Paris, home of haute couture, is the city that usually ties the whole season together with a frilly bow and that last ‘surprise’ moment. This season it was all about change. Even before the Spring/Summer season kicked off all eyes were firmly on Paris, notably the houses of Dior and Saint Laurent.
I’ll admit it, just as you shouldn’t pick a favourite child, you probably shouldn't pick a favourite fashion city, but nevertheless petulant and unpredictable Paris will always be my first love. Each city has its own ‘unique’ character but if you seek adventure, ateliers and craftsmanship, such as embroidery by the delft hands of Lesage, then that ageless quest for luxury and beauty will lead you not only to the Musée d’Orsay but to the runways of Paris. Here you have the heritage houses such as Chanel and Dior; the reinventions, from Balenciaga to Balmain; and the 'visitors', those designers drawn to showing in Paris by the ‘laissez faire’ attitude of the city, Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Valentino. While Paris offers passion and intrigue for all tastes, its roots lie in fabulous luxury.
But as much as fashion is there to seduce, it should also be wearable. Take Dries van Noten, Stella McCartney, or Chloé, they know exactly who their client is, and exactly how to empower her in print, silks and cut. In this current climate, as anticipation for the ‘next big thing’ rumbles more like a hungry stomach than a kettle-drum, reliable (commercial) drama-free collections were exactly what the start of PFW needed. At Balmain, Olivier Rousteing has stepped quietly into the top cat position, but his collection by no means lacked in drama; he dipped into the era when big shoulders, power dressing and a supermodel called Linda ruled the glossies.
Fashion has always been consumed by the future, but recently the main concern has been about the line of succession: who’s doing well where, and where there might be a vacancy soon (this is, after all, an industry fuelled by gossips). When looking for a successful heir, cast your eyes to examples like Alber-Elbaz's eleven year tenure at Lanvin or Sarah Burton’s sensitive and seamless transition at McQueen. But unfortunately, in other circumstances, fashion personnel changes can be like a very big, risky and expensive game of chess.
One takeover that is being skilfully played is the transformation at Valentino, where Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli cut delicate clean lines and light youthful silhouettes, offering everything from slip dresses to signature gold studs. Chiuri and Piccioli have taken elements of Valentino and given the label a new lease of life, leaving the legend of the ‘Last Emperor’ for the man himself.
Phoebe Philo - who successfully stepped out from the shadow of Stella and her time at the House of Chloé - has transformed Céline, a brand that previously passed rapidly through the hands of Roberto Menichetti and Ivana Omazic in fours, after Michael Kors left the house, after launching the once accessories-only womenswear line, in 1997. Philo has proved the perfect fit, and has made the brand a cult label for fashionistas to worship. This season shapes were louche and loose with ‘fuzzy felt’ Birkenstocks jarring discordantly against the deliberately off-key silhouettes. The overall effect was perfection - far from the lyrics of the show's thumping theme-tune: Depeche Mode's ‘Useless’.
Aside from luxury, Paris is also notable for attracting 'the artist'. That is not to imply those with a tilted beret, canvas and oil palette, but instead those creatives who endorse ‘a new way of thinking'. Cristobal Balenciaga was a true ‘artist’, and aptly the house that bears his name still always looks to the future and offers something modern. This season Nicolas Ghesquière was channelling the artistic Spanish temperament of the house he has been guardian to since 1997. What he offered was provocative, graphic, modern and clean - thanks to plenty of ruffles and movement. The collection was sensual, skilled and covetable, as well as very true to the spirit of Balenciaga. Alber Elbaz - after celebrating a milestone decade at Lanvin last year - silkily deconstructed the tux and the spirit of classicism. Sarah Burton did the opposite – she bought a woman’s soft touch of femininity to the house of Alexander McQueen, offering hour glass wasp waists, honeycomb motifs and tortoise shell corsetry. Her collection created new signature sharp tailored looks that were both assured and seductive - a perfect uniform for Queen Bees.
