Rebels and Flourishes

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 4, 2005

PARIS, Oct. 3 -- Popular culture assumes that both men and women long to be physically attractive. A woman may seek power, demand respect and delight in her intellect, but her desire to be pretty is such a natural assumption that it goes unspoken.

Three designers who opened the spring 2006 fashion shows here pose a rhetorical question: How important is "pretty" in an industry based on appearance? The designers Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto, who showed their collections Sunday night, and Jun Takahashi, who showed his Undercover line Monday, all approach fashion from the point of view that clothes can be camouflage, they can be confrontational, and they can be a shrill announcement of one's presence. They do not always have to make one look desirable, pleasant or even approachable. These designers take a risk. Few women -- or men -- are willing to dress the part of the contrarian.

Pause on the streets of Washington -- or New York or Paris or most any other city -- and watch the passersby. Most are dressed to blend into the crowd, to uphold the status quo or, perhaps, to attract a discreet, admiring glance.

Bu t occasionally, one spots a rebel.

Standing and waiting for the Owens show to begin, one scans the rows of empty chairs and the crowded aisles. (For some reason, the organizers have told the guests not to sit down just yet. No matter that it is time for the show to begin and there we all are staring at the empty seats awaiting our eager derrieres.) Then one sees a fashion regular -- she is a designer, retailer and consultant -- gliding around the room. She is, as always, dressed in flowing black clothes. She has mounds of jet-black hair piled high and topped with the equivalent of a mantilla. She is the fashion infanta. Call her mysterious, bleak, even a bit frightening.

(And at Yamamoto's show, photographers snap pictures of a gentleman dressed in a tiger-striped suit and leopard-print hat. He is cartoonish, foppish, even a bit sad. And at a Left Bank hotel over breakfast one morning, the quiet is broken by a dilettante in black, his long hair twisted into a loose bun and held in place by a decorative chopstick. His gray beard trembles from his incessant chatter about his creative needs; his demeanor is so akin to a character from the "Saturday Night Live" of yore -- the "Sprockets" man -- that one half expects him to ask the waiter, "Do you want to touch my monkey?")

None of these characters has turned to attire to pretty herself or himself up. None looks particularly attractive.

They are the sort who would be drawn to designers such as Rick Owens, whose signature shorn jackets twist around the body with angled zippers and fabric ties. His long skirts slither down the legs leaving a trail of halfhearted ruffles and unfinished hems. In shades of black, white, taupe and ecru, his collection is unhurried and distracted.

Owens is a designer who does not envision his clothes on fast-moving city dwellers but rather on those well-to-do rebels who slouch through life fueled by organic produce, yoga and cigarettes. They are a contradictory lot, spending large sums of money on clothing designed to look as though it has been pulled from a 2-for-1 bin. It is expensive dishevelment, for those who have the kind of wealth that allows them the luxury of complaining about the lack of fulfillment in their lives. While the less-well-off are fretting about how to pay the light bill, they sit around over $20 mixed drinks, wearing sad-sack faces and $300 self-consciously wrinkled tops, cursing the relentless march of gentrification and the dislocation of the poor.

No, these aren't clothes meant to make anyone look pretty. They are costumes for those seeking a connection to something they perceive as less processed, less commercialized and somehow more real.

Undercover, Yamamoto

What sets many of the designers in Paris apart from those who show their collections elsewhere is the desire to create clothes that are more than decoration.

It is an enormous burden to place on a few yards of chiffon or silk. Often these designers get overwhelmed by their own big ideas and turn out garments that look silly and leave the casual observer to mutter about how ridiculous it all is.

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