Yves Saint Laurent And Chanel, Looking Back and Moving Forward

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 3, 2007

PARIS, March 2 -- In the popular consciousness, the two pillars of the French ready-to-wear establishment are Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.

There are other venerable brands here -- Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, for instance -- but they do not call to mind a distinctive silhouette or a specific aesthetic. Louis Vuitton is all about handbags and logos. And if one wants to debate which purse is the most emblematically French, the award would go to Hermes for its iconic Birkin and Kelly bags. While Dior long ago was celebrated for its "New Look," its current designer, John Galliano, has pushed the house far, far from those beginnings until the brand is now known as the place where Galliano engages in hyperbole.

As designers debut their fall 2007 collections here, only Chanel and YSL exist as clothing brands that self-consciously hold on to their past as a base from which to move into the future.

At Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld has been the designer for 24 years, each season revolves around the little tweed suit that Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel created and that epitomizes the house. But the camellia details, the little black dresses and the quilted handbags -- which also came from the imagination of the house's founder, who died in 1971 -- continue to be nurtured and reinvented by Lagerfeld. The brand is defined by Mademoiselle Chanel's rules, but it isn't constrained by them.

At YSL, where Stefano Pilati has held the creative reins for two years, recent seasons have been a dizzying whirlwind through the house's archives. It has been a struggle -- with results occasionally bumbling or pretentious. The brand's founder and namesake was probably best known for his sleek, lady's tuxedo, known as "le smoking." His other contributions to fashion cannot be summed up so succinctly. But in effect, the house brought ease, independence and strength to a woman's wardrobe. Monsieur Saint Laurent, who retired about five years ago, continues to loom over the house, nearly paralyzing his successors.

Friday morning, Lagerfeld adroitly reshuffled the components that define Chanel and presented a lighthearted collection of brightly-colored tweed jackets -- some with tiny gumball beads dangling from the hem, novelty sweaters with penguins woven into them, nubby cardigans decorated with buttons and pins and little black dresses sweetened with bows and lace.

Lagerfeld presented the collection in a setting that evoked a frozen pond dusted with snow. Gleaming white light bounced off the "icy" stage, creating a kind of snow blindness that left the audience squinting to see the models. Afterward, you could have used a shot of Botox to unfurrow your brow, but Lagerfeld had made his point. The sporty clothes had an invigorating energy. They were youthful, buoyant and cuddly.

There was a simplicity to the collection that was refreshing. There was little tricky styling -- except for the crimped hair pulled down over the models' eyes that was distracting and unflattering. Lagerfeld makes the challenge of balancing history and modernity look easy.

The difficulty of that balancing act is nowhere more evident than at YSL, where Pilati has worked to honor the reputation of the house while also designing clothes that young women will want to wear. Ideas that looked chic and breezy in the 1960s and '70s, when they were conceived, look fussy and cumbersome today. Gypsy dressing, knickers, ruffles, oversize polka dots look like costuming, not something that belongs on Metro at rush hour.

But it may be that Pilati is at last figuring things out. The collection he presented Thursday at the Pompidou Center was his best effort so far. At times, it dazzled as it hit that elusive magical note that rings of both the past and the present.

In his show notes, he says that he was striving to revive "the power and purity of Yves Saint Laurent style." YSL stood for independence. The clothes allowed women to see themselves as less fragile and more powerful at a time when that was a revelation. That sensibility had gone missing. Pilati restored it.

He tossed out the distracting collars, the overwhelming ruffles, the prissy prints and the hobbling heels. He kept the silhouettes simple and mostly unadorned.

Cocoon dresses hung loosely from the shoulders, dipped low in the back to highlight the nape of the neck and then gently curved inward at the hem. His tuxedos, with their cropped trousers and crisp shawl collar jackets, had the seductiveness of gender-bending but not the harshness of androgyny.

High-buttoning silk blouses with soft scarf ties contrasted with structured coats. Fluid dresses were embossed with crocodile scales. Trapeze coats stood away from the body in an architectural ode to geometry. And the color palette -- charcoal gray, black, pine green and sea foam -- was sophisticated without being matronly.

In the same way that the founder was connected to the modern culture that surrounded him -- through art, music and nightclubs -- Pilati draws from the street with oversize silhouettes and, in particular, hoodies. Mostly though, Pilati created clothes that look expensive and smart. And they looked at home in a house that, not long ago, helped to liberate women.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company