In Paris, Wearable Beats Out Whimsical

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

PARIS -- As strange as it may seem, what makes the Lanvin collection for fall so irresistible is its practicality.

Designers hate it when that word is applied to their work because it makes this business of models and glamour seem so mundane. But designer Alber Elbaz's collection is anything but banal. He crafts a vision of a woman dressed for work and play that is strong, sexy, glamorous, smart -- and yet possible. It's easy to imagine his clothes on a street crowded with commuters or in the candlelit corner of a restaurant. It doesn't take a leap of faith to believe that a woman could navigate life -- including subways, Starbucks and an unexpected downpour -- in a Lanvin frock. Call it a realistic fantasy.

Elbaz's first model emerged from the darkness Sunday wearing a stark black dress with an inverted back seam accentuating an hourglass figure. Wide crystal cuffs wrapped around each wrist. She looked sexy, but she also looked smart -- too smart to be bothered with a lot of fussiness, too smart to pour herself into a hobbling skirt or a pair of trousers that look like a glorified diaper.

The collection continued with dresses with vertical pleats, trim belts made of grosgrain ribbon, skirts with inverted back seams, one-shoulder cocktail dresses that teasingly threatened to slip off the body and trousers that were aerodynamic enough for a fast-paced life.

Elbaz often speaks about fashion as the creation of a dream and of clothes as a kind of poetry. He isn't guided by how he believes a woman should look, but rather how a woman would like to feel in her clothes. That simple distinction is the difference between his collection, which allows a woman to give the appearance of gliding through life in a waterfall of silk, and those collections in which a woman is the scaffolding for an elaborate construction of crinolines, molded corsets and headdresses.

That tension lies at the heart of consumer ambivalence about the fashion industry. It certainly provides fodder for countless feminist diatribes, commiserative dinner party conversations and frustrating shopping excursions. The billion-dollar fashion industry has a Barbie fixation and too many of its designers treat women like life-size dolls. They like to put them in dizzyingly high heels, for instance, with little thought about whether it's possible for even professional models to walk in them. It's as though they believe that just like Barbie, real women's feet are permanently en pointe.

Hermes, Alexander McQueen

There's always the fear that if designers do not indulge in impractical fantasies, they risk boring their audiences with shows that have as much sizzle as the closet of a Washington lobbyist. That was one of the problems with the Hermes show Saturday. Make no mistake, the quality of the collection created by Jean Paul Gaultier was evident. One could detect the lush sheen on a cashmere coat from 50 paces. A patchwork leather blazer shouted out its suppleness. And the Kelly and Birkin bags announced their luxury status with quiet confidence. But razzle-dazzle? Not at all.

Women encourage the Barbie fixation, too. The desire to get dolled up -- as women themselves often say -- certainly helps explain the success of designers whose work on the runway leans more toward the fantastical than the practical. On Friday, designer Alexander McQueen announced that his company -- part of Gucci Group -- has posted its first profits. Much of that success is due to his accessories business, which accounts for 30 percent of total sales. That same evening, McQueen presented a collection that was inspired by the British Empire, toy soldiers and punk princesses. His models walked onto a runway dominated by an artificial tree swaddled Christo-style in dove-gray fabric.

The collection was fanciful, romantic and, above all, pretty. His models emerged in fitted black dresses embroidered with silver beading and floating atop fluffy crinolines. There were sweet ivory gowns like something out of a Jane Austen novel.

The collection was McQueen at his best, when he has loosed his romantic spirit, tamped down his aggressive tendencies and allowed his audience to see the full breadth of his dressmaking skills. There were no women in iron-lung dresses, no face masks, no perilous heels. These flourishes are all part of McQueen's aesthetic vocabulary and regularly burst forth like nasty expletives. This collection was lively and thoughtful and one could marvel at McQueen's eloquence.

John Galliano, Miu Miu

Like McQueen, John Galliano is a showman who seems to believe that the greatest sin a designer can commit is to bore his audience. As "Project Runway's" Tim Gunn often warns his designing advisees: "Don't bore Nina!"

Galliano jolts his audience with a mise-en-scene that would rival any Hollywood set. His inspiration for fall was Xanadu and Kublai Khan, and his stage was overrun with fountains, patchouli incense, barely clad young men in turbans, golden pineapples, swaying palm trees and whatever other stagecraft tickled Galliano's fantasy.

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