In Paris, Some Teeter on the Edge, Others Hone Their Keen Wit

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

PARIS, Feb. 26 -- At Christian Dior, a fashion house steeped in history and decorum, designer John Galliano sent models down the runway with their eyes shadowed into saucer-size disks and their hair teased to Everest heights. And if it is true that "the higher the hair, the closer to God," then surely these models must have brushed the hand of the Good Lord himself.

The point of the audacious hair and carnival sideshow makeup was to be provocative, to announce that here, coming down the runway, was something edgy. It didn't matter that the models were wearing reworked 1960s-style society frocks, as polite and familiar as anything that might have been pulled from Jackie Kennedy's closet. There was nothing the least bit subversive -- or especially interesting -- about the clothes.

But that doesn't matter. Mainstream labels looking to sell expensive dresses to social women, rich women and status-conscious ones have used the notion of "edginess" as a marketing tool. And no brand has done it more regularly and with more enthusiasm than Dior. With the help of outlandish styling, Dior aims to sell clothes with scarcely a hint of frisson to customers who have seen it all and already have it. In the process, these brands have diluted what meaning the word ever had.

The term once implied that a designer was balanced at the rim of an abyss -- an aesthetic one -- and was prepared to make a leap. At minimum, edgy designers intended to shock the audience and make people rethink their assumptions. Edginess was about fraying the status quo.

But like a lot of designations in fashion -- "luxury" being the prime example -- it has turned hollow.

The clothes shown by Dior on Monday were beautifully made. One could practically see the weight of all the expertise that had gone into constructing a salt-and-pepper tweed suit trimmed in black patent leather or in fashioning the crisp pleats in a lime and purple day dress. The jewels that adorned the evening dresses sparkled under the spotlights. The furs floated like clouds around the models.

The young women marched down the runway without affect, as though they had been pumped full of Botox and their emotions flat-lined with a pharmaceutical cocktail. They were doing the walk of suburban ennui -- the Stepford somnabulation -- instead of a swivel-hipped sashay that would suggest enthusiasm and emotion.

This is what has happened to fashion's edge. If bourgeois Dior has co-opted drag queen makeup to sell its wares, what must non-establishment designers do to distinguish themselves? Be more outrageous? More ridiculous? Or choose an altogether different alternative?

Rick Owens, for instance, outfitted his models in leggings/chaps/boots/spats that made them look as though they were dragging giant shearling coats on their feet. Undercover's Jun Takahashi transformed his models into coneheads. And the collective known as Maison Martin Margiela confounded the audience with models in body stockings and fishnet, barely-there dresses that left one wondering if the women might have been collateral damage in a tuna hunt. Eccentricity, experimentation, outright kookiness is on every runway. Designers can match each other absurd flourish for absurd flourish.

Junya Watanabe

Junya Watanabe, in his show Tuesday morning, made it clear that there's another path. His collection centered on one of his favorite topics: dressmaking and tailoring traditions. For fall, he focused on draping, that ability to take a length of cloth and wrap it around the body so it organically transforms into a garment. He used fine jersey in shades ranging from black to dove gray. At times the dresses looked as if a couturier had placed his hand on a sweatshirt. At others, the coats were distinguished by the way in which they warmly enveloped the body.

Each model's head was wrapped in black or blue cloth, her face utterly shrouded. The hair had been piled high and loaded with odd trinkets to create a silhouette of mysterious geometric forms. It was as though a dancer from Pilobolus had somersaulted onto each head.

Watanabe's work is from the point of view of an outsider, someone who is not part of fashion's establishment. But instead of poking fun at the standards, his work honors them and, most important, gives them new meaning.

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