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Past, Future Collide in Present-Day Paris

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

PARIS, Oct. 8 -- Few events are more dazzling than an expertly produced fashion show. At its best, a runway presentation combines fantasy, possibility, beauty and drama. And no city surpasses the French capital in its ability to conjure magic on a catwalk: from live wolves to gentle snowflakes and ghostly apparitions.

But is a runway show the only way to view a designer's collection? Only the tiniest number of journalists and retailers, stylists and celebrities ever see these shows live. And for the millions of dollars spent and the hours of preparation, most last barely 15 minutes. The Louis Vuitton fashion show Wednesday afternoon clocked in at only 11.

The question of how best to present a fashion collection has widened as technology, the marketplace and cultural sensibilities shift. Designers now have so many other options besides a catwalk. They can show their work in a live webcast or through a photo gallery on the Internet.

Their audience has also broadened since the days when a few editors and influential merchants sat in gilded salons on little gold chairs. Everyone has become a fashion critic, from the countless bloggers to the peanut gallery that casts a cursory glance at a fashion photograph in a newspaper. And whether you live in a rural community or just off Times Square, virtually any designer frock is accessible for those willing to pay the price.

So how many different ways are there to see a fashion collection, to be moved by the clothes and really understand them? To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, there might not be 13 ways of looking at a collection, but certainly there's more than one.

Alexander McQueen

No designer has a bigger imagination than Alexander McQueen. Clothes be damned! Tuesday night, his live audience saw a highly clinical runway modeled after a biochemistry laboratory. An enormous LED screen formed the backdrop and showed a film created by McQueen and photographer Nick Knight depicting a woman who transforms into a sea creature. The entire production was broadcast on the designer's Web site.

One's eyes practically whirled in their sockets from the dazzling prints of moths and praying mantises. Fabric spiraled around the body and folded onto itself, creating bubbled hemlines and soft silhouettes.

Makeup transformed cheekbones into gills. And the shoes made McQueen's models look as though they were walking on perilously angled claws. One might be tempted to complain about putting such stresses on the models' tender feet. But this collection was pure fantasy and a celebration of the designer's skill. You want comfortable shoes? Go buy some Birkenstocks.

The film made the distinction between reality and fiction even clearer. Seeing a collection through the eyes of a video editor means allowing someone else to direct your gaze, but it also makes the disconnect from reality clean, complete and, even, liberating.

Lanvin

Designer Alber Elbaz walks into the bar at the Hotel de Crillon wearing a black suit, an open-collar shirt and an albatross of hypochondria. He has three subjects on his mind: the H1N1 virus, a cup of tea with extra lemon and his next collection. Elbaz has come from a fabric meeting for his next collection. No matter that he just put spring 2010 on the runway a week ago. The fashion cycle never stops.

The spring collection showed Elbaz's signature sensibility at Lanvin: The clothes strike at the emotional core of how a woman might fantasize about herself. Before designing for spring, Elbaz visited Buenos Aires, where he saw dancers performing the tango. He marveled at their clothes, some of them a bit frayed and worn, and thought: "That dress had a good life." He wanted to capture the feeling of exhausted beauty in his collection. The notion of control giving way to collapse inspired him, he said.

Fashion is an expression of emotion, said Elbaz, who could manage to inject wistfulness in a T-shirt: "There's nothing intellectual about fashion. Women don't want to wear an idea."

Balmain

No designer's work has been more influential in the last year than Christophe Decarnin at Balmain. Want to know why shoulder pads are turning up in blazers again? Baffled by the return of wrecked jeans and daytime sequins? It's Decarnin's fault.

On the second floor of the company's office here, in a tiny room with five tables, retailers are making deals. They are buying $15,000 tank tops and $35,000 dresses. You choose: a car or a sequined minidress that looks like it has been gnawed by a Hell's Angel.

The spring collection was filled with military jackets with rows of zippers, savaged sequined tank tops in olive and gold, washed leather jackets, ripped jeans with chain mail glinting through the shredded threads. It's all in shades of olive drab and black.

We are here with Karen Daskas, who co-owns, with her sister, a store in Birmingham, Mich. -- overlooked suburb, disastrous economy, conservative Midwest. So what. This is fashion. Logic doesn't apply. This is her third season carrying Balmain.

She moves briskly through the racks of clothes, from the runway pieces to the showroom items. The first fully articulated question from Daskas is posed as she examines a nailhead camouflage-patterned T-shirt dress that is just long enough to prevent a public indecency charge: How much is this? "I never used to have to ask," she says.

It will retail for about $25,000. Did your mouth just drop open in shock? You're not alone. Daskas is sweating.

She selects a few items for the house models to try on. And as soon as they do, the clothes come alive -- all rock-and-roll, biker, cool. Daskas assembles an order that includes an olive drab blazer with rows of zippers, skinny jeans with cross-hatch stitching, a black knit tunic with a silver chain-mail neck wrap. But she is obsessing about that tank top, the $15,000 one that is tattered and sequined and looks like a great find from a vintage shop except those stores never have anything like this no matter how hard you look.

Daskas has a plan. She has a customer who is fixated on Balmain. Daskas will take a picture of the tank and send it to the young woman. If she likes it and is willing to pay in advance, Daskas will order the tank. Done. No runway show required.

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