Robin Givhan: Paris Begins With Rookies to Watch and Dries Van Noten

Photo: Imaxtree

The Paris collections always begin with the least known designers presenting their collections first and larger brands showing later. The big boys — and the occasional girl — serve as the grand finale, building anticipation along the way.

This schedule is a reflection of professional development as designers move from fresh-faced entrepreneurs to sure-footed veterans to established commercial entities — ones that are often more focused on maintaining brand identity than they are about crafting something new. That’s not a snub of legacy brands; it’s a reflection of the marketplace. A Chanel customer doesn’t want a reinvention of her beloved quilted handbags and signature jackets; she wants more Chanel.

As a result, the more surprising, idealistic, and fearless work often serves as the appetizer here in France.

Take Nicolas Andreas Taralis, who decided “it was the perfect opportunity to try something different.” He told folks this as they filled a giant black loft, tripping over the floor’s ridges in pitch-blackness. He chose video as his medium and larger-than-life models moved to and fro on a series of white screens. A dull roar, like the revving of a jet engine, rumbled on a soundtrack and was interspersed with a beep-beep-beep akin to a life-support mechanism. The models wore languid black-and-white trousers — sometimes cut with high waists — and cropped, open-back tops.

There was nothing revolutionary either in the clothes or the presentation — perhaps next time — although both were quite pleasant. Still there was the unspoken understanding that this is when something exciting and different might happen. These are the moments of possibility, when fashion might uncover a new way of presenting its wares or engaging the viewer.

The designer Cédric Charlier is another of those relatively new names kicking off the spring 2014 collections in this city. When he debuted his line in February 2012, he did so with significant experience, most recently from Cacharel where he gave that brand a jolt of energy. He’d also worked in the ateliers of Lanvin and Céline. When he introduced his own collection, he had a fully formed aesthetic that was grounded in sober lines but leavened with bursts of color and seductive textures.

His latest show reflected the often contradictory but also complementary aspects of a woman’s personality. He began with unfettered tailoring — generously cut coats in black and navy with deconstructed lapels, roomy trousers cropped to mid-calf, and an attitude that was serious without being dour. Then he moved onto easy-flowing dresses in blocks of inky black and ivory, with brushstrokes of fiery orange. Transparent insets allowed for a flirtatious, shadowy view of the skin below.

He finished with enticing evening options, each frosted with matte sequins in shades of cherry red, sea-foam green (the only time this season when that color has not looked wan and washed out), and black. The paillettes covered a strapless dress, a T-shirt, a pair of high-waist trousers, and a loose-fitting skirt. The simple shapes were balanced by intricate adornment.

Charlier set out to dress a woman from her workday, through her evening, and on into the night. Designers often claim this as their goal, but typically end up creating a wardrobe for a woman whose workday involves flutes of Champagne and her own reality show. Charlier accomplished his mission with restraint and ebullience, strong tailoring, and easy draping.

Anthony Vaccarello possesses admirable technique as well. But he could have cut at least one dress that did not look as if it were meant to evoke sex in dingy, dark, unsanitary places. If only he could be so kind as to give his audience a break from his “temptress” aesthetic, which often felt as oddly old-fashioned as the word itself. Who is the woman who wants to wear a red leather dress cut down to the belly with straps wrapping around her thighs? It’s the kind of look evocative of sexuality defined as showmanship — cheap, easy, rather dull — instead of as confidence.

Even through the air of skeezy sex appeal, it was clear that the clothes were well made. And, yes, it takes a certain skill to create a minidress with a train of black lace that is stitched to give the impression that it is forever trapped between the wearer’s legs.

Most of these designers want to be Dries Van Noten — a designer who has built a substantial private business utterly in his control by crafting clothes that speak to his distinctive vision and whose fashion presentations can accommodate hundreds of people yet still manage to be intimate.

Van Noten unveiled his spring collection in a warehouse the size of an airplane hangar. He needed the space because his audience sat on shallow bleachers all facing toward the empty blackness. Musician Colin Greenwood of Radiohead strummed an electric bass as the models walked single file. They wore golden vests and skirts rimmed in arching ruffles. Their dresses exploded with the curve, angles, and layers of ruffles. The coats, sometimes with the sleeves hacked off, were embroidered with colorful flowers – sometimes in reverse with the raw threads hanging on the outside and the precious flowers hidden in the lining. Several of the prints, notably an oversize field of tulips, were reproductions of those found in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, where Van Noten will have an exhibition in 2014.

Sometimes the ruffles on the skirts overwhelmed the models. Sometimes they were so stiff that they added unflattering inches to the width of hips. And sometimes, the heavy fringe hemming the pullovers or coats looked static and folkloric, rather than fashionable.

But mostly the collection had the quality of gilded traditions. Embroidery and weaving passed down through history from indigenous people and coated with modern-day glamour. Yes, those traditions have been admired before, as well as exploited and diffused. But in Van Noten’s hands, they were rendered as treasures.

By the end of the show, the models had all lined up against a luminous abstract backdrop facing the audience. Van Noten took his bows. And then … nothing. The models did not move. They remained in place as the audience stood to leave, allowing guests to come closer and examine the embroidery, the damask, and the gracefully hanging silk threads.

Van Noten opened the door to his world, one he has spent decades building in Paris. And now his guests had a chance to enter and linger.

Robin Givhan: Paris Begins With Rookies & Dries