Where's The Woman?

Louis Vuitton's Marc Jacobs took his cue from Richard Prince's
Louis Vuitton's Marc Jacobs took his cue from Richard Prince's "Nurse" paintings, dressing models in translucent, button-down "uniforms." Signature "LV" handbags overlaid with verse were their medical kits. (By Jacques Brinon -- Associated Press)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

PARIS, Oct. 8 With only a handful of exceptions, designers here can be categorized in one of two ways. There are those such as John Galliano and Alber Elbaz who idealize women, nursing romantic notions about their lives and envisioning them as more sophisticated, more self-assured, more elegant and graceful than they could ever hope to be.

And then there are the designers who fetishize women. They obsess about a single physical trait. These designers are provocative, in part, because they tend not to see women as whole human beings but as symbols. Their minds are free from the mundane notion that their clothes must be wearable, comfortable or even dignified. Dignity can be sacrificed for the greater good of the aesthetic vision.

Alexander McQueen is the most fetishistic of designers -- obsessed by the female form, happy to use it as an expression of power or impotence, oblivious to the fear in the eyes of the young models who are his tools of expression.

But by the time the spring 2008 collections ended here Sunday, other designers, such as Stefano Pilati of Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs of Louis Vuitton, had also stubbornly used hyperbole to sexualize women, exploit them or simply make them trip over their own feet. Pilati, for instance, focused so much on the lines in his star-spangled strappy sandals that it did not seem to have occurred to him that if a professional model was struggling to walk in his stilettos that he had failed as a designer.

His shoes were a distraction from his tailoring, which was exacting, with strong shoulders in jackets and audaciously pegged trousers. His tent dresses possessed grace. But his overuse of stars -- an embrace of a YSL signature -- to adorn the cap sleeves of a black dress or the body of a white silk one, cheapened them and cut their level of sophistication by half.

Louis Vuitton

Jacobs collaborated with artist Richard Prince for the collection he showed Sunday. The clothes were in many ways repetitious of Jacobs's signature line, which debuted in New York last month. There were unfinished trench coats, girlish collage sweaters and skirts with false fronts that played tricks on the eye. But mostly there were handbags, in which the LV logo was washed in color and overlaid with verse. The bags were carried out by a series of runway stars such as models Naomi Campbell and Natalia Vodianova dressed as naughty nurses in translucent rubber uniforms, a reference to Prince's series of paintings of nurses inspired by the covers of pulp fiction novels.

Designers don't use just silk and linen as the raw materials of their work. They use women, relying on muses, icons and passersby for inspiration. The greatest challenge for a designer is to balance the needs of a flesh-and-blood woman with the one who lives in his imagination. (In Paris, the designers are overwhelmingly male.)

Their task is made more difficult by the women with whom they are most likely to associate. Designers are surrounded by editors, fans and sycophants whose love for fashion and creative endeavors is such that they are willing to endure discomfort in exchange for an empowering boost in height that comes from a pair of platform stilettos. Many of them will wear a minidress so short they can't bend over or squat down without putting on a lingerie exhibition. And if they drop their wallets, they'd just as soon leave them in the street as risk a fashion faux pas. They have access to car services, dress for cocktails and have a vested interest (read: advertising dollars) in never flatly telling a designer that his work is ugly, insulting or just lacking. Bad behavior is enabled and so is bad design. It's not the individual; it's the system.

Designers must find that one person who will always be honest -- perhaps a business partner with an eye on the bottom line. Or they must have an internal voice of humility that leavens their creative swagger.

Lanvin, John Galliano, Nina Ricci

Few designers can send a ripple of desire and pleasure through an audience the way Elbaz did at his show for Lanvin Sunday. Elbaz's clothes look easy, but precise. Sophisticated, but never stuffy. His control, focus, passion and good humor are evident in every garment.

Elbaz should be praised for the more elaborate cocktail dresses on his runway such as the brown tank dress with its tiers of silky fringe that mixed with rows of metallic trim or the taxicab yellow dress covered in cheerful paillettes that hung like rows of butterscotch candies.

But more remarkable still were the subtle pieces, such as the silky wrap dresses in navy with their matching trench coats, that floated into the air as the models walked. And there was the perfect white silk blouse with its billowing silhouette that tucked into a perfect black skirt with a slim fit. His shoes had high heels, but they were substantial ones and the models could stride down his runway with authority and strength.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company