Paris is the point when people begin to make vast, sweeping and usually contradictory statements about the success, or otherwise, of 'the season' as a whole. I for one, was more confused. Maybe it was the simple burn out of seeing so many collections, but in all honesty Paris didn't hold a great deal of sparkle for me.
As opposed to overarching themes, God was in the details, hence it was individual pieces or outfits rather than collections that stood out. I remember the fabulous furred shoes at Loewe, like irritable Pekinese snapping at the shins of terribly well-heeled owners, the furled umbrella topped with a miniature Kelly at Hermes, the cardboard box as postmodern evening clutch at Maison Martin Margiela, the refreshingly assured zing of Richard Nicoll's red, whey and blue palette at Cerruti.
What does this say about the majority of Paris collections? Basically, that they weren't especially strong. Perhaps it was homogeny of theme that ironed out the shows into a never-ending plateau of so-so. In fact, scratch that comment: themes ran riot, from wilderness road trips to outer space exploration to that hackneyed old chestnut of 'redefining' the mythical 'wardrobe' of the 'modern woman'. The homogeny came with the clothes themselves, and these abstract ideas felt more like an excuse or a justification than a cohesive conceptual statement. If you want to do saleable, wearable clothes, you can do them without the added luggage of intellectual cant. It's a pity no-one told the designers.
You shouldn't have to meet and greet with the designer to decipher the meaning of a collection. If it is good, you'll get it. Case in point - Phoebe Philo. You didn't need to hear her oft-parroted 'Strong, powerful, reduced' soundbyte to know precisely what her Celine collection was about - which, fittingly enough, was precision. Rather than a minimalist, Philo is a reductionist par excellence, one with the balls to strip, snip and slice every distraction away from her clothing. This season, while other designers scrambled in her wake, Philo was already moving on, offering her own take on the-season-after-next's barely-there feel of bourgeoise. That's a clumsy attempt to articulate how ahead of her curve her reinventions of corded lace, fluttering silk scarves and neat little (deconstructed) suiting all looked, injected with a slick chicness that made them utterly modern. After wiping the slate clean last time, the exciting thing was seeing her engage not just with what Phoebe feels, but with what Celine means. It made this show even more powerful.
Power. It's the word on everyone's lips, and the season seems to be about redefining power dressing for a new generation. It was the phrase that leapt to mind at Alber Elbaz's Lanvin show, with jackets pinched into attenuated peplums and leg-of-mutton sleeves with tucks and folds rather than darts and seams. 'Tribal' was Elbaz's mot du jour, and accordingly there was a roughness to those silhouettes, slight, imperfect asymmetry in almost rudimentary shapes reminiscent of a scratched cave-drawing or bluntly-carved totem. There was undeniable power in this combination of the sophisticated and the sauvage.
For Stefano Pilati, there is power in protection - his Yves Saint Laurent collection was resolutely covered up, dresses swathing the body high on the collarbone, transparent plastic coating fabrics, a golden charm of YSL silhouette past hanging around the neck as talisman. Power and protection are both words with distinct religious subtext, and with wimples, chatelaines and a predominantly pious palette of black, the collection was undeniably flavoured with a religious subtext. It may have all been in the eye of the beholder rather than the intentions of the creator - certainly for many women, Yves Saint Laurent is tantamount to a religion, in the same way that Dior and Balenciaga were couture's chapels in the 1950s. What better protection from the vagaries of fashion than retreat into style - the house of Saint Laurent is practically the patron saint of that. Pilati seemed to be tackling, even grappling, this legacy. There was something savage in slicing the armpits out of Le Smoking and allowing the arms to emerge, something brutal in carving hunks out of perfectly-sewn hems. Was it deprecating, or merely distancing? Regardless, this show had a raw power that was truly compelling.
If London gave the first inklings of a move against the minimal and Milan solidified said insurgence, at Paris they were hammering on the doors of the Bastille. Riccardo Tisci's Givenchy collection combined the best of both sides, with elaborations of pattern and crusted decoration sitting alongside some of the leanest, meanest tailoring of any fashion week. It was about skiing and scuba - witness fluttering ostrich fronds like sea anemones, fold-over neoprene corsets like unzipped wetsuits, remastered alpine knits, and a consciousness of the body both those pursuits entail. At the same time, I saw the eighteenth century in the baroque, scrolling patterns of the knitwear and elaborate embroidery, slits and slats opening onto lace, and the macabre touch of those chopped-up neoprenes and ribbons worn á la guillotine.
Were these garments a wilful riposte to reductionism? The urge to rebel was certainly there in the devil-may-care maximalism of Christophe Decarnin at Balmain and the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants fantasia of John Galliano, but it seems fitting that it was Alexander McQueen who lead the charge to escape. An haute couture hooligan with utmost respect but never slavish reverence for the history of his craft, McQueen always was a rebel with a cause, and never happy to go with the flow. His final collection, all flash and dazzle, was the very epitome of power, of irrepressible creative power taking flight. At the same time, for all the joy in McQueen's invigorating creativity, in the transcendent imagery of angels and overflowing embroidered riches cascading across crimson and white satin, these clothes were tempered with sadness. Not only grief at McQueen's own passing, but a certain melancholy in the clothing themselves - a mere fragment of what this collection was meant to be, each piece cut by McQueen himself and completed by his team in the aftermath of his sudden suicide. There was an odd retrospective slant to these garments, not exactly unusual in fashion (especially this season), but in hindsight they make the collection an eerie summary of McQueen's approach to beauty. Hieronymus Bosch paintings emblazoned across bodices recall his mid-nineties collections, printing Old Master images onto startlingly modern clothes; likewise gilded feathers and gold-flecked tulle reminiscent of his ill-fated debut for Givenchy, showcasing his mastery of couture technique in ostensibly ready-to-wear clothing. The silhouettes, the intricate, ornate digitised geometrics folded around the body, were elaborations of themes he pushed for the past few seasons. The idea of woman as angel, as icon, transformed through fashion into something greater and more powerful, was a concept that informed ever piece of clothing he ever designed. 'I design clothes because I don’t want women to look all innocent and naïve, because I know what can happen to them. I want women to look stronger' McQueen once stated. His legacy is that he achieved it.