal, and mixed in with the occasional fringed suede cowboy jacket. Presumably the latter had to do with YSL’s safari heritage – there was also a floor-length suede dress with a lattice neck – though the cut was more Wild West than African Queen, and the capes recalled Stevie Nicks in her “Rhiannon” days (they were probably supposed to recall YSL in his Moroccan years).
What was missing, though, was a single handbag. This can be read as a purist’s desire to get the audience to focus on the clothes instead of the accessories, but Slimane did pair every outfit with a big-brimmed floppy felt hat (a YSL signature also adopted at one point by former designers Alber Elbaz and Stefano Pilati) and for a business that does very well out of its accessories, it was an interesting decision to make.
Whatever the reason, the collection ultimately felt more like a throat clearing – ahem! Get the YSL tropes out for the loyalists – than a new signature. This gave the clothes a vintage air, though Saint Laurent-the-first was nothing if not resolutely modern. It’s a paradox.
Let’s see how Slimane resolves it.