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Like leaves from trees, Paris fall collections shed their frills

The fall Paris shows ended with restraint, elegance and sadness.

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

PARIS

The fall 2010 collections ended here with a graceful flutter of modest ruffles, the nonsensical sight of models splish-splashing through an indoor pond of frigid water and a vivid reminder of just how fleeting fashion's creative fireworks can be.

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This was the season when so much about fashion changed: the trends, the mood and, sadly, even the players. Except for those rare extravagant design houses such as Chanel, fashion ceased its years-long soliloquy on exhibitionism and began a more thoughtful conversation about restraint and elegance.

The flashy, overly embellished sensibility that dominated the industry gave way to a serene appreciation for tailoring and clean silhouettes. Even at a house such as Valentino, where the ethos has always been defined by feminine flourishes, the ruffles and ribbons were kept to a quiet minimum.

The joyfulness was still present, reassuring customers that there's nothing wrong with taking pleasure in one's clothes. But there was another message, too, in those pale pink lace blouses and ruffled khaki jackets: namely, that there was no prestige in making a dress the center of one's universe and no need to trade comfort for style.

Designer Stella McCartney delivered a similar message. McCartney, whose clothes exude a cool-girl sensibility, created a collection that also spoke of smarts and maturity. Double-faced cashmere, a fabric favored by stodgy ladies whose main concern when selecting a wardrobe is whether the clothes will wrinkle in their carry-on, suddenly looked young and vaguely mod when McCartney used it to create thigh-skimming mini-dresses. She also offered up indulgences in the form of lushly embroidered cocktail dresses, but she tamped down the flash by shrouding them in a gentle, powder-pink scrim.

In the last days of the most influential shows here, it was only Karl Lagerfeld who couldn't -- or wouldn't -- shed his P.T. Barnum ways. It was clear from the mise-en-scène that his Chanel presentation would not be part of the new understatement. He'd shipped in a Winnebago-size block of ice -- and a few others the size of Mini Coopers -- to re-create an Arctic landscape inside the Grand Palais. If scientists are wondering why there was a sudden and unexpected shrinking in the polar ice caps, they might want to have a talk with the audacious Mr. Lagerfeld on the subject of his whereabouts the past few days.

Against his icy backdrop, in a vast space so cold one could practically see the models' breath, Lagerfeld sent out women in sweeping fur coats, fur hot pants and fur boots, as well as the occasional young male model bedecked in so much fur as to look like a pinup from Cosmopolitan -- Flintstone Edition.

Tweed coats and dresses were trimmed in sheared fur. Long shaggy coats dragged through the icy water. And the blithe palette of ivory, dove gray and pale blue sparkled under the morning sunlight that flashed through glass domes overhead. The result was a collection that was dazzling and lush, but also ostentatious. It looked out of sync with a season in which luxury no longer means clothing that causes others to turn, stare and wonder: Good Lord, how much did that cost?

Speaking of the Almighty . . . who would have thought that phrase could be used in conjunction with a fashion show? Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent created a positively repentant collection. Do the fashion faithful need to be forgiven for a decade of overspending? Must they confess that they never really could afford all of those $1,500 handbags?

His presentation called to mind one of the first collections he sent down the runway in which his models looked as though they had borrowed their wardrobes from the Vatican. These clothes could have been snagged from the reverend mother.

His white blouses, gathered across the shoulder line, recalled choir robes, and the large black hats made one think of habits. The dresses were mostly black and often had tiny white collars only barely poking out. They were accessorized with large gold chains from which hung medallions in the shape of friars. The clothes were beautiful in their technical execution but unnervingly "Flying Nun." And paired with the brightly colored suede shoes with high winged heels and the clear plastic capes and coats, the collection also had a curiously fetishistic feel. That combination suggested that come fall, a Saint Laurent customer will not only take the veil but will do so out of guilt rather than faith.

In the entire fall runway season, however, no collection was as stirring and evocative as that by the late designer Alexander McQueen. The 40-year-old British designer committed suicide in his London home last month. The 15-piece collection, shown Tuesday to small groups of editors, comprised looks that the designer himself had cut on the dress form -- without a pattern and without a team of assistants -- and completed. If he had lived to mount a full show, as he had been scheduled to do Tuesday evening, these looks would surely have been among the most mesmerizing in his collection.

McQueen was inspired by Byzantine art and Old Master paintings, by Jean Fouquet, Sandro Botticelli and Hieronymus Bosch. The images of their artwork were digitally printed on the garments and reconfigured to fit. The results were breathtaking dresses and gowns, draped and embroidered with antiqued gold sequins that appeared to be, quite literally, wearable masterpieces.

These were not commercial clothes. Instead, they were examples of a virtuoso at work, someone who was flexing his creative muscles and demonstrating his capacity to dream.

The collection was unveiled in an intimate salon in the headquarters of Artemis, the holding company for Gucci Group, which owns Alexander McQueen and plans, for now, to continue the label. The background music for the presentation was classical -- high church, if you will. The models, among the most graceful working today, walked out slowly, one at a time, posing for the tiny audience and a trio of cameras. One couldn't help but look at the golden wing that seemed to be tucked under the hem of one dress and the prints of doves and celestial bodies on others, and wonder what thoughts were in the designer's head as he draped and folded these garments. And just as quickly, one shudders at such presumptuousness. How could one even dare imagine?

The final look was the most breathtaking. The model, with her hair hidden under a shimmering skullcap, wore a coat of gilded feathers. A plume of gold embroidered tulle burst from beneath its hem. As the model stood silent and impassive, she looked like an angel with her wings folded protectively around her luminous body.

When she turned and walked away, there was, of course, no designer to dash out from the backstage to take a bow. The only sign that the show had ended was when someone opened the door leading from the elegant room where the audience sat in silence.

When the models began to applaud from backstage, the audience joined in. But it wasn't loud and raucous. As beautiful as that final collection might have been, it was hard to applaud what had just been seen because the sight was such a clear, powerful and melancholy reminder of all that the fashion industry had lost.


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