By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009
MILAN, March 1 This Italian fashion capital, where the fall 2009 collections are being unveiled, has always been known for two kinds of design. A restrained, tailored sensibility was popularized by designer Giorgio Armani, whose good taste has permeated American culture from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. That same belief in graceful understatement can be seen in a younger generation of designers showing here, such as Tomas Maier at Bottega Veneta.
The other dominant philosophy is the style championed at Dolce & Gabbana, where collections are defined by lush fabrics, generous use of embellishments, unabashed sensuality and joyful ostentation. According to this worldview, too much of a good thing isn't vulgar, it's merely a reason to say "thank you." Designers such as Roberto Cavalli and Dan and Dean Caten of Dsquared2 share this sensibility. For them, if fashion doesn't make a woman feel a little gluttonous, then what good is it?
But one designer -- Raf Simons -- has followed a particularly distinctive path. As the creative director of Jil Sander, which has always been known for its fabric innovations and its minimalism, he has transformed the house into a brand that is more complex and cerebral than one simply squeamish about paillettes and ruffles. In his hands, collections have become something akin to modern art with the same capacity to mesmerize and repel in a single stroke.
From one season to the next, Simons has stayed true to the austere and restrained history of the house -- even when he dabbles in shades of fluorescent pink and yellow. His work isn't angry or self-consciously dour -- as if he has spent too much time listening to the collected works of the Cure or reading the financial pages. His clothes appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions.
For fall, when fear and panic about the economy threaten to overwhelm our capacity for rational thought, his work would seem to be just the kind of fashion required. Indeed, the collection he showed Friday night came across like a quiet plea for everyone to look in the mirror, take a deep breath and calm down. Banks may be failing but the sky is not falling.
Fashion, after all, can serve as a security blanket in tough times. A woman puts on a suit to go to the unemployment office, not because such formality is necessary to fill out a few forms but because it makes her feel less defeated. She wears lipstick to her chemotherapy appointment to ease the assault on her body. And she puts on her favorite heels when she thinks she might run into an old boyfriend who did her wrong. The right clothes at the right time offer reassurance. They can hide the scars of a wounded dignity.
The Jil Sander sensibility, with its look of unfettered confidence, exudes control and calm -- two traits that would serve us well right now. And in some ways, the fall collection did just that. But it also revealed that a triumph of aesthetic experimentation can still be a stylistic failure.
Simons divided his fall collection into two parts. The first half was a homage to the house's namesake, who long ago sold the business and ended her involvement. Sander was known as a stickler of a designer who, above all else, respected women. Her clothes weren't traditionally sexy. In many ways, they denied a woman's sex appeal, choosing instead to focus on her power, confidence and intelligence. To be a fan of Sander's work, a woman needed to take pride in the many things she did not need: spangles, frippery and other girlish distractions.
With a nod to that history, Simons sent out a collection of camel coats, slim trousers and high-waist skirts that can only be described as exquisitely pure. There was nothing to them beyond the most necessary seams.
It takes tremendous confidence to wear clothes like that. The less courageous -- that is, most of us -- use fashion as a kind of camouflage or a costume. We want clothes to perform some trick like lengthening the legs or elevating the bosom. The fearful want garments that will provide them with cover and hide their insecurities or their outsize ambitions -- like one of those boxy women's suits that turn up on C-SPAN characters.
Simons's spare clothes don't reveal a woman's body -- not in the least -- but they still leave her virtually naked. She cannot hide behind the false power in a pair of shoulder pads, the stereotypical femininity of ruffles, the macho swagger of wide lapels or the banality of a heavy knit jacket whose greatest recommendation is that it doesn't wrinkle.
Those clothes, so respectful and admiring of female individuality, provided a striking contrast to the second half of the collection, which was inspired by the French ceramicist Pol Chambost, who died in 1983 and known for his graceful forms and use of color. Simons chose colors such as citrus yellow, favored by the potter, and used horsehair padding and hoops to create some of the sculptural shapes. The results were visually stunning, molded skirts that stood away from the hips. Strapless bodices curved gently around the torso and then tilted backward like the delicate spout of an urn. Collars rippled around the neck as if they had been lifted by a breeze -- a spontaneous flutter captured for posterity.
Yet for all of the curves and swirls, the clothes did not respect the lines of a woman's body. The clothes were wholly linear. Any curves were artificially imposed by the designer. The woman was merely the support structure on which the clothes -- dynamic and mentally invigorating -- could hang.
Jil Sander's legacy -- as reinterpreted by Simons -- is thoughtful clothes that disappear on women. (What! After all that expense?) But in the more aesthetically daring second half of the show, Simons designed clothes that made women vanish.
While the times cry out for clothes that are rational and refined, those garments must also announce our presence, keep us from getting lost in the throngs and make it impossible for the individual to be ignored.
It may be that the reaction to the second half of the show would have been different if Simons had chosen more dynamic models. He cast his show with an army of pale, look-alike young women so devoid of life they seemed practically bloodless. Their lack of diversity was disappointing, but it was a trifle compared with their lack of strength.
For the average consumer of luxury goods -- and they are not limited to fashion capitals but are sprinkled generously from San Francisco to Detroit to Washington -- "newness" is not reason enough to spend money. Nor is it enough that a garment can inspire an entire art history term paper. Fashion has to dazzle the eye or stimulate the mind. At its best, it can do both.
But above all else, even if the clothes should fade into the background, the woman should never disappear.