For years, Bernadette Chirac, wife of Jacques Chirac, a former French president, and Danielle Mitterrand, wife of François Mitterrand, another former French president, attended Yves Saint Laurent’s fashion shows. They would sit, front and centre, along the catwalk, unofficial envoys of the state (even after their husbands were no longer in office), their presence acknowledgment not only of a great talent, but the way the house of YSL had come to symbolise France itself; to represent a level of taste to the world.
So it really should not have come as any surprise that Valérie Trierweiler, partner of François Hollande, the current president, was at the side of François-Henri Pinault, YSL owner, on Monday during this season’s Saint Laurent show.
After all, Arnaud Montebourg, industry minister, recently published a book entitled The Battle for Made in France, while Mr Hollande has publicly declared a pillar of his administration will be reinvigorating France’s homegrown industry, from sausages to stilettos. It’s about time this Elysee put its personnel where its positions are.
Yet, here’s the thing: Saint Laurent (as the ready-to-wear line is now called) is famously designed by Hedi Slimane, creative director, in California and inspired largely by the music scene there.
Which raises the question of what exactly it means for a fashion brand to be “French” these days, given the sector’s embrace of globalisation, not only when it comes to stores but also human resources? Is it to do with the location of a headquarters? With history? Or with an identifiable aesthetic?
Such questions are becoming ever more pressing, as fashion increasingly becomes a political tool, thanks to its importance as both industry and recession success story. But with two days left to go in the spring/summer season, the period when the big French brands – few of which are actually designed by French people – come out to show, the answer was not entirely clear.
Certainly, when it comes to Saint Laurent, there was a tension evident not only in the audience (Ms Trierweiler, French, was a few places down from Lenny Kravitz, American) but on the runway itself. In fact, it seemed part of the subject of the runway. What else to conclude from the way classic YSL tropes – the smoking, sheer shirting, men’s suiting, the 1971 lip print – were reinterpreted in a skinny Slimane way and alternated with Courtney Love in her Hole-era, punk rock, ultra-mini prom dresses in bright pinks, complete with ruffles?
Perhaps Mr Slimane was simply aiming to take the stereotypical clothes everyone was expecting from Saint Laurent (and complained about not getting last season) and the clothes he really wanted to do and demonstrate the two were more similar than might first appear. It worked with a sequinned asymmetric lip print top next to skintight trousers, but when a vintagey baby doll black and white pouffe came out under a motorcycle leather, it seemed forced.
Meanwhile, in his second collection at the once-storied couture house of Emanuel Ungaro (which, like Saint Laurent, was a pillar of the more hallowed couture shows, but gave up on that a while ago), Italian Fausto Puglisi embraced the 1980s with gusto. There were black and blue, or black and yellow, or black and green polka dots-’n-stripes patterns on chiffon baby doll dresses, and stiff ruffles running asymmetrically up the sides of everything: one leg of skinny leather trousers; an arm of a biker jacket; the side of a very short skirt.
Ruffles and pattern mixtures are, of course, what the house of Ungaro was known for back in the day, but while once they had an air of finely calibrated decorative whoopee, here it was more of a superficial nod atop a flashy exuberance: Hey! Look at me! At this old French house! Zowie!
At least Mr Puglisi’s fellow Italian Giambattista Valli clearly feels a sense of the couture continuum and a great desire to belong (perhaps because he created his own house, instead of inheriting one), though sometimes this can give an overwrought aspect to his collections, as though he dost handwork too much.
This season, that was apparent in the odd twin whorls of fabric that jutted from the front of shorts and skirts under otherwise simple shell tops, as though to crown the legs with a new kind of capital (it’s not Doric, it’s not Ionic – it’s Valli!). When Mr Valli relaxes into his own skills, however, and doesn’t try quite so hard, the results can be winning, as in a sheath dress printed in violets with small 3D poesies blooming from the wrists and shoulder. Best of all, though, were the series of gold coats, skirts and tanks, the threading left purposefully imperfect, segueing into sparkling stalks of wheat on raw tulle.
As for Karl Lagerfeld, the German who demonstrated to French fashion that an outsider could understand their codes, perhaps better than they themselves and hence, arguably, led everyone down the present path, at Chanel he elevated that semiology to the level of the gallery by dint of a set composed of 75 Chanel-inspired installations, like something from the Musée d’Art Moderne.
There was an enormous perfume stopper made to resemble a block of marble; a quilted bag puddling on the floor; canvasses featuring “No 5” and conjoined Cs set against primary slashes of colour, and so on. And against it all came a parade of slightly shredded, bright fuchsia and magenta and navy bouclé suits, skirts full, jackets belted; shifts with pearl-bestrewn “jackets” on top, two buttons closed at the neck, the rest cutaway to expose the dress; macramé tweeds with what looked like neon cellophane woven through; and airy tiered silk cocktail dresses splashed with the same multicoloured rainbow on the walls.
For a country that, perhaps more than any other, has woven the idea of fashion as art into its identity, the meta-narrative was pointed and tinged with irony. After all, the “gallery” itself wasn’t real; it existed only for the show. So what does that say, really, about the premise on which it is based?
Je ne sais quoi.