The main question that preoccupied the Paris fall shows, which ended this week, was how to make clothes that women will actually want to wear. Nobody asked the question that explicitly — this is still a business of smoke and mirrors, as the Louis Vuitton show demonstrated with its reflective columns and front-row lineup of young celebrities — but the clothes made everything crystal clear.
First, there was the Chanel show, held as usual in the Grand Palais. This season, instead of a mock brasserie, airport, or supermarket — all sets for recent collections — Karl Lagerfeld re-created a no-nonsense couture salon, with a front-row seat for every guest. In fact, that was the show’s title: “Front Row Only.” The arrangement brought the clothes closer to the audience, and downplayed the notion that shows are entertainment. He then backed up his theme by making clothes that were more widely accessible in style and attitude — without diluting Chanel’s high-fashion image.
This was one of Lagerfeld’s best ready-to-wear efforts in a while, and even though we sat through a whopping 93 outfits, the show moved at a pace that reflected the spirit of the clothes. The opening look, a dress and matching cropped jacket in deep-fuchsia bouclé flecked with black, set the tone for the tailoring. The fit was lean and dynamic, great for a woman who wants to look polished yet comfortable. It was shown, like many of the outfits, with low-heeled boots with panels in the same bouclé. Lagerfeld also did his version of sweatshirts (okay: more the suggestion of them), and this season’s popular khaki raincoat and tough, close-fitting sport jacket (in black leather) with a deep hood.
In other words, he found credible ways to connect Chanel to the rhythm of many women’s lives today. More casual looks with a street vibe, more gender-free outerwear, and fewer fussy evening dresses. And he still managed to soak everything in Chanel’s language and pearls.
Designers like Phoebe Philo and Demna Gvasalia, via the label Vetements and now Balenciaga, have changed the landscape of high fashion by designing clothes that are both forward-thinking and beg to be worn now. Hedi Slimane has raised Saint Laurent’s cachet among consumers by simplifying designs, and not making the brand beholden to conventional ideas of luxury or YSL’s legacy. The Paris shows have made it glaringly clear that some conceptual designers are having a hard time creating clothes that are both wearable and desirable.
I’ve loved Nicolas Ghesquière’s collections for Louis Vuitton since he became creative director two years ago. His clothes were fresh and wearable, or looked that way. But the collection he showed yesterday, while it contained plenty of wearable styles — fluid dresses in scarf prints, fuzzy sweatshirts in saturated colors, lots of pants — was basically an overstyled bunch of classics. Ghesquière said afterward that his aim this season was to rework classics, like the cropped jacket and the futuristic sports look he popularized, adding, about the show, “It’s not a big statement.”
I get what he’s saying. In fact, a lot of designers are taking the same approach. But Ghesquière isn’t giving people a new way to perceive themselves in those classics. That’s what is missing. Instead, he’s just updating the hiking boot, or the trench coat, or the Gaultier bra-cup top. As I say, he seemed on the right track with his first Vuitton collections.
Miuccia Prada is another designer who is going to have to adapt her methods to a fast-changing world. I don’t mean with her main Prada line, which depends on her conceptual brilliance. That’s Prada’s identity. But Miu Miu is plainly in a bind. It has become too expensive for what it is, and the quirky gestures are starting to make you think of a nutty aunt you’d rather avoid. With this collection, you could see that Prada was trying to bring Miu Miu closer to the main line, by doing modified versions of some of the looks she showed last month in Milan, like fur-trimmed coats, a basic military-style jacket, and argyle knits. But Miu Miu needs a more considered overhaul if it wants to stay relevant as it ages.
The designers at Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, think that people should put down their digital devices and live in the moment — have contact with people and cultural experiences. See what happens. That’s good advice, but they, too, should get out of their institutions. Their fall collection, inspired largely by ballet, used a very familiar form, not only in silhouettes and drapery, but also in the casual, layered way that dancers dress for warm-ups or during downtime. And the designers didn’t do enough to break out of it.