The colours of money: Designers fight credit crunch gloom in Paris

On the Paris catwalks, designers turned to fantasy and even humour for an uplifting antidote to hard times. And the effect was exhilarating, writes Susannah Frankel

On the notes for Vivienne Westwood's Gold Label collection, shown in Paris last week, it said: "In these hard times – dress up", and the words could be a mantra for the season as a whole. A week watching eye-wateringly expensive clothing pass by was unsettling, if not plain disturbing, given the economic climate. Small wonder, then, that the world's greatest designers appeared, in their own individual way, to be grappling with that, too, whether by pragmatism, escapism or pure excess.

Make do and mend

"[Wear a] necklace of safety pins, badges, shawls, blankets, tablecloths, curtains, tweeds..." Westwood continued. It is a measure of this designer's audacity that she then proceeded to demonstrate how such homespun fashion might best be done. And so men's boxer shorts were worn as eveningwear, while handkerchiefs became knickers ("good for disco or beach"), great swathes of opulent material were wrapped around bodies to ever more dramatic effect. If this is a look many of us had seen before, it has its roots here. Westwood's formative years were spent evoking everything from prostitution to piracy, all with this proudly naive, DIY spirit.

Fancy a carrier bag miraculously transformed into a body with characteristically fierce shoulders? Or how about a fur coat made out of platinum-blonde wigs? Nobody in fashion history is as adept where the transformation of apparently mundane objects into clothing of great style – and, significantly, humour – as Martin Margiela, whose philosophy has also always relied upon the upholding of artisan techniques. While rumours of this designer's imminent retirement continued to circulate, his creative energy showed no signs of waning. For this, his 20th-anniversary show, the designer revisited many of his most resonant pieces. The original, and by now famous, cigarette-shouldered jacket was printed in negative on to jersey or plaster cast. The ghost of a pair of distressed jeans was sprayed on to a white catsuit. Dresses were made out of adhesive tape, and shoes were worn either too big or too small. To describe this show as idiosyncratic would not do it justice. Margiela's unparalleled powers of invention and reinvention live on.

Yohji Yamamoto began his career stating that he was inspired by Japanese workwear, and he has maintained that viewpoint to ever more poetic effect. His was a simple – and extremely beautiful – collection focusing on the type of languid tailoring that he cuts more finely than perhaps any other designer. That came this time in patchworked fabrics of humble origin embellished with nothing more obviously luxurious than tiny white chalk marks.

Back to the future, Part One

In times of trouble, flee the planet. But make sure to do so dressed to impress. Nicolas Ghesquière's collection for Balenciaga brought to mind the world's most beautiful aliens, their ever more ambitious wardrobe dancing with light. Retro-futurism was again the order of the day here, this time in the form of bell-shaped dresses that seemed almost colourless and appeared to bloom from perfectly formed hearts at breastbone-level. More opulent tubular gowns were created out of woven metallic ribbon that rippled like liquid as models walked. Crystal fringing, Fortuny-style pleated jackets as intensely coloured as tropical fish, and tailoring in intricate panels of bicoloured leather with belts snaking around hips all appeared to be saying: copy me if you dare.

Now more than ever, budget retailers will have their work cut out for them when they attempt to do so, as they inevitably will.

Back to the future, Part Two

After more than 30 years at the helm of the Comme des Garçons label, Rei Kawakubo is the most consistently pioneering name in fashion. This time, the designer chose to reflect upon her own archive as a starting point from which to propose a vision that was all new. Her collection was an exploration of "the future of black", she said, which isn't necessarily black at all. The effect of circular volumes on that inky hue, achieved through the moulding of patchwork hexagons, of shading evoked by tailoring sprouting feathers of nylon, of highlighting in the form of transparent polyvinyl collars trimmed with stiff frills and insets of white and silver, were all part of the story. Add to that flat, mannish shoes, coated in more vinyl, towering white wigs and a pumping Brazilian-carnival type soundtrack, and the overall effect was confrontationally dark and uncompromising in a way that only this designer knows how.

"The future is now," said Hussein Chalayan, for his part. "Every second you live is the future." This was the designer's first collection produced with the support of Puma, and the solid infrastructure that the major sportswear brand has to offer has clearly had a positive effect on this proudly creative talent. Chalayan's collection, too, was a look back at his own history. Moulded dresses with sprouting fins, and a preoccupation with both the elements and aerodynamics are all familiar territory from which springs subtly feminine clothing that is remarkable for its lack of historical reference. Most startling were the prints. "Car graves," Chalayan explained. "We went and photographed them, then spliced them together."

The great escape

If intergalactic travel is not on the agenda, a trip to Africa might enliven the spirit, according to Junya Watanabe. The vibrantly colourful prints in this collection were reworked versions of originals sourced in that continent, but never appeared too literally ethnic. Instead, they were plaited and folded around the body in signature style, and worn over vintage denim, plaid, gingham and, most sweetly, crisp white broderie anglaise.

Watanabe is, of course, part of the aforementioned Comme des Garçons stable, and so, too, is Tao Kurihara. "Love uniform" was this young designer's message for the forthcoming spring/summer, and who could fail but be charmed by toy-soldier jackets, sweet striped separates and floral-print, puffed-sleeved blouses teamed with bloomers (yes, bloomers) that whispered of halcyon days and Elysian Fields?

Gilt (and guilt) free dressing

So far, so inspirational. If the overall message at the Paris collections was that creativity flourishes in the face of hardship, all that remained to be seen was what, on a day-to-day basis, might a modern woman like to wear?

The answer to that question, quite possibly, is: Dries Van Noten. It is surely not insignificant that the Belgian designer chose, this time, to limit the opulent embroideries and painterly flourishes for which he is famous in favour of a more obviously metropolitan wardrobe. It featured relaxed tailoring borrowed from menswear, and apparently simple, loose, silk shift dresses in subtle and surprising colour combinations that were as adaptable to any occasion as the woman they are designed for. "We associate modernism with coldness and sterility," said a spokesperson for the label. "We wanted to juxtapose that with the warmth of couture." So city shorts and a shirt were worn with a silver coat encrusted with sequins, and optical prints were smudged at the edges. The result was luxurious yet wearably understated.

If any label epitomises Parisian elegance, it is Yves Saint Laurent. The eponymous designer died earlier this year, of course, but it is good to see that his spirit remains intact in the hands of the label's current creative director, Stefano Pilati. With its jewel-coloured sequins sewn on to mousseline, and brave emphasis on harem trousers, this collection evoked exotic climes but always with the utmost restraint. Pilati's commitment to modernity and the creation of a contemporary designer wardrobe for a woman who understands fashion but would rather not flaunt the fact, is unsurpassed.

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