Maori warrior meets Marisa Berenson in Cabaret. How's that for a mash-up? It seemed to be the idea behind Martine Sitbon's latest Rue du Mail collection, a fusion of flapper dresses with quasi-tribal decoration. Of course, that tribalism could've just been Deco gone native: the ridges of topstitched fabric on a short oatmeal jacket resembled scarification, but also the stylised grooves carved into those Jazz Age wirelesses that proliferate in popular culture. But the beat was insistent, tatouages knitted into skinny tube-dresses and bubbly black-and-white boucles scrolled with aboriginal woodblock patterns.
Surface embellishment was the big story here - but it always is at Rue du Mail. It's also a mark of Sitbon's sure hand that it never overwhelms her clothing, even when the shredded ribbons in this latest spring 2012 collection went crazy and marched their way across every surface imaginable, or when her pleats were whorled asymmetrically across cocktail dresses as if caught in a vortex. Those nubby salt-and-pepper tweeds were left relatively unadorned, bar a neon trim and a framework of embroidery, but they still managed to seem richly decorative.
The finale veered us into the seventies, with smockery reminiscent of Yves Saint Laurent at his Ballet Russes finest - and, of course, Berensen's off-duty and out-of-character moments, both resonating with Sitbon's sartorial obsessions (she was one of the first to revive the seventies back in the eighties, lest we forget). As a mix, it strikes you as a little incongruous. It's not immediately evident what Sitbon wanted to say with this collection - at least, as a consistent narrative. The point she seemed to be making was a face-off between the hard and the soft, a theme her work has been obsessed with for years. The hard lines of all that Deco was softened by the needlework, the intricate craft inside the clothes themselves. Rue du Mail shows in-house because Sitbon's intention is to approach couture in her work, something she is creeping closer to with elaborate, handworked collection after collection. If there's a criticism to make, its that that approach naturally leads to cocktail above day - and that the most striking piece in the show came when Sitbon applied her couture fixation to the simplest of organza t-shirts. Half-a-dozen more of the same would have been just dandy.