What happens when the clothes at Paris Fashion Week are overshadowed by the women wearing them? The question, once seemingly bizarre given the dearth of diversity amidst a sea of very young, very thin and predominantly white models, is now a legitimate query. It’s also prompting some to question whether fashion has in fact begun evolving beyond size zero and age 16.
For those who deviated from the casting norm, results were mixed. At Lanvin, Alber Elbaz sent out a finale quintet of black models who looked stunning in long, silky, one shoulder dresses over pants and garnered a burst of applause upon appearance. The looks were hardly anomalies in a sporty, modern and dead-on chic collection that proves the perennially female-friendly Elbaz hasn’t lost his golden touch. Giles Deacon, on the other hand, found himself in a tougher spot for his first foray chez Emanuel Ungaro. If casting the likes of Anna Dello Russo and ’90s fave Kirsten Owen in his presentation served to acknowledge a more diverse, post-twentysomething clientele, it didn’t account for the diversity of looks—some admittedly lovely. Cumulatively, however, the collection appeared disjointed, trapped between day’s tailored separates and evening’s daisy-dotted black lace sheath and Lurex-striped knits.
Jean Paul Gaultier, meanwhile, at least spared plus-size chanteuse Beth Ditto the indignity of a Joan Jett-like mullet on his runway. Ditto’s standout performance/modeling turn aside, the show suffered, chiefly from trying to cover too many sartorial bases (’80s street, denim, nautical, showgirl, etc) without enough cohesion. Like JPG, Nicolas Ghesquière delved into both stunt casting and punk at Balenciaga, though the trio of DIY ’do-ed girls opening his show were, in fact, legit (albeit unknown) models. Leather moto jackets and vests were paired with cropped trousers and Creeper-esque flats, lending the collection much of its retro boyish aggression. Dresses covered in hand-painted sequins and lace tempered the masculine energy somewhat, while simultaneously allowing critics to marvel again at Ghesquière’s technical prowess.
The punk trope was most pronounced at Balmain, however, where Christophe Decarnin sent out a series of artfully tattered, aggro rich girl rock looks embellished with studs and safety pins. Ricardo Tisci’s take was darker at Givenchy, where zippers snaked around waistlines and laterally on dresses, while bondage straps added to the subversive vibe. Coupled with leopard—boldly printed on pants, patterned across a chiffon overskirt—the pieces collectively belied a penchant for untamed decadence. Not so at Giambattista Valli, where leopard was polished and sweet, paired collage-like with lamé on a short shift dress or trimmed with thick, white embroidery.
The focus was fruity, not feline, at Stella McCartney, where the designer featured a series of citrus prints on silk slit skirts and halter dresses. Peaking out from beneath an oversized, inky blazer, or tucked into high-waisted trousers, the look was whimsical and fresh—not to mention easier on the eyes than Prada’s bananas. Like McCartney, Stefano Pilati favored blue hues at YSL. He also peppered what many dubbed a full-on Saint Laurent tribute collection with prints—thumb prints, specifically—on sheer blouses and ruffle-trimmed wrap skirts.
While the question of whether Pilati has infused enough of his own DNA into the storied house of Saint Laurent remains debatable, Phoebe Philo continues to make Céline both covetable and very much her own. For s/s ’11 , she embraced an artisanal aesthetic, using handwoven silk, raw canvas and denim. Philo’s signature sparseness nonetheless predominated—even amidst pops of graphic color—courtesy of striping more commonly found on scarves. Karl Lagerfeld, too, sent out a collection that relied heavily upon novel craftsmanship: fabrics were distressed, edges left raw and ragged; classic suits were reconfigured and in some cases appeared purposefully disintegrated. Following a much-publicized runway reconciliation, Lagerfeld’s onetime muse, Inès de la Fressange, appeared in the Chanel show after a 20+ year absence from the designer’s inner circle. Still, yet another Lagerfeld favorite, Brad Kroenig, garnered the bulk of attention, accompanied by his two year-old, sartorial doppegänger son.
Perhaps the only designer fully incapable of seeing her collection eclipsed by models, invités, or toddlers this season was Sarah Burton. In her first outing as creative director at Alexander McQueen following the designer’s death last February, his former right hand proved herself a worthy successor. Granted, Burton has softened the edges a bit (sometimes literally, in the case of one white tail coat) using a lighter, though nonetheless skilled hand when referencing traditional McQueen tropes (butterflies, embroidery and feathers all made memorable turns). The show was one of the season’s best, and the house of McQueen stands in little danger of losing its fantasy-driven allure.
And, amidst it all, emerging designers—most notable Haider Ackermann—were willing and ready to play along with their more established peers. Whatever a label’s legacy, the Paris s/s ’11 shows illustrated that the City of Light is making a statement.