Fashion Week

In Paris, Alber Elbaz plays to women's strengths

Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan says it's a small miracle designers manage to create clothes people want to wear. But this fall, they've been managing even in an iffy financial climate.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

PARIS -- The most valuable asset in any designer's arsenal is a solid sense of timing. It may also be the one skill that cannot be learned. Yet it's essential that every designer be able to sense when the cultural mood is shifting and predict how the new landscape will look once all the emotions have settled.

And designers don't just have to look into their crystal balls once or twice over the course of a career. They must do it consistently -- season after season. The fact that designers ever manage to conjure up clothes people want to wear is a modest miracle.

Yet small, creative miracles have been unfolding as designers unveil their fall 2010 collections in a dicey environment. Consumers are feeling more optimistic than six months ago, but only barely. Retailers argue the surest way to lure consumers back into stores is with clothes that are exceptional -- unlike anything they've seen before or already have.

What does that mean in practice? If a dress is too odd and bizarre, shoppers will dismiss it as a gimmick sure to be obsolete before it even gets into their closet. How do designers give customers an exhilarating high without giving them vertigo? By thinking smart, thinking deeply and breathing in the air around them.

Designers as disparate as Junya Watanabe and Lanvin's Alber Elbaz took familiar ideas and rephrased them using their own unique vocabulary. Elbaz has always admired female power, but he never allows a woman's strength to overshadow her playfulness, her vulnerability and her romantic nature. He incorporates all of those emotional chords in his work without letting his clothes become a confusing mash-up of a year's worth of therapy sessions. One characteristic is always the star, and the rest play supporting roles.

For fall, power was center stage in a mostly black collection of sack dresses with exaggerated sleeves, blazers with nipped-in waists and pinched shoulders and cocktail dresses outlined with feather trim. The collection was tribal in its sensibility -- fashion's generic way of embracing an African, earthy style. That timbre came through in the adornment, from the feathers to the jewelry and the crystal embellishment. The bodice of one exquisite dress was thick with jewels laid on in a pattern that hinted at an African mask but never crossed the line into a literal interpretation. Elbaz's garments are, in a way, unfinished. They are mood and attitude awaiting a story that only a woman can provide.

No designer could be further from Elbaz's aesthetic than Watanabe. His collection, shown Saturday morning, focused on color and pattern: olive drab, military green and jungle camouflage. Typically, when those colors and patterns appear on a runway, one expects a collection that is aggressive and hard-edged -- fashion as antagonism. But Watanabe did just the opposite. He used yards of army green fabric to create polished and tailored coats and trim-fitting blazers. Sweet dresses that gently crumpled around the body were stitched from camouflage print. Thick tulle skirts exploded from the hem of calf-length sweaters in drab green.

The mix of military camouflage, gospel soundtrack and charismatic devotion can be read in a multitude of ways. To some, it could be a distressing blend calling up visions of religious armies. To others, the references and riddles could be read as a sweet prayer of peace, a call for grace instead of aggression.

This genre of fashion, which thrives outside the mainstream, was recently thrust into the Washington spotlight when former White House social secretary Desirée Rogers wore a Comme des Garcons dress to the Obamas' first state dinner. It was a head-turning, change-has-come fashion moment. Watanabe designs under the Comme des Garcons umbrella, and the flagship label, created by Rei Kawakubo, once again underscored the way fashion can unsettle and provoke.

It's hard to imagine that one of the garments from Kawakubo's fall presentation will find its way into some White House event, but one never knows. There were certainly a host of apt metaphors on her runway, not the least of which was a "stuffed shirt." Kawakubo took what is normally hidden, perhaps even typically removed and discarded, and made it the star of the runway. Pinstriped skirts bunched around the models' hips and jackets puffed up from hidden pillows of foam. Kawakubo made suits from materials that mimicked the gray foam that cushions electronics for shipping; skirts looked as though they'd been cut from a moving company's packing quilts; and dresses, seemingly composed of upholstery stuffing, had Michelin Man bulk. The results distorted the body -- and referenced a collection Kawakubo put on the runway some 10 years ago that asked her audience to question the body ideal.

But this collection went even further. It suggested that something hidden inside was struggling, fighting to get out. What do we hide beneath our pinstriped suits and traditional plaids? Are the things we struggle to protect really of intrinsic value or is worth just a constantly shifting cultural construct?

Some people aren't interested in clothes that pose questions like that. They just want a nice dress or something appropriate to wear to the office. And that's fine, too. But what some of the best designers showing their work here seem to understand is that at this moment, everything is in question: what we buy, why we buy, how we define ourselves. And of course, there is the eternal, nagging question: What on earth are designers thinking?

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