Taking on a great mantle can inspire some, while others prefer to create their own paths. No one would dare take Cristobal Balenciaga’s crown. But perhaps of those showing today Rei Kawakubo has most clearly created her own? This season Comme des Garçons was inspired by ‘crushing’, as white-on-white textures and toiles played with the proportion and the puzzle of getting dressed. In an overly commercial age, it was a remainder of the craftsmanship and creativity on which fashion feeds. From Gareth Pugh, who frayed soft ruffles to create a hauntingly beautiful collection, to Maison Martin Margiela's abstraction, Paris is proof that originality can be both commercial and compelling. Look at Riccardo Tisci who, after seven years at Givenchy, has achieved an edgy ‘cult’ status for the brand once most associated with Audrey Hepburn. The week’s slickest show-meets-brand however was the ‘Escalator to Heaven’ finale by Louis Vuitton's Marc Jacobs who, after fifteen years at the house, took the iconic Damier print and cut a graphic new silhouette - mini, midi and maxi – both modern and monotoned.
So now to the big three – Chanel, Dior, St. Laurent. It's worth remembering that unlike the Olympics, gongs aren’t awarded for the shows – the real prize is the ring of the till.
Lets start with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. He knows what he is doing. He’s been designing Chanel faultlessly for thirty years. At Chanel he knows his codes, his camellia, and how to play with tweed. Spring/Summer 13 went sur la plage and, rather than pastiche Coco flapping about in the 1920s, Lagerfeld made Chanel modern and playful - what more could you ask for than a vision of prettiness, including a cult handbag and new groovy nail colour? Skirts were hoiked up and worn as dresses, hula-hoops swung as handbags and Coco’s original chapeau was given an extra exaggerated perspex brim. Wind turbans lined the runway, much like the wind of change in the city, as King Karl demonstrated best what Chanel ladies wanted – luxury, youth and energy – ‘the rest comes later’, he quipped.
As everyone knows, the house of Dior, after the Galliano Camelot era, has a new master: Raf Simons, the Belgian, minimalist-favouring menswear designer who recently vacated the top spot at Jil Sander. Opening with the strict silhouette of Le Smoking (Mr. YSL did work at Dior, but let's not get distracted), he softened the iconic bar, de-stuffing rather than de-feminising, playing with peplums, drape, double-face, as while exploring the codes of the house he had touched on for his couture debut. As much as the collection was said to be inspired by ‘liberation’, it was actually the pieces which explored ‘restriction’ that offered the most compelling elements for this new era at Dior.
Hedi Slimane, on the other hand, was playing a peculiar game of cat and mouse with the press. First he replaced the iconic logo, designed by Cassandre when the house was formed in 1961. 'Sacre Bleu' they cried, but really? You don’t think it was time for a facelift? Then the name thing – from YSL to Saint Laurent – with hindsight not as revolutionary, or as radical, as first it sounded, just badly explained. Perhaps it was a respectful nod to his mentors – Mr. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge - or maybe a declaration that this time he was going to do things the way Yves wanted? Or should that be what Hedi wanted? Mr. Yves Saint Laurent was an explosion of ideas, colour, cut and rule-breaking. He was the man who said couture was outdated and embraced the youth-quake revolution, creating clothes that sold off the peg. Big shoes to fill, then.
Could Hedi Slimane continue this legacy? This was, after all, the man who started as a smash hit in menswear, followed by a design sabbatical as a photographer. His womenswear debut took his slim signature silhouette and sliced it through the tuxedo. Black. Sharp. Sophisticated. Don’t let the big floppy hat and the pussy bow, or indeed any reference of rivalry with Dior, distract you. Slimane was focused on one thing: capturing the spirit of the house and the true meaning of ready-to-wear. The collection oscillated between Slimane and Saint Laurent, offering up greatest hits like 'the smoking', 'the safari', 'the pussy bow', 'the rock chick', from Lou Lou de la Falaise to Talitha Getty. The whole look was perfect for both Kate Moss and Betty Catroux, who, incidentally, sat front row. In Hedi’s ballad to Yves, through the language of fashion, he said all the things he admired most about his mentor. It was a lone, and frankly risky tune to play at the end of the season, but weirdly it will be something you will be humming for months. This was a collection that fitted neither expectation nor trend but, I suspect, it will most likely come to define Spring/Summer. This was fashion not trying to be couture, not trying to pick a fight, this was READY-TO-WEAR and wasn’t that what Rive Gauche was all about? Touche Éclat to all that I say.