Paris Fashion Week: Oblique nods and intuitive leaps

“What was that designer thinking?” This is the sort of question that gets asked a lot when faced with, say, a languorous evening dress from Hussein Chalayan decorated not with multicoloured beads or paillettes but fake nail tips (brilliant repurposing of basic beauty object?) followed by a smoky organza gown with a peekaboo panel opened in the front to reveal the bustier that lies beneath (here is what you do not see?).

So it was interesting that on the third big day of the Paris shows, Dries Van Noten provided an answer of sorts with a one-man show at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs that he described as a “map of his brain”.

Organised to illustrate the intuitive leaps Mr Van Noten makes when he is creating a collection, it connected, say, Capri’s Blue Grotto to Picasso’s Blue period to Yves Klein to bluebells; the Sex Pistols to Christian Dior – and all of it to his collections. The point is: where you start can be a far cry from where you end up. The thought process that goes into clothes is rarely linear, or easy for a viewer to parse or a designer to contain in a sound bite. At least if it is really good.

But that does not mean it is not fun to try. Sometimes it is more obvious than others, of course. So while Julien Dossena’s sophomore effort for Paco Rabanne relied, happily, much less literally on the brand’s 1960s sci-fi heritage than those of his predecessors, it still nodded obliquely to the past via safety-pin mesh T-shirts and dresses atop leotard-like black tanks, plus a few silvery wrap skirts; got even more abstract in patchwork leather vests (the contemporary version of the chainmail dress) atop button-down shirts paired with hip-slung bubble skirts; and then went into the realm of the associative via sporty black trousers, a white stripe up the side, thin ribbed knits and zip-up jackets, the connection lying in the sense that these were clothes meant to move forward, into the future.

And while Peter Copping’s work for Nina Ricci was a bit piecemeal – a neat black skirt suit trimmed in mink here; a lilac day dress there; a white mohair-and-silk sweatsuit here; a silk crocus-print onesie there – it was united by an appreciation of pure prettiness that speaks to the brand’s famous fragrances. Sometimes it is OK for a rose – or a sultry rose leaf lace and sheer chiffon dress – to look, or smell, like a rose.

But when a thought process is relatively uncomplicated, or dependent on a very specific single silhouette, such as Roland Mouret’s signature urban sheaths, a collection can feel less like a game of follow the bouncing mental ball than an exercise in repetition.

Such was the problem, anyway, at both Mouret, where graphic patchworks of material and big leather collars simply dressed up more of the same, and Balmain, where designer Olivier Rousteing said he was inspired “by the here and now – the world that my generation actually inhabits”, complete with all its “new tools and mediums”.

This sounds promising but turned out, when translated into cloth, to be mostly . . . leather. And leopard print, gold studding and leather. And braid and shaggy fur – and leather, all combined into cargo pants and peplumed safari jackets; wide belts and woven minidresses. It had verve, no question, and was better than recent forays back to the 1980s, but then the cargo pants came in green leather and black leather, khaki satin and navy satin, and the skirts appeared in woven leather and gold studs, and it all happened just enough to stop being fun, and start feeling familiar: not just to itself, but to Alaïa, Pucci . . .

If what is on the Rick Owens runway occasionally looks weird, at least it looks original – down to his choice of models, which involved the professional kind as well as “friends of the house” of varying ages.

Presumably the idea was to convey the idea of a family of all ages, even if said clothes resembled nothing so much as a leather turtle’s carapace, from funnel neck to hem of loose onesie. But then they segued into protective layers, so arms were extended way beyond the natural, and backs flew out in a structured trapeze, which then led to knits embroidered with the terraforms of the earth from above, which moved on to a more armorial stance, and terrific squared-off collarless jackets inset with “skirts” of leather pleats or plackets of fur at the neck paired with motorcycle trousers.

The connections – emotional and sartorial – all made sense when you saw it, just as Alber Elbaz’s Lanvin seemed like nothing so much as a tour through the house’s 125 years, though he never put it that way, exactly. How he put it: “extravagant” – equally true of the thought and the clothes. One look led organically to the other, from a coat tiered in knit fringe to fringed Edwardian tweed skirt suits to shredded tweed dresses to pleated faux leather dresses in the same shape, and then fur (because we are on the subject of pelts) and then back to the fringing, but this time in bugle beads on T-shirt dresses and silk charmeuse tunics, which led on to 1930s bias cuts, until it all came together in fringed and feathered little black dresses, and a few shifts hung with curtains of colour block silk fringe that were resolutely modern.

It was not easy to categorise but it did have a clear intelligence. And that gave it an appealing logic, all its own.

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