Ackermann, Watanabe and more: In Paris, fresh designs bound by dark threads

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

PARIS -- On Saturday afternoon, guests gathered in one of the elegant and ancient stone buildings off Place Vendome to see the spring 2011 collection of Haider Ackermann -- a young designer on the rise. The designer had a full house of editors and retailers, and in the last moments before the presentation began, Janet Jackson arrived with her entourage and settled into the front row -- her hair shorn into a chic buzz, and black, bug-eyed sunglasses perched on her nose.

And then the dirge began. A reasonable person would be forgiven for thinking that a funeral march had started. Sad, slow processions of fashion just like this one have been going on for almost 30 years, pretty much since designer Rei Kawakubo debuted her Comme des Garçons label in Paris in 1981. In an industry ostensibly fueled by change, this kind of charmless sobriety has established itself as the lingua franca for fashion's intellectual set.

"I don't think they've gotten out of their bubble and looked around," said Susan Foslien, founder of the Grocery Store and Susan of Burlingame -- boutiques in San Francisco and Burlingame, Calif. -- as she sat in a dimly lit, graffiti-sprayed warehouse waiting for the Comme des Garçons show to begin. She peered over her purple-tinted spectacles. "Where's the joy? Now is not the time to be a Goth."

Who needs a dour fashion presentation when society is already in the throes of a depressed economy, tattered social safety net and scary security concerns? The unrelenting plodding adds insult to misery.

But while the presentations themselves are depressing, the clothes, in general, are not. Some of them, like Ann Demeulemeester's skinny, black leather pants, fluttering cutaway dresses in black and white, and sexy halters, are the epitome of cool. And the Sacai collection from Chitose Abe was breathtaking.

Presented as a still life on dress forms, the collection was a play on trench coats, an obsession with ease and a delightful mix of layers. Abe offered full skirts with rippling hemlines, cropped military jackets with attached shirttails, simple dresses with backs of draped tulle and printed velvet dresses that have a nearly three-dimensional effect.

"I'm telling you, this girl is the real deal," said an uncharacteristically effusive Nancy Pearlstein, owner of Relish in Georgetown.

Many of the clothes on the runways here are elegant and compelling. But they are mired in the adolescent belief that one must exude darkness to be taken seriously. Now that fashion shows are no longer limited to insiders but have opened up to civilians via the Internet, it has become increasingly obvious how much the industry prattles on inside a vacuum. These nontraditionalists seem uninterested in embracing outsiders and nonbelievers. They are speaking only to the black-clad, tribal-tattooed and Frankenstein-footwear-loving oddballs already in their corner. These designers might be saying something different this season -- but they're telling a fresh story with the same old gestures and sets.

Ackermann's collection, for instance, elicited well-deserved cheers from his audience. He merged the silhouettes of kimonos and tuxedos to create jackets that wrapped sensually around the body, hung precariously off the shoulders and partnered with long skirts that slithered down the legs. It was a dignified collection. But the background music, like something out of a Hollywood samurai film, boomed and clanged as if intent on making sure that the audience experienced discomfort rather than joy while looking at the collection.

Rick Owens's work has an exquisite, melancholy poetry to it. And for spring, his long, voluminous dresses, tamed by structured tunics and pullovers, had a calm, regal elegance. He showed them in a setting that could best be described as mystical, as models emerged like mysterious shadows onto a wide, backlit runway clouded in special-effects fog.

But as the fog grew denser and the lighting more akin to chiaroscuro, one began to long for a little less mood and a lot more forthrightness.

Behind the faces

Junya Watanabe's collection was awash in nautical stripes, prints of anchors and the quiet influence of Deauville. Models, with their faces shrouded in what looked like white nylon, wore striped knit genie pants, dresses with dropped waists, and deconstructed trench coats.

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