Nicolas Ghesquiere's Balenciaga has retro cool, futuristic fashion for fall 2010

In Paris, Nicolas Ghesquiere merged old-fashioned elegance with retro cool; Christophe Decarnin's designs were fit for rock stars, and Rick Owens longed for simpler times.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

PARIS -- The fall 2010 collections opened here Tuesday with designers asking a great deal from already burdened consumers. They are not merely hoping that shoppers will step up and spend a small fortune on a single garment, but that they will also make a public declaration about the righteousness of conspicuous consumption in a time of want.

The fashion industry has always been an easy target for anyone searching for symbolic evidence of the indifference some people of means have for those in more desperate straits. The reasoning typically begins with an exclamation: How dare you! Then finger-wagging follows over how unseemly it is for a woman to dress in designer clothing when so many are out of work. The relationship between those two matters is a complicated one and untangling it would require, among other things, a step-by-step tracing of the production chain in order to detail how many people are employed in the making of a $2,000 dress and thus, how many workers might actually benefit from its purchase.

The effort, however, might be wasted. There's something about an expensive garment that gnaws at the soul in a way that million-dollar homes and exotic cars do not. Perhaps it is because clothes are so much more intimate. The thinking is that anyone who would don a garment so obviously cut from rarified cloth must exist in a cloistered world in which the concerns of the hoi polloi do not register.

So it was with no small amount of audacity that Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquiere presented his fall collection, which was conspicuous in its creativity, rarity and beauty. Ghesquiere mounts an intimate show that has, during the last few seasons, been at the Hotel de Crillon. Thursday morning, guests climbed the hotel's carpeted staircase and entered a series of rooms with gilded light fixtures, rows of austere benches and a white, eerily illuminated checkerboard runway. The ambience was old-fashioned elegance merged with retro cool and futuristic bravura. And that was also the mix that Ghesquiere put on his runway. How, pray tell, does such a concoction look?

Ghesquiere made confident references to the house's signature silhouettes of rounded backs and ease throughout the torso. He blended those shapes with textured fabrics in shades of melon (both honeydew and cantaloupe), teal and lemon that call to mind the swinging '60s and the pop art movement. His choice of fabrics was unusual in that they had the look of nylon, industrial plastic, foam and other modest materials. His multicolored prints referenced the work of, and quotations from, photographer Cindy Sherman and video artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Ghesquiere played to his strength, which is his ability to see fashion's future without losing touch with its past. He, more than any other designer working today, is able to find inspiration in history books and then apply those ideas in a forward-looking, sportswear-driven way.

The designers who present their collections here, in what is fashion's international capital, generally are not the type to harp on the past. Indeed, the '60s-inspired collection that Marco Zanini put on the runway at Rochas was an anomaly in its near period drama styling -- teased hair, block heels, mini-dresses and flared trousers. It made one wonder if Zanini, whose past work has been distinguished by a modern and light touch, had raided a vintage store both for inspiration and the frocks themselves.

Purple reign at Balmain

Christophe Decarnin at Balmain looted a different era -- at least for inspiration. He has been the ringleader in fashion's return to '80s excess. There is no explaining or defending his hyper-ostentatious sensibility other than to declare it an appeal to purely visceral and base desires.

His Thursday afternoon show opened with Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" and what followed was an homage to the Purple One and his glam rock style. There were tight jeans and frock coats in purple and gold brocade. One coat was so thickly embroidered with gold sequins that it looked as though it was gold-plated and should come with its own security detail. There were purple and gold sequined mini-dresses cut so short they'd make a hooker blush. And pants were tight enough to make visible panty lines the least of a woman's concerns.

Make no mistake. The Balmain collection was dazzling. It tapped into the fantasies of any woman who has ever envisioned herself a rock star, part of a rock band or merely a well-dressed groupie. But these are costumes, not clothes. They are for women who live their lives as if every day is a performance and not an attempt at authenticity.

It is an aesthetic that looks backwards, narcissistically inward and dismissively at the gluttonous behavior that precipitated the global economic meltdown. They are me, me, me clothes at a time when the new mantra seems to be: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

Ghesquiere looks forward without going -- too far -- into sci-fi outlandishness or pure self-indulgence. He makes futuristic fashion desirable and festive. He redefines "pretty" for a different generation, allowing that it does not have to be equated with soft, sweet frippery. It can have sharp edges and curious juxtapositions of color. It can be strong and even a bit intimidating. But none of those elements detracts from how compelling his take on "pretty" can be. He makes clothes that one wants to wear because they look good, but in a way that one never thought possible.

Rick Owens's storm

Ghesquiere is the polar opposite of designer Rick Owens, for whom the beauty of a woman has never been a primary concern. His work is an emotional thunderstorm both intimidating and cleansing. If it is possible to be put off by a designer whose work shows too much sleek optimism, then Owens can be equally exasperating for being such a rumpled downer. Does misery really love company?

Owens uses a muted palette of black, aubergine, navy and mushroom -- more portobello than shiitake. His airy down coats are more wraps and throws than anything resembling two sleeves, a body and a few buttons up the front.

He uses triangular shapes to whipstitch together jackets and long vests. The shapes are unbalanced so that they make one think of shards of broken glass, rather than a perfectly balanced study in geometry. His skirts are short with a pleated flap in the front, and his hooded jackets lack shoulder seams so that they shroud the models like some prehistoric pod.

Owens's work is poetic, but it is a melancholy, agitated verse. And if Ghesquiere believes there's salvation in a bright and shiny future, one senses that Owens longs for a tender and soulful past. Owens isn't nostalgic for some 1950s world, but something more tribal, uncomplicated and humane. His longing is understandable, not depressing, in these high-tech, frenzied times. It's the futility of his desire, however, that makes one want to weep.

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