Play on, Paris

The front rows in the French capital were alive with rumours, but the designers just got on with being imaginative, saysSusannah Frankel
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. In a season dogged by intrigue, this could be a mantra, both on the catwalk and beyond it.

And so, in place of summer’s vibrant colour and print comes a predominantly dark palette – plum, burgundy, emerald, violet, grey and more black than has been seen for a very long time – and references to S&M and fetish aplenty. Leather, latex and lace are the prevalent fabrics.

There’s an elegant – even uptight – sensibility across the board. “Sophisto-slut,” said Giles Deacon of his collection for Ungaro, neatly nailing a mood where the appeal of the archetypal sexually repressed grande bourgeoisie, Belle de Jour, continues to resonate. It’s a cliché, but the way designers reinvent it speaks volumes.

More than any of his contemporaries, Marc Jacobs captures the zeitgeist and his show for Louis Vuitton was an extraordinary display of virtuosity and power. The Night Porter, Allen Jones, Yves Saint Laurent, and, of course, the high-camp posturing that is all this designer’s own, were on display and so were the trends: the moulded, predominantly patent, leather (gleaming corsetry); the rubber (stack-heeled rainboots); the colours (Gothic); the silhouette (skinny on the bottom half, voluminous on the top). And the respect for pioneering technique and hand-craftsmanship, which were everywhere in the French fashion capital, all came together here. While more than a few designers keep accessories to a minimum on the catwalk, feeling, somehow, that they detract from the importance of their designs, Jacobs bombards his followers with them, safe in the knowledge they form the backbone of an overcrowded market and, for this particular brand, are of vital importance.

If audacity is key here, then a more discrete opulence was on display at Dries Van Noten, where the silhouette remained, for the most part, strict and narrow but fabric and print – all exclusive to the label – ensure the loyal customer knows she is in possession of something extremely special. Starting quietly and building up to ever more intricate and lovely effect, this show also pulled in a masculine tailoring influence that is overarching and which Van Noten does very well. As far as mixing different weights, weaves and prints together, often in a single garment, he is a master. Sarah Burton’s second collection for Alexander McQueen demonstrated a similar attention to surface detail and workmanship – fabrics were handwoven and engineered to suit just a single garment.

The McQueen woman was an “ice queen”, according to the designer, regal and untouchable in highly structured designs, which degraded into feathers, fur and fine wool tufts from the waist down. Gleaming zips, horse harnessing and an ultra-high heel finished with a vicious metal spike ensured this collection upheld the values of the McQueen name and the play between hard and soft, power and vulnerability, in particular. There was nothing much vulnerable about Karl Lagerfeld’s woman at Chanel.

She stomped out of her (branded) spaceship in army boots with oversized tweedy cuffs, slouchy trousers and jumpsuits in the finest lace but finished with leather or padded nylon to youthful and don’t-mess-with-me effect. Always among the most confident shows on the international schedule, as befits the status of the world-famous name, this time it was exceptional: with a younger sensibility and all the better for that.

The new Ungaro woman is also quite fierce, sporting Lesage embroidered wolves and birds of prey, peak shoulders, tooled-leather jackets and trousers and armoured neck-pieces. The designer Giles Deacon took quintessentially Parisian flourishes – from Folies Bergères marabou feathers to peek-aboo sheer panelling – and invested them with a more street-fashion edge. “Are there any pythons left in the world?” wondered one commentator this week, not entirely unreasonably given the prevalence of snake, which, in the end, appeared less-than-exclusive for its ubiquity.

The same might be said of leather were it not for designers’ more imaginative treatment of that skin. Junya Watanabe, in particular, moulded brown and black hide in ever more inventive ways – padded, moulded, heavy as an authentic biker but with a wasp waist or light as a feather in the form of draped skirts and dresses. The woman here, too, was an impressively worldly figure, one who can run in her pointed boots should she so desire. “Tradition, technology, technique – three Ts,” was how Alber Elbaz summed up his collection for Lanvin, where, with its metal edges, play between matte fabrics and high shine, and exploration of volume, were high points.

The designer’s treatment of the notoriously difficult couture fabric, gazar, stood out – it has a life of its own and is as light as it is subtly luxurious and lovely to wear. There are few viewpoints as contemporary as Nicolas Ghesquière’s. The Balenciaga designer is as interested in moving fashion forward technically – chubby plaited leather and the standout print of the season – as he is in creating a contemporary wardrobe for women that is at once pragmatic and individual.

The proportions were easier and more relaxed than they have been, but any ease belied the virtuosity at the heart of clothing destined to be loved by a fashion-knowledgeable female more than most. With the Yves Saint Laurent archive prevalent as a reference across the board, it should come as no surprise that the label’s current creative director, Stefano Pilati, looked to it too. He understands it well and this was a great show, beautifully balancing a youthful spirit with a more liquid and sensual line befitting of a modern-day Bianca Jagger. Crêpe jumpsuits suspended from fragile collars of sheer silk were juxtaposed with moulded, trapeze-line dresses and the masculine tailoring this house’s namesake gave to women the world over. “Do my shoulders look big in this?” Absolutely, if Miuccia Prada has anything to do with it.

This designer’s collection for Miu Miu featured jackets the breadth of which would make it a struggle to fit through the average doorway. These came alongside feminine tea dresses embroidered with sprigs of cherry blossom, daisies and birds. There were also sportswear-influences, strong-shouldered blouses with contrasting collars worn with tailored trousers and a jaunty, old-school baseball cap. The woman at Miu Miu is gentle but she’s also a playful, even mischievous soul and, here too, as always, was a much-welcome injection of wit.

Given her status as godmother of the avant-garde, it’s small wonder that the Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo is rarely credited with a sense of humour. She has one, though, and it was good to see in Shirley Temple wigs, encrusted with gold, in big frilly knickers (gold again or in felted wool) and dresses made out of vintage scarves (when they go into production no two will be the same).

This collection of hybrid clothing – one half of garments was merged with an entirely different shadow of a second half – to ever more accomplished effect. It’s now 30 years since this designer emerged on the circuit and her ability to innovate shows no sign of abating: the woman who wears these clothes will look nothing short of awesome. Riccardo Tisci has by now effectively reinvented Givenchy, ensuring it is among the designer tags to see and be seen wearing. This is no small feat. His secret? An essentially Italianate sensibility – Baroque prints featuring pansies, panthers and parma violet – fused effortlessly with S&M chic, Parisianstyle.

Those who dare to wear this, his most accomplished collection to date, will exude glamour with a capital “G”. Also in Paris, designers Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli proved that the Roman couturier’s legacy is in safe hands, while Hussein Chalayan’s short film proved that there is an alternative to the blockbuster presentation; his beautiful, understated collection hung on rails alongside, enabling visitors to also see it up close. Finally, John Galliano’s scaled down presentation, in the intimate but ornate setting of a grand Parisian town-house, showcased an exquisite jewellery box of a collection that went to prove the name behind it is one of the world’s great designers despite the difficulty of current circumstances.