And so, on the first full day of major shows during the autumn/winter Paris womenswear season, did the most anticipated moment arrive: Alexander Wang’s debut show for Balenciaga. It was enough to distract everyone, for a moment, from rumours about who was the latest successful person supposedly leaving France, the situation in Italy, and all the other issues that normally make questions of clothes seem less than pressing. This is big business, after all.
Could the 29-year-old Asian-American handle the storied couture house? Was owner PPR secretly planning to turn it into a jeans and T-shirts brand like his eponymous label? Would a new designer’s vision have a radical effect on the status quo?
Despite a deliberate attempt to play down the show (somewhat defeated by an email demanding everyone arrive on time or they would be barred from entry), expectations were at a fever-pitch So were they satisfied? Mostly.
A neat updating of the historical Balenciaga stereotype (which involves words such as “architecture,” “purity” and “rigour”) in black and white, the silhouette was narrow, the form functional and elegant. White shirts opened to expose marbelised prints at the back, as well as bandeau tops, or were paired with skirts cut high in the waist and on the curve in the hem; black monk’s coats closed with a silver metal bow at the midsection; flat suede boots became leggings under it all; and a cracked marble print – the only one in the show – came in painted leather; appliquéd organza; cut suede and intarsia furs.
In consumer terms, it will appeal to Mr Wang’s band of cool twentysomethings (especially a strapless black tie jumpsuit with a sunburst of pleats at the waist and a curved cloqué plaquette rising at the top) as well as their boardroom mothers. Fears that it would be taken to a contemporary market level should be put to rest. And if the surprise was only that the garments were as accomplished as they were, as opposed to any new aesthetic vision – well, maybe that will come.
In any case, it points up the years and work it takes for designers to hone their visions for a House. Fashion has a very short memory, no question, and old aesthetics can be replaced almost immediately by new ones – but only if they have the clarity and thoroughness to be really convincing.
At Rochas, for example, Marco Zanini called his show an ode to “a dignified feminine persona”, which apparently meant acres of skirting, voluminous trapeze coats and perturbing hobble skirts. They could not be rescued from their inherent unwearability by the contrasting slouchy boyfriend sweaters and easy silk pyjama suits also on view, or the fact that the structure was created with modern means: bonding double duchesse silk chine to neoprene to stiffen the excessive folds.
The idea was to avoid “the shock of the new”, said the show notes, and the use of colour and bouclé to create haute loungewear were interesting, but clothes in which a woman cannot walk freely (or sit down) simply have no place in the modern world.
Ann Demeulemeester, by contrast, likewise plays on the inherent tension of men’s and womenswear (and black and white), but has pretty well perfected her approach, as seen in the graceful layers of cropped martinet jackets wed to longer, lighter “skirts” over long white shirts over black leather bustiers composed of twinned obi belts – over baggy boyfriend trousers; together they had the allure of the opposite, but liberated from each other they also have enough integrity to stand on their own (more so than the nightie dresses, which are best simply put to bed).
And Gareth Pugh has evolved into a designer whose work is marked by the exploration of old couture standbys, radically transformed. So classic funnel or portrait necklines, nipped-in waists and narrow silhouettes formed the basis of the collection, but treated with a clever sleight of hand: aside from a few slick flared trousers, all the looks in the show were paired with full, sweeping floor-length skirts, creating an atmosphere of medieval royalty.
As they moved from heavy silks to leather to waxed metallic linen, it became increasingly clear that take away the generic bottoms, and what remained was a collection of rigorously chic tops and coats, from sleeveless high-necked or T-shirt-like tunics, the backs slit just enough to allow for a stride, to romantic shearlings with generous neck-framing collars and flaring hips, and strictly tailored geometric cutaways, the sides sliced on the diagonal from a meeting point just below the neck.
When it all ended in a finale of ruffled gowns in what seemed to be waxed raffia, but turned out to be trash bags, assumptions had been duly, and cleverly, undermined.
The real challenge to generic thought, however, came from Jun Takahashi of Undercover, returning to the catwalk after two years away. De- and re-constructing traditional feminine clichés and garments, he showed lace skirts with matching cotton shirts – with sheer lace inlays over the heart and backbone of a real heart (not the Valentine’s day one; the one that beats inside the body) and a spine with rib cage; white puffballs of party dresses, the tiers of ruffles made from the cuffs and collars of men’s dress shirts; baby-doll dresses with straps cut in the shape of tibias and fibulas; and mini-suit dresses given a quasi-1940s shape by tailoring an extra set of arms in an around-the-body hug.
There hadn’t been much of a drumroll for the show beforehand – it wasn’t even on the official schedule – but afterwards, the laughter and applause rang through the Sorbonne. It was smart and funny and elegant, all at the same time, and demanded you really look at every garment, lest you mistake the subversive for the saccharine. That, no one was expecting.