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Are you ready to work out? You should have your running shoes on.” So chanted Jane Fonda on the sound track as Jean-Paul Gaultier’s spring/summer show opened. And although the refrain was clearly meant as a tongue-in-cheek intro to a sartorial riff on the current revival of many things ’80s, especially the introduction of athletic gear into mainstream fashion, it could also double as a succinct description of what it’s like to be a designer these days.

After all, as the difficulty of funding your own lines grows thanks to increased competition from the conglomerates for everything from factory time to runway space, the pressure to moonlight as a designer for one of said conglomerates also grows: take a job as a hired gun, the reasoning goes, and you’ll secure investment for your own line.

As a result, designers such as Gaultier, who has a second day job as head of women’s wear for Hermès, and John Galliano, who designs both Christian Dior women’s wear and his own brand, can find themselves with around 16 collections a year to create (and that’s not including men’s wear). No wonder they need their trainers; as a sports/life analogy, it seems more like a marathon than an aerobics class.

No one, after all, can really come up with new ideas eight times a year – at least not ideas that are any good – hence the over-abundance in recent seasons of wacky show-pieces that look more like costumes than clothes. But perhaps all that’s about to come to an end. Perhaps the poor over-stretched designers of today have finally decided to give their imaginations a rest, and concentrate instead on refining ideas they have already had – some, admittedly, better than others.

That’s what the message seemed to be at Dior, anyway, thanks to a pearl-grey wood catwalk (and there is nothing more essentially Dior than pearl-grey) and an opening song that went, “I’m getting down to basics.”

This reliance on background music – I am aware this is the second time in five paragraphs I’ve quoted what was coming out over the airwaves to explain what was happening on the runway – may be a misleading tool for interpreting a designer’s intentions; it is possible the tunes were just intended as beats, not position papers. On the other hand, often the simplest solution is the correct one.

How else to read the understated parade of pencil skirt suits sent out by John Galliano (the very same designer who dressed up like an astronaut for his last runway show), in shades of grey, white, and cream? With but the minutest variation in jacket after jacket – with collar or without; long or cropped; mannish or curved in at the waist; appliquéd with a discreet rose lace at the breast, or at the shoulders – they were a clear retreat to the brand’s basics.

It was all weirdly sedate, almost sexless, the models walking like fashion automatons as opposed to strutting. And if things got a little more graceful and feminine with the advent of silk jersey dresses draped simply on the bias and only occasionally, subtly, enlivened by a flash of sequinned peacock feather here or appliquéd violets there, it was mostly just variations on a theme from what seemed like an exhausted mind.

A similar thing was going on at Gaultier, though the energy quotient was notably higher (it’s the brand’s 30th birthday, after all – this Saturday M. Gaultier is celebrating with 2000 of his nearest and dearest – so they’ve got a lot to gear up for). Again, the idea was the couturisation of workout gear, but the execution was wholly contemporary and surprisingly pretty: bias-cut flapper dresses with athletic mesh insertions; Gaultier’s trademark perfect trouser suits in men’s-wear fabrics, beautifully done with short ruffled sleeves, over sailor’s striped hoodies; an oversize sheer silk sweatshirt jacket or mini-dress with Chinese serpent embroidered on the back; and strapless trapeze confections of candy-coloured silk over organza sweatpants.

The show had begun with a pacy retrospective of Gaultier’s greatest hits, and what he did with the main collection was cleverly combine his signatures from the past with many of the season’s current trends, from volume to the dress-over-trouser looks of streetwear via one smart idea. As a design strategy, it was efficient, even delightful, if a bit one-trick.

Still, Gaultier and Galliano weren’t alone in choosing to concentrate on a single theme; likewise, designers such as Ann Demeulemeester and Sophia Kokosalaki, both responsible for only their nominal lines (what luxury!), kept their focus narrow and their concentration rigorous.

Thus the first created a visual poem out of cropped skinny trousers, distressed men’s cutaways, and layers and layers of waistcoats and asymmetrically buttoned and draped shirting. Black bled into white and white into black in subtle ombre effects; eyelet peeked from below a ragged hem; necklines plunged to navels in a way that managed to combine romance with eroticism – as though boardroom pirates had been cast away on a desert isle for a dreamlike summer.

Meanwhile, Kokosalaki further honed her signature draping, treating the surface of her silks and organzas as embellishment in itself via whorls and waves of intricate pin-tucks on bodices and skirts. Even more intriguing was the combination of such goddess-like garments with the toughness of urban men’s wear – a cloud-like iridescent white top with straps encrusted in diamente over cuffed city shorts – demonstrating that ultimately the more pared-down approach may be the best for everyone, not just the designers who have to figure out a way to do the impossible and serve two masters.

As it happens, this is good practice for Kokosalaki; next season she takes on dual duties as the creative director of the newly revived House of Vionnet as well as her own line (clearly, the relationship is already paying off, as this season marked her first show in the “official” halls of the Louvre, and her first time on the “official” schedule). The designer/brand pairing makes sense, since the original Vionnet was similarly known for her draping, but it also means Kokosalaki will face the challenge of separating her eponymous brand from her adopted one. Perhaps M. Gaultier has some running shoes he can lend her.

Today it’s the socials, tomorrow it’s China

If Mohammed won’t go to the mountain – the mountain will fly him there! That was the thoroughly modern solution to this age-old conundrum chez Valentino, where a number of the brand’s most important American swans were sitting front and centre after being flown over from the States as guests of the house (apparently, their social power is now such that they, are known merely as “the Socials” on home ground).

Thirtysomethings Tara Rockefeller, Marisa Noel Brown, Jennifer Creel and friends all enthusiastically applauded the pleated trapeze silk dresses, neat lunching suits and perfectly judged cocktail flirts, and by their mere presence telegraphed the “Valentino-may- be-aging [the designer is 74] but-the-house-is-ever-younger” message that has become the clarion call of the brand.

They weren’t just there for advertising purposes, however; according to Matteo Marzotto, president of Valentino, the US is the house’s biggest single market, accounting for 30% of annual sales, as well as its most internationally influential. “What they wear today,” he said, referring to his featured guests, “everyone in China wants tomorrow.”

So what were they wearing? Well, classic Valentino, of course: Jennifer Creel in skinny tweed with diamond decoration and a tassel at the hip, Marisa Noel Brown and Olivia Chantecaille both in black trousers with poet’s blouses. And what will they be wearing come spring? From the looks of it, the satin slip dresses covered in a veil of silver beaded lace will be popular, as well as the tiered chiffon floral baby dolls, gold car coat with matching cut-out lace skirt, and long evening dresses bristling with white organza frills.

Understandably less popular were the short shorts with sheer cobweb blouse or silver sequinned jacket. Isn’t there a rule against shorts at Cipriani’s?

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