paris fashion week

Two of the Best Fall Collections Have Something in Common

Nadège Vanhee at Hermès and the Olsens at The Row reflect a similar drive and grit.

From left: Hermès, The Row, Co Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: FILIPPO FIOR/Courtesy of Hermes; Jamie Hawkesworth/Courtsey of The Row; Courtesy of Co
From left: Hermès, The Row, Co Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: FILIPPO FIOR/Courtesy of Hermes; Jamie Hawkesworth/Courtsey of The Row; Courtesy of Co

In 1905, Hermès was expanding its saddle production, and it acquired Maison Hennegrave, a maker of horse blankets. Horses, carriages, and horse-drawn public omnibuses were still the mode of transportation in Paris, as everywhere. Three sisters were working as seamstresses for the blanket firm and joined Hermès. Soon, one of the sisters, Eugenie Eve, decided she’d like a change, and she became the first leather craftswoman at Hermès, remaining there until 1941.

Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the artistic director at Hermès and a member of the family that owns the company, told me the story of Eugenie Eve and shared a photo of her, turned out in a leather coat and cap, as she stood next to her Dollar motorcycle, a French model, by the side of a rural road. The date is 1929, the same year Eve won a gold medal from the French Exhibition in Cairo for leatherwork.

“How relevant is that!” Dumas said in an email. “Long live bikers!”

The women’s designer for Hermès, Nadège Vanhee, had just shown her fall collection of leather jumpsuits and blazers taken from the cut and details of saddles and motorbiking gear. Still, it’s always good to be reminded of the self-determined lives that women led, especially in light of the fact that the vote came late for many (in France, 1944).

Hermès Photo: FILIPPO FIOR/Courtesy of Hermes

In a long and dynamic ready-to-wear season, which concludes tonight with Louis Vuitton, two of the best collections — by Vanhee and The Row’s Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen — reflect a similar drive and grit. Let’s not call it courage; this is fashion. Or, as Bill Blass once remarked, never use the words “fashion” and “important” in the same sentence if you want to be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, these three women set an example by the kind of clothes they make, the ways they imagine female beauty, and how they control their image, indeed their world. The publicity-averse Olsens attracted attention last week when they asked that no one take photos during their show, held in their Paris offices. Instead, they gave each of their 150 or so guests a Japanese-made notebook and a Blackwing pencil to jot down impressions of the 30 outfits they presented. On Monday, they finally released images of the collection, taken in-house by the well-regarded photographer Jamie Hawkesworth.

The Row Photo: Jamie Hawkesworth/Courtesy of The Row

You could say the Olsens were being control freaks or pretentious. But, in practice, they were merely doing what other designers, at corporate brands, say they wish they could: Slow things down. Bring the attention closer to the product and not to the stuff that surrounds fashion. And the Olsens didn’t lose anything by their decision. On the contrary, because of the delay in producing the images (Hawkesworth shoots in film), there was time to make an appointment and see the clothes up close. They are superb in design and craftsmanship, that much better than they were a year ago, when I wrote that the Olsens had really upped their quality. And even for successful businesswomen like the Olsens, it’s not easy to get the look and the life you want in fashion — unless you control every aesthetic decision, down to the brand of pencil.

Hermès is obviously a much bigger and more renowned organization, but the attention is focused on product — to a degree not shared, perhaps, by its competitors. And its designers of clothing and fashion accessories are essentially free to design what they feel is relevant. Among the most striking aspects of Vanhee’s collection are the things you couldn’t see clearly, if at all, on the runway.

Like the leather jumpsuits, based partly on a biker’s coverall. (Vanhee made a research trip to Lewis Leathers, the motorcycle-gear supplier, in London.) Shown under crisp poplin raincoats with brown leather cuffs and collars, the belted suits have a concealed zip in front for a snug fit. But undo the half-belt and put on sneakers, and the suit assumes a street attitude.

Hermès Photo: FILIPPO FIOR/Courtesy of Hermes

Other details that aren’t so obvious include ribbed knits (some mixed with tiny strips of leather) that mimic long johns; wool or leather blazers whose shapely lines were inspired by the curve a saddle seat; and a pair of leather jackets, one in off-white and the other in dark brown, that are paneled with long, fine fringe. It looks like horsehair, but it’s ostrich feathers, dyed and embroidered by the top feather workshop in Paris.

Vanhee also featured in this understatedly cool show subtly printed or embellished (with smocking or tiny horn beads) dresses in silk Georgette. With long sleeves, they have a relevant if subtle detail — a kind of gentleman’s cravat at the neck. Vanhee says she was referencing dandies.

There’s a formality running through women’s fashion. You could see it in the morning coats at Loewe, in the discretion of a black pencil skirt at The Row woven with wool and fine ribbon and shown with a white shirt and heels, and even in some of the jaunty looks at Chitose Abe’s Sacai. It’s not a dressiness, and it’s not “elevated.” It’s beyond fashion. And it’s easy to adapt on almost any budget.

The Row Photo: Jamie Hawkesworth/Courtesy of The Row

In addition to that rustic, ribbon-woven skirt, the outstanding looks at The Row were a scoop-neck dress in the same black weave with raw edges and a wispy underlayer of cream tulle around the neck that hinted of lingerie; a navy cashmere coat over copper-striped Turkish trousers; a tan poplin coat with a high collar and sweeping volume (for the show, the model wore a full skirt underneath to puff it out); and a brown, lightweight wool suit jacket with raw edges and a lining finished with a wide band of white fabric and an identical notched collar, also white.

So the jacket looked doubled, and the white fabric nearly had the texture of muslin — the material used in couture to make toiles, or first fittings. The Olsens did something similar with a jacket in paper-thin brown leather. The doubling and the couture feeling was a nice effect, and it showed the toughness of the Olsens to not only do things the way they want but do them better.

Co Photo: Courtesy of Co

Stephanie Danan of Co, founded more than a decade ago in Los Angeles, has made huge strides in bringing a more European feeling to her minimalist aesthetic. Because of the response from retailers, she has more leather in the line, in black and brown as well as burnt orange, deep blue, and mulberry, with leather shirts as well as coats. Despite Co’s modest size, Danan has caught or anticipated several trends, including a dark wool jacket with a closure that creates a simple double effect; a high-collared coat; and a terrific black slim wrap skirt with asymmetrical silk fringe. The “wrap” is more or less an illusion. Danan’s design team — already based in Europe — gave two side panels to the skirt that you just bring to the front and button at the waistband. Co is also loaded with great separates, like wide-collared shirts in crisp lilac or white viscose.

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Two of the Best Fall Collections Have Something in Common