Robin Givhan: Rei Kawakubo Outshines Lindsay Lohan at Paris Fashion Shows

Lindsay Lohan's collaboration with Ungaro was a disaster; Gaultier celebrates the past and Rei Kawakubo presents a fascinating mix.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009

PARIS, Oct. 4 -- For the fashion industry, one of the main lures of this city -- aside from the shopping opportunities, rich food and deep-pocketed advertisers -- is the design community's ability to truly surprise its audience. The potential to instill a certain degree of anticipation and wide-eyed wonder in seen-it-all editors and retailers is one way this French city has maintained its reputation. The fashion industry believes in Paris's power to foretell the future.

What it has hinted at so far, however, has been unnerving for those who know it takes a unique skill to be a designer, who believe that creativity is best achieved by looking toward the future rather than reveling in the past and who simply think that in order for the industry to remain healthy it must adhere to a modest degree of financial logic. But inevitably there is always something that delights.

The baffling news from this city began in late summer with the installation of actor and perennial paparazzi bait Lindsay Lohan as artistic adviser of Emanuel Ungaro -- a move wholly intended to ratchet up publicity for a house that has been rapidly fading from prominence since the departure of its namesake some 10 years ago. It also read like a brutal insult to design school graduates with talent and expertise but without an archive of photos on TMZ.

Lohan showed her collection Sunday afternoon in the Carrousel du Louvre. Oh how very strange and disconcerting to type such a sentence: Lohan, collection, Louvre. The city that gave the world Chanel, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, now has Lindsay.

The collection was dominated by fuchsia. It included safety-orange ruched leggings, heart prints, genie pants and heart-shaped glittering pasties. It lacked finesse, sophistication, technical skill and any evidence of good taste. Everyone involved seemed in over their head -- swept up in a giant publicity-spewing machine.

Lohan worked with chief designer Estrella Archs. The two took their bows together with Lohan in tears and Archs looking pained, suggesting they both knew what a cynical fiasco it had all been.

Jean Paul Gaultier dedicated his Saturday night show to a celebration of his past efforts -- from the bullet bras that Madonna made famous in her "Vogue" era to his penchant for rummaging through the cultural touchstones of various social tribes. His collection was a festive, but unfulfilling, romp down memory lane with women dressed in hip-hop style from a generation ago, their pointy satin bras peeking through ripped T-shirts and thick gold neck chains and their baggy jeans hanging low.

He even modeled several pieces of denim after dark rinse Levi's, complete with the tiny red tag that identifies the brand from 50 paces -- a device that seems like a trademark infringement lawsuit waiting to happen.

And then there was the Reuters report that Christian Lacroix, the brand that went belly up after never turning a profit in its entire two-decade history, might have an investor. The idea that anyone would consider throwing good money after 20 years of bad is a sign of both fashion's enduring allure as well as the incompatibility of its business model with the modern consumer market.

Or put another way: Baroque frocks more suited to Marie Antoinette don't sell in an era of jeans, balloon pants and motocross style. But fashion is filled with optimists who can't help thinking: Maybe, just maybe, this collection will be different.

At Comme des Garcons, however, there was reason for optimism. The collection that designer Rei Kawakubo unveiled Saturday night was a fascinating and accessible blend of sculptural forms, contrasting prints, frothy feminine fabrics and hard-edged swagger.

Her models walked out in sleeveless dresses put together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Stripes collided with polka dots that connected to lush floral prints that brushed up against glittering sequins. But instead of visual cacophony, Kawakubo created harmony.

There were simple white, short-sleeve dresses that looked like old-fashioned nightgowns worn -- as were many of the dresses -- with a kind of shoulder harness reminiscent of football padding. The curious combination suggested sport, defensive armor and a certain honesty about the kind of tricks that our culture uses to build people up and make them look larger than life.

Kawakubo's work pushes the mind toward free association. She sees the world in a refracted way. A stray detail might catch her eye. A particular angle leaves her entranced.

The models' collage attire had been pieced together from fabrics familiar to anyone who has observed Kawakubo's work over the years. There was history sewn into each dress. Mannish trousers with paper-bag waists and filmy, translucent trench coats that resembled peignoirs served as reminders of how much the designer enjoys experimenting with assumptions about gender. The shoulder padding spoke to the games that we play, our search for protection. And frankly, it just looked cool.

In her presentation, Kawakubo had the models walk in a herky-jerky manner. Within the small rectangle that was her stage, they appeared poised to break into a sprint and then would suddenly slow to a near crawl.

That movement made one think of how fashion functions, indeed how all kinds of cultural upheaval happens. Sometimes changes seem to be occurring at a brisk clip. Then, without warning, everything grinds to a slow, infuriating crawl. Everything stalls and even seems in danger of moving backward. And then, something happens -- unseen or at least unnoticed -- and once again there's forward momentum. There's progress. And there's reason for optimism.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company