Staving Off Cynicism at Comme des Garçons, McQueen, and Céline

Photo: Imaxtree
Staving Off Cynicism at Comme des Garçons, McQueen, and Céline
A counterpoint to luxury-mongering.

Many designers, if they bothered to look at images from Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent show last night — motley jean jackets and trashy dresses shown with rubber waders and tiaras — will probably want to throw in the towel today and retire to Ibiza. It's not even Saint Laurent's commercial success that gets them down, but the meanness and cynicism behind it. There’s no joy, no wit, no beauty, no irony, no taste, and — dare I say — no hope expressed here. 

Now, I personally loathe the luxury-mongering world, to borrow a phrase from Flaubert. I despise the bloated shows that offer every imaginable kind of technique and precious fabric, with a bag in every model’s hand, no doubt at the behest of some brand executive motivated by the bottom line. So, I share Slimane’s evident antipathy toward luxury — not that it will prevent the company from charging a fortune for this stuff. I also concede that Slimane’s deliberately drab, scruffy looks may be a contemporary extension of Yves Saint Laurent’s belief that style should emerge from the streets and clothes shouldn’t constantly be going out of fashion. But the effort leaves a sour taste. I can understand how discouraged other designers must feel, and how powerful and infecting the cynicism is, like a worm entering a bushel of apples.

Motley jean jackets and trashy dresses shown with rubber waders and tiaras at Saint Laurent. Photo: Imaxtree

I like to think that the standard of designers like Phoebe Philo of Céline, and Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, and the great, unyielding Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons will prevail. I could name some men as well, but I won't. Let’s stick with the women, because we all know they get a bit of a raw deal in this business. Far-less-talented male designers are often the first proposed for top jobs, because of some perceived extra-macho spice. But the results on the runway often disappoint (I’m thinking of the recent DKNY debut by the Public School designers).

Judging by her Sonia Rykiel collections, Julie de Libran could revive almost any label. She has given Rykiel, a knitwear house with a Left Bank flavor of classy revolt, a fresh look. In yesterday’s show, Libran moved from styles that looked lived-in, like an oversize denim-blue cardigan worn with wide-leg, faded jeans, to the slightly campy, like brightly colored sequined dresses (some of which appeared to be knitted). Libran’s proposal for Rykiel isn’t large, but it fits comfortably within the scale and charms of the label.

An oversize denim-blue cardigan worn with wide-leg, faded jeans, to the slightly campy, like brightly colored sequined dresses. Photo: Imaxtree

Veronique Branquinho’s fashion rarely looks manipulated. Though tailored suits with see-through panels were not successful, long day dresses in tiny floral prints or layers of jersey done in wide panels of cream, pistachio, pink, and brown were lovely. They conveyed her ability to design clothes that are feminine and graceful but also slightly disdainful of too much prettiness. It’s a rare gift. She also has a flair for medieval or ceremonial gestures, like a long robe overlaid with a macramé vest, its streamers spilling to the hem.

Long day dresses in tiny floral prints, tailored suits with see-through panels, and a long robe overlaid with a macramé vest at Veronique Branquinho. Photo: Imaxtree

A friend of mine observed on Twitter that Philo’s new clothes for Céline were not merely woman-friendly and practical; they were also stylish. Women crave style, and they know it when they see it. The Céline show was loaded with such items, like the go-anywhere dresses in washed linen that zip up the front and have rolled-up, puffy sleeves. That was the missing ingredient in Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski’s show for Hermès. Though much less stilted than her debut six months ago, the collection lacked those one or two styles that make your heart leap. Also, there’s a comme il faut quality to her handsome tailoring and pleated dresses (in suede or leather spliced with silk) that, despite the addition of Hermès sneakers, is out of sync with the pace of today. I wish, in fact, that Vanhee-Cybulski would take a page from Véronique Nichanian, Hermès’s super-talented men’s designer. Nichanian knows how to make luxury clothes look relaxed and effortless — and not a little sexy for it. Her counterpart at women’s needs more of that indifference.

Handsome tailoring and pleated dresses at Hermès. Photo: Imaxtree

After her terrific McQueen show, Burton explained her references, but the ring of reporters was so thick that all I caught were “17th century ... Huguenots … weavers …” Somehow sensing that I didn’t wish to put her through the spiel again, Burton, laughing, broke it down: “Just threw on some charms and washed the fabrics.”

That’ll do. Burton didn’t need footnotes for her many long dresses and coats, some in what looked like washed ecru linen damask. One beauty featured a high collar, a wide ribbon belt that closed just above the waist, puffed sleeves, and an ample skirt. Others were of washed pinkish taffeta embroidered with flowers, a pattern that recalled 17th-century court dress. There’s a distinct pastoral wind blowing through fashion and Burton and Philo both caught it, though to different effect. But the key change at McQueen is that Burton dropped the heavy costume drama, like rigid skirts and masks. There is still historicism, but it’s lighter and more human.

Seventeenth-century-inspired dresses and coats at Alexander McQueen. Photo: Imaxtree

While in the Comme des Garçons showroom to see Kawakubo’s creations up close, I ran into Olivier Saillard, the costume curator, and he said, “When I was at Rei’s show, I felt like I was looking back at a world that is ending.”

The thing is, he said, fashion is preoccupied with other concerns. The business is not producing, much less nurturing, designers who, like Kawakubo, “Just do an idea just to do it.” In her latest collection, called Blue Witches, Kawakubo created shapes that only nominally resembled coats and dresses. To me, the almost-regal shapes and rich tones were incredibly optimistic. The materials were predominantly synthetic velvet, feathers, a prickly fabric that resembled the back of a hedgehog, and a leopard-spotted fabric. This last, Kawakubo turned into an object that made me think of a greatly swollen designer trench coat, its lapels and pockets thrown wildly out of their natural order. Another piece evoked the outline of a slope-shoulder Poiret cloak, though I doubt Kawakubo, at this stage, is at all conscious of what disparate ideas seep into her work. 

In her latest collection, called Blue Witches, Kawakubo created shapes that only nominally resembled coats and dresses. Photo: Imaxtree

Nor does she care if we notice or fawn over her creations. Pointing to a black tree-trunk-like piece, with its pointy top edge half-hiding the face, I remarked to Kawakubo that it was strangely elegant and austere. I then said I wanted to wear it around Paris, with a small, neat crown of hair.

She shot me a look that said, Why? and then she resumed her tasks in the showroom.

In the current issue of French Vogue, there is an interview with Kawakubo that says a lot. Well, it says everything. When asked how she would like to be remembered when she’s gone, she replied:

“I have no need to be remembered. Posterity does not interest me.”

It’s a worthy thing to consider if you want to stay not merely strong but also free.