Intimacy and spectacle are notions oft perceived at loggerheads in contemporary fashion. Is a fashion show for the invited few, or for the millions watching at home? And is it even worth trying to satisfy both of them at once? Chanel used to show in their couture salon on the Rue Cambon - they’ve given over the space this evening to a party to celebrate the British fashion biannual AnOther Magazine’s fifteenth year. I don’t just mean Coco, but Lagerfeld, who unveiled his first haute couture show there in 1983. Today, Lagerfeld shows his collections to thousands in the Grand Palais - French for “big palace” - a vast glass-domed exposition hall.
But this season, Chanel created intimacy. They pulled 2,400 seats in parallel ranks, the models meandering between. It was big, but also small: Chanel’s super-sized salon was about the size of a football field, and yet you could hear the clink of the pearls as the models walked by.
It made me think of pleasing most of the people, most of the time, which Chanel does better than most. A Chanel show stretches out, almost endlessly, the models in this instance flowing one way, then another, so it felt as if you saw two shows simultaneously. The looks slated up to about a hundred, but the frenetic pace (no couture salon ever showed clothes like these) kept the whole thing energetic, and relatively brief, businesslike. The clothes too were business as usual. This time, the Chanel tweeds in brilliant fuchsia or pale pink mixed with denim (sort of early-nineties naff that), others tricked out with leather, sequins, hardy macintosh gabardine. The models wore hard-hat versions of Chanel’s signature boater, with an equestrian chin-strip.
There was a horsey thing going on throughout, with flying capes and panels, harking back to Gabrielle Chanel’s horse-mounted lover Boy Capel. But don’t all roads lead back to Coco? This was a hasty gallop through the Chanel archives, a pillage even, sweeping up quilting and tweeds and braids and king’s ransom of fake pearls, every Chanel-ism you could think of, and re-Chanelifying them. A cardigan jacket quilted like a 2.55 handbag - a Bag Lady look, if ever I saw one? Cross-hatch lacing mimicking said cross-stitching, pearls pumped up to jumbo size, a palette of Chanel cosmetic shades, to match the nail polishes everyone was given to take home. Accessories were jumbled across each and every look - the main take-away from the season as a whole. But Chanel invented the shoulder-bag, and the notion of high-fashion costume jewellery. So, naturally, they’d do it best.
As the set attested, there was no theme bar Chanel itself. That’s enough when you’re, arguably, the most successful fashion house in the world, with a multi-faceted legacy spinning out, for decades, into a multi-billion pound empire. Chanel is privately owned and doesn’t release turnover figures - but you can take educated guesses. Namely, that big palaces don’t come cheap. If this show only trod the well-worn being carpet of the Chanel archive, as opposed to taking us somewhere new, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, in a fashion landscape currently obsessed with quick-smart constant change, permanent product drops, and instant sales. Sometimes a rest is as good as a change.
Valentino, however, was overdue the latter. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli delivered for autumn/winter 2016, in a show that finally seemed to shift the Valentino woman out of her exquisite but nonetheless restrict gilded cage of embroidery, and onto the street. Obviously that wasn’t their inspiration - there was stuff about ballet, from the Russes to New York City, which translated at its most obvious to tons of powder-pink and stub-toed balletic high heels in puckered kid leather, as well as a few tutus. Tutus, on an adult woman outside of a theatre, are a no-no.
But on the whole, the theme came across as a subtle nod rather than slapstick. Especially as, when abstracted from their context, from the criss-crossed ribbons, and perhaps being sandwiched between frothing gowns in layers of tulle (it went a little sugarplum fairy after dark), the plissé jerseys and draped panné velvet evening gowns layered over nude sweaters had a verve and vitality, and a place in a modern wardrobe. A wardrobe of an everyday everywoman, not just a priss or a princess.
Chiuri and Piccioli broadened their reach with this collection, and showcased their talents in a manner not previously seen - namely, in a way that felt real. It also felt them. In a season that has seen many a stylistic hangover, of designers cannibalising fashion magazines to give their work an extra kick by filching details from clothes offered by other designers (mostly, by Vetements), this Valentino show rang loud and clear as a creative statement in its own right, and its own voice.
Hedi Slimane’s aesthetic voice is unmistakable: short, tight, aggressively cool. Lately, it’s been ringing around the house of Saint Laurent, whether we like it or not. That strident voice, to many, is both alien to Saint Laurent, and alienating. That is if they, like I, find Slimane’s clothes cold, often emotionally void, generally a disturbing proposal of contemporary femininity. That same voice has, however, proved irresistible, to many many more. The house’s income is closing in on a billion euros, more than double the figure when Slimane's stint began in 2012.
For his latest show - rumoured, insistently, to be his last, although no official announcement has been forthcoming - Slimane pulled the audience, like Lagerfeld, in close. A Rive Gauche hôtel particulier has been renovated, over the course of Slimane’s tenure, to serve as haute couture maison. This was, to all intents and purposes, its grand unveiling to a clutch of the press. The collection was apparently not couture, although it had a feel of the stuff, of a second string haute couture house from the late eighties - Ted Lapidus, perhaps, or Jean-Louis Scherrer - in its frills and ruffles and flounces and shirring, like Tom Wolfe’s social x-rays, concupiscence plumped back onto atrophied bodies via lamé and taffetas.
In signature Slimane style, the models were very thin. But this is fashion - and the thinnest cabines (fashionese for bunch-o-models) are always at the couture. It’s cheaper to make clothes very small.
Less about the models, more about those clothes, which had a tawdry, exaggerated glamour, like fashion sketches come to life with preternaturally pointed shoulders above models’ attenuated limbs. They somehow didn’t feel as violent as Slimane’s normally do. They certainly felt less familiar, and more fashioned generally - especially those shoulders, and the opening slender trouser-suit that reminded us all of Slimane’s absolute mastery of cutting a skinny black suit. It looks so good, you wonder why he doesn’t show it off more often.
I didn't attend, because I gave up going to Saint Laurent shows, because the clothes didn't change, because I didn't like them when I saw them first time round, because I didn't feel them pertinent to a conversation about changing fashion's direction, as opposed to directing peopole into stores to buy. But I spoke to many people who did say they loved it. Not devotees, but people (actually mostly women) who haven't cared a jot for Slimane's Saint Laurent, although they may wear the more commercial pieces, like one of those skinny suits. I wonder if they - and I, because I liked it too - were reacting the revamped context, to Slimane showing in the salon and giving his to date hard and distant Saint Laurent a touch of that intimacy we are perhaps starting to crave. That even came across in the pictures I saw online, as did the retrospective elements (Saint Laurent rabidly tweeted facts about the presentation, rattling off their historical antecedents).
Were the clothes really such an enormous leap from what Slimane has been offering? Or, indeed, what other designers have shown before - namely Christophe Decarnin, the former head of Balmain who showed these gruyere-wedged shoulder-pads and groin-throttling hemlines half a decade before Slimane, and got cool girls excited enough to part with cash for them back then? Not really.
The final jacket emerged in tumescent red mink: viewed from the back, it was the shape of a bloated heart. But who was it declaring love for? Perhaps the love was womankind, in this womenswear collection shown on the eve of International Women’s Day? The combination of a treacherous marble staircase and stilettos suggests, maybe, not. Or for Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent - whose former partner Pierre Berge and close friends Betty Catroux and Catherine Deneuve leant their support, to this show staged in-the-style-of, with no soundtrack and skinny little couture chairs for each attendee? That context gave the clothes a certain dignity that has hitherto been lacking. It made its possible for people to love them, certainly. Or maybe the heart was just for Slimane, and the commercial triumph of his brand of Saint Laurent?
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