By Robin Givhan
Saturday, October 2, 2010; C01
PARIS -- This city can be a cruel and mischievous tormentor. Audiences of editors, retailers, stylists -- and even a few deep-pocketed consumers -- come here expecting to be dazzled. And designers only step onto this world stage if they believe they have the capacity to do just that. When they fail, which they often do, the reasons are rarely simple. And sometimes, the fault isn't even their own.
Paris's history and its insidiously high expectations have emerged as the most daunting of the challenges so far as designers unveil their spring 2011 collections.
Craftsmen in this city have produced some of the greatest works of fashion, ranging from the modernism of Yves Saint Laurent to the groundbreaking avant-garde aesthetic of Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo. In recent years, Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquiere has ingeniously illustrated how sci-fi futurism can happily coexist with the traditions of a gilded past. And Dries Van Noten has proven that ethnic prints, once considered rustic and unsophisticated, can be transformed into tools of elegance and urbanity. It's within this context that American designer Zac Posen came to Paris to stand alongside history and measure himself against the best. But the young man from New York with the confident grin and a love for dramatic gestures seemed overwhelmed by the grandeur of the city.
A relative newcomer named Hakaan Yildirim, who won Paris's prestigious Andam award for young talent, was a victim of boastful handlers who described him in hyperbolic terms he could never live up to.
At both Rochas and Nina Ricci, the designers seemed overburdened by the traditions of their houses and unable to forge a new path that was both respectful of the past but looking toward a distinctive future.
And Gareth Pugh, who showed his collection in the form of a film, got caught up with a director whose art-school, YouTube, Flip camera, Parisian pretentiousness overwhelmed the clothes and whatever emotional impact Pugh might have hoped they would have.
Instead, the most successful presentations, so far, have come from designers whose work swaggered onto the runway -- with confidence and personality, but without excessive hype. A fashion show should be akin to a live concert, filled with spontaneity, emotion and electricity. The audience, the setting, the sense that this is a unique moment in time -- all aid the designer in articulating his message.
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No one comes to Paris to see a collection in an unadorned black box. No one wants virtual clothes or a hesitant performance. Van Noten, for example, understands the impact of a lone model marching down a seemingly endless concrete runway -- temporarily set up under a dock alongside the Seine. She was followed by another model and then another, as the collection riffed on a man's jacket and coat, with oversize white blazers -- often dip-dyed in Necco wafer hues -- wrapping around their torsos and held in place with slender iridescent belts. Full trousers gave the young women an imposing silhouette, but soft colors and floral prints provided a deft femininity.
There's something grand and exciting about the final promenade when all the models walk out one last time, just before the designer takes a bow. It's like a concert's encore. It is the last, emphatic statement of purpose: See, this is what I meant!
Van Noten is an expert at that finale exclamation point, when all of his shapes and colors converge on the runway and then he emerges, a modest-looking man in a sweater.
Ghesquiere, too, understands how to use the runway to articulate his vision. He saturates it with ideas -- intense, impolitic, uncompromising. (Back in the showroom, there is always a more commercial collection that translates the colors and shapes from the runway into garments that can be worn by mere mortals and not just catwalk goddesses.)
In recent seasons, he has presented his work at the Hotel Crillon, with its geographic importance off the Place de la Concorde. The main salon for the show is filled with mirrors and gold trim, and is lit by a multitude of chandeliers. His models strutted into this Old World tradition wearing red and black coats with abstract patterns, dresses in stylized tweed, reconceived motorcycle jackets, paneled dresses with harnesslike overlays, and mannish loafers with silver-studded soles.
Ghesquiere mashes up punk style with references to couture fabrics and his personal vocabulary of collage dressing. The fabrics are never quite what they seem, although they always look familiar. Garments that look heavy and sturdy, for instance, are often feather light. He is the molecular gastronomist of fashion. And his runway setting underscores that point. His futurism is rooted in history.
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Posen had the unfortunate luck to follow Ghesquiere on the week's schedule. (Would any actor really want to take the stage after, say, Meryl Streep?) Posen made his name in New York as something of a wunderkind, with a style marked by feminine party dresses with intricate seaming and a slightly vintage beauty. His Achilles' heel has always been his tendency to be too extravagant -- to overcomplicate his clothes.
Paris is a place where there are temptations to overdo it at every turn. And Posen could not resist its charms.
He presented his collection in the Imperial salon at the Westin Paris -- a room that is mirrored, gilded and generally just plain posh. He began with controlled flamboyance: black and red tweed leggings, with a red, feathered coat and a blouse in a combination of red and orange. He paired other leggings with shapely tweed blazers that celebrated an hourglass figure.
But then it seemed as if Posen felt pressured to dazzle and dismay and to live up to this city's risk-taking, over-the-top fashion reputation. His evening gowns with their cutaway silhouettes, tightfitting skirts or fluttering hemlines were decorated with feathers -- and then more feathers. Their placement, however, was not an expression of lush exuberance; instead, they called to mind hardworking showgirls dragging in from a long night of high-kicking, their costumes wilted and just a bit sad.
In terms of skill, Posen is an able designer, more than talented enough for the rigors of Paris. But this city requires more than technical skill. A designer must have a steely spine and willful arrogance that allows him to stay true to his vision; he must be a natural showman -- not someone who enjoys being the center of attention, but rather someone who understands that the statement he hopes to make with his clothes is only as good as his storytelling skills. And he must perform a balancing act between the great confidence required to step onto this world stage and the humility to know that in all likelihood he is not upending cultural traditions.
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Indeed, one wished that Yildirim had implored his publicists not to prep the audience at his Hakaan label show for something "hot" and not to tell them to "be ready to be blown away." Yildirim, who partnered with fashion photographer Mert Alas on this collection, has an edgy sensibility with his tunics with their geometric cut-outs, dropped-crotch trousers, fitted skirts and long Morticia Addams dresses with abbreviated trains. He has intriguing ideas, but they remain in need of polish and refinement.
Finally, Pugh's film, directed by Ruth Hogben, was essentially a black-and-white video featuring model Kristen McMenamy executing jerky dance moves that Hogben edited together. The clothes are lost as McMenamy's angular limbs bend and twist; there is little emotion; indeed, the film was a bore.
In his program notes, Pugh talked about wanting to present his collection in a different way. He wants to embrace technology. Ever-advancing technology has allowed designers to live-stream their shows and to give consumers the ability to make purchases just by clicking on a runway image. Yet for all of the industry debates over whether the Internet is making fashion shows obsolete, Pugh, rather ironically, provided proof that technology is not yet ready to replace the old-fashioned concept of a model, a dress and a roomful of people waiting in anticipation.
The runway brings clothes to life -- not real life but a vivid, glamorous, magical version of it. As a form of presentation, it is neither safe, nor wholly in a designer's control. It's expensive and the guest list elitist. But if a designer can not only survive a show, but also excel at it, he will have proven something powerful to himself, to his audience -- and also to Paris.