Sit at the Café Castiglione long enough on a rainy night, and you hear everything. I’ve been there, on and off, since 1988, when that stretch of the Rue Saint-Honoré was mostly perfume and dusty antique-jewelry shops, and I’ve heard my share. Last night someone said, of an influential Paris designer, “He used to design for the future; now, he designs for three weeks out.”
I shrugged. “Three weeks is a long time,” I said. But I saw my friend’s point. Fashion depends on anticipation and theater. It likes a prophet with the precision of Saint Laurent in 1967, Helmut Lang around 1990, Raf Simons in 1997–98, Nicolas Ghesquière at the turn of the century, and Phoebe Philo after she took over Céline in 2008. But instead of getting something new and unexpected, we too often get the equivalent of a coin flip. Like the tough motorcycle leathers that are this season’s counter to the sweet femininity of spring (Chloé). Flip. Body-swallowing volumes and ominous globes of matted hair sheltering models’ heads — I’m thinking of Rick Owens’s rather bleak collection, entitled Mastodon, which followed his uplifting spring show, with its crisply draped tunics and no warning of extinction. Flip.
Fashion has long swung between extremes. The moment everyone is sick of fantasy, they crave realism. “I want to make photographs of very elegant women taking the grit out of their eyes, or blowing their noses, or taking the lipstick off their teeth,” Cecil Beaton said in 1938. The trouble is, of course, that the pace is now faster, the rate of obsolescence higher, and the time to develop an idea — never mind to dream and explore — more severely limited. This has all put constraints on creative designers, even those who, like Owens, are not part of a big luxury-goods machine and, in theory, have more freedom. I can understand the skepticism that some people have toward Vetements, that its posture of disruption mingled with angst feels a little calculated, although my own view is that the brand’s creators are really good at product — all those twisted sweatshirts, the perfectly crafted trench coats, the flashy stiletto heels inspired by plastic cigarette lighters — and don’t regard themselves as prophets.
Still, if you step away from your little fashion corner of Paris or New York, you begin to see there’s a pattern and even a logic to the way things are at the moment, in particular the lack of ideas that lift you toward the future. As the Belarusian author and journalist Svetlana Alexievich said last year, in accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, “A time full of hope has been replaced by a time of fear. The era has turned around and headed back in time. The time we live in now is secondhand …” She was talking about her country and Russia, but I think the sentiment is a good framework for understanding other things.
The pall over the season also comes from the fact that two major houses, Dior and Lanvin, are looking for new creative directors, and it’s far from clear who might be eligible for those jobs. Dior’s design team handled the fall collection and they did a solid job. The company put up an enormous pavilion in a courtyard of the Louvre, with mirrors inside and out; the models appeared to be walking through a tunnel that stretched on forever — a worthy metaphor for the ambitions of Dior, which next year celebrates its 70th anniversary.
The high point of the show — well, there were two — was the variations on the classic Bar jacket, in black wool, with short skirts and one graceful, below-the-knee style in crêpe that looked particularly fresh. Shown with low-heeled oxfords, the Bar suits sometimes had asymmetrical or slightly exaggerated peplums. The effect was breezy — in other words, not too “suit-y.” There were also cute mini coats in black wool, which, like much of the collection, followed the style set down by Raf Simons, who left Dior last October. Embroidered printed tops were mixed with dark slim skirts. If there was a fault, it was the lack of an ultrafeminine statement for evening. The design staff seemed to want to err on the modest side. But the other high point of the show was the bags — scaled-up wallets that have multiple compartments (presumably for cell phones) and, best of all, a compact, box-shaped bag on a short, wide strap that was entirely embroidered in spangles or in a mix of different skins.
Frenetic has described the Loewe collections since the British designer Jonathan Anderson took over, though yesterday he tried to calm things down a bit by playing a recording of a hypnosis session for smokers at the start of the show. It got a laugh. But he has settled down in more meaningful ways, too. Last season, he seemed a little eager to shock the audience with clear plastic pants and a barrage of textures. This time, though, the newness was in the silhouette — long dresses and skirts with handkerchief hems and small, fitted tops. They came in a variety of fabrics, including cotton, and they were lovely. Punching them up were looped metal bracelets, large medallions in the shape of cat faces or tribal masks, and, of course, a spree of new bags.