Chanel provides the fire, McQueen the ice
"Icy, regal, beautiful," said the designer Sarah Burton of her second collection for the house of Alexander McQueen. And it was all of those things. With gleaming armoured heads and delicate, pale faces, models stalked the historic loggias of the Conciergerie, the prison where Marie Antoinette awaited the guillotine, in finely wrought clothing that was as inspired as it was empowering.
It is now just over a year since the man who founded this label died but the values of craftsmanship and the innovative manipulation of fabric that were so important to him were upheld by Burton, his right-hand woman of 14 years. The silhouette too was a mark of respect for her mentor: a nipped-in waist, high peaked shoulder and skirts either bell- or pencil-shaped were a well-judged and sensitive move forward.
In many ways, this was the stuff of the haute couture atelier over and above the ready-to-wear and the collection was all the more romantic for that: ivory organza was embroidered with tiny pearls; fragments of hand-painted bone china covered bodices to spectacular, but never ostentatious, effect. The McQueen woman is as fragile and refined as she is strong and raw and, with this in mind, delicate ruffled chiffon, pleated and embroidered with pearls, was worn with leather horse harnessing; a structured, almost muscular torso dissolved into a cloud of feathers or fluff from the waist down.
At Chanel the message that creative director Karl Lagerfeld wanted to put across was one of change. At this show earlier in the day models dressed in neo-Gothic finery emerged from a monolithic (and of course branded) bright white door into a smokescreen of dry ice and on to a raw-wood catwalk surrounded by lava. If the mise en scene was somewhat otherworldly, the clothes were very much grounded in reality. Chanel's twice-yearly ready-to-wear collections are always a high point on the fashion calendar – if only for the scale of the production and blatant flexing of muscle – but this time around the look was clearly aimed at a younger, more street-wise fashion follower too.
The Chanel boucle wool suit – that archetypal symbol of the bourgeois fashion establishment – came layered over ultra-skinny jeans. Sequinned jackets of the sort a society grande dame might like to wear were worn over slouchy black masculine tailoring. Trousers were wide-legged and low-slung, the most delicate lace jumpsuit had industrial leather pockets toughening it up to highly desirable effect and boots with oversized cuffs were of the sort a particularly strident woman might march in.
The mood in fashion is changing. The sight of a waif-like female stepping out in a heavily embellished, barely-there cocktail dress now seems dated. Lagerfeld's status as the last of the great, traditionally trained couturiers is undisputed. He is also enough of a modernist, however, to respond to the zeitgeist and his reaction made for impressive viewing.
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