What role does fashion have in these troubled times? Should it spin fantasies or shatter dreams? Is it a wake-up call or an escape route? For Spring/Summer 2009 all of the above and more was offered - sometimes at the same time, just to confuse matters. This is what we saw.
The lure of shiny, clean disco futurism is rarely far from fashion - operating six months ahead of its time seems license to travel into space more frequently than NASA. This season, the futurist tendencies are more manifest than usual: fins jutted like starboards from narrow torsos, fabrics glistened with a phosphorescent glow and pale pastels and acres of white spoke of Courreges-meets-Kubrick visions of a Brave New (fashion) World. Rodarte coupled couture with C-3P0, Gareth Pugh's playful polyhedra took to the Paris stage like stylish Stormtroopers and Louise Goldin's knitwear boldly went where no W.I. had gone before, pushing knit one purl one into the 31st Century. No-one, however, pushes further or faster than Nicolas Ghesquiere, whose Balenciaga show offered an astounding Sci-Fi vision that managed to reinvent fit, fabric and figure into an uncompromising vision of a fashion yet to come.
Wake up, Cavegirl
The Flintstones are hardly standard fashion reference points -then again, neither are Ancient Greek and Roman tunics, but all three made repeated outings. Christopher Kane and Marios Schwab led the charge to the Stone Age in London, while Paris saw Bernhard Willhelm going tribal and Vivienne Westwood encouraging everyone to cobble clobber together from odd lengths of fabric nappy-wrapped under the legs. The most evident (and wearable) example of this mood is the twisting, strapping, wraping and draping that calls to mind Chitons, togas and pre-Christian tabards. The cleverest collided this with a sense of technological innovation, creating garments that looked simultaneously primitive and pre-emptive of a survivalist future. The worst looked like cheap, lumpen costumes in a provincial primary-school Nativity play. Win some, lose some.
In the Black
The world's market may be plunging defiantly into the red, but this season designers counteracted by offering garments shrouded in the resolute shade of sartorial and financial security. Rei Kawakubo's Comme Des Garcons collection was all about black, from the venue to almost every item of clothing, meanwhile the classic black suit cropped up on catwalks as far apart as Yamamoto (where the black suit is an institution) to Jean-Charles de Castelbajac (where a black suit is virtually unknown). What else can this indicate? A general darkness of mood, perhaps. Gareth Pugh put a brave face forward, but the turn of each white silhouette revealed a shadowy, sinister flank.
With the Dow at a low not seen since 1987, it's more than fitting that we are having a somewhat defiant revival of that very same moment. Every waist was cinched, every shoulder was popped and if a skirt could be short, it should be short. How to dress on the brink of a financial meltdown? With blind optimism and luxer-than-luxe lunacy. Balmain - a blast from the past if ever there was one - proffered a crystal-strewn look part Billie Jean, part Jean-Louis Scherrer, while Giles made us all want to dress like a Pop Art Pac-Man at a Fifties couture show. The ultimate extravagance? The humble Chanel paper carrier bag, reinvented as a four-figure trompe l'oeil in buttersoft calfskin. Postmodern parody and pastiche as soulless as a Jeff Koons painting.
Maybe Reactionary is more the word as fashion houses retreated into well-worn modi operandi and pumped out their greatest hits as sure-fire best-sellers. Christian Lacroix looked back to his first Haute Couture outing to offer his strongest ready-to-wear to date, while his contemporary Karl Lagerfeld reinvented the wheel at Chanel yet again with a Blitzkrieg of Chanelisms culled from Coco's archives and even his own work for the house. We had seen everything at Maison Martin Margiela before - but that was precisely the point, and the strength, of this astounding show. From a house based on recycling, it was perhaps natural that twenty years of work should culminate in a collection with self-reference literally worked into every single piece. What was unexpected was just how sublimely new everything managed to appear.
‘Let them eat cake', Marie Antoinette's apocryphal epitaph, could very well be a mantra for our own conspicuously consuming times, and her influence was everywhere this season - and not just in the high-piled hair. Hauling handbags costing more than many monthly wages into some of the most deprived areas of Paris for the shows of Margiela, McQueen and Galliano has an Ancien Regime degree of perversity, but the best of the excess managed to distract all attention from these hard times. The biggest cheers of the week came with neon leopard-print at Lanvin, ruffled ballgowns at Giambattista Valli and Maison Martin Margiela's giant walking wedding cake. Recession? What recession.
Fashion is projecting us into space, while pulling us back to prehistory. It is proposing the 1780s and the 1980s as alternative vantage-points, sometimes simultaneously, excess rubbing shoulders with entire collections of basic black. The only similarity in this rag-bag of trends, it seems, is their disparity - not only from each other, but from the nitty-gritty, harsh reality of the here and now. This season has been overwhelmingly about thrusting our heads into the sand and longing to escape - into the future, into the past, into fantasies of financial stability and frivolity. The idea of black, even, was more often than not underscored with highfalutin conceptual conceits that escaped from the financial demands (and risks) of the fashion business into art. And so it should be. Fashion is a fantasy. Nevertheless, the best collections of the season managed to still focus on the tricky, tricksy issue of what women will not only want to wear but will be willing to buy in a time of general belt-tightening (and not just above those ever-present peplums). Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent did it by minimalising the maximal, making Orientalism slick, spare and chic and continuing in his own distinct vein. Alexander McQueen did it by utilising the past to invent the future, managing to avoid the clichés of costume in either extreme. And in a final coup de foudre, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin did it by offering exquisitely made daywear walking a tense line between restraint and excess that then exploded with gem-encrusted accessories and precious jewel-coloured evening dresses with an inexplicable, instinctive jolt of wanton desire that had been so lacking. Finally, a reality worth dreaming about.