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

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; C10

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.

The clothes were energetic and fun. But it's hard to get past the faceless models wearing wigs in orange or yellow. Watanabe draws attention to the faces of the models but then hides their features. Without a strong and compelling reason for such a decision -- and a purely aesthetic gesture does not count -- this sort of shrouding is an insult. It makes a designer look wholly disengaged from the humanity of women.

Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, on Saturday, proved why she has inspired so many designers and launched so many talents into successful solo careers. Her collection was dominated by relatively straightforward sheath dresses and tailored jackets and coats cut with an almost military severity. But draped around the shoulders of the models, like a vagabond's shawl, were sloppy piles of dresses. Or a coat hung upside-down off one shoulder like a decorative throw. A model in a white blazer turned to reveal three more blazers attached to the back like a strange bustle.

It was as if the women carried the ghosts of others -- the souls of others -- on their person. At times it looked as if a model had been holding someone in an intimate embrace and then that person had simply evaporated, leaving nothing but a memory and an empty frock. One couldn't help but think of the emotional tumult caused when a widow has to face the personal effects of a deceased partner. Is there anything so intimate and sentimental as the clothes that someone leaves behind -- garments still shaped by their body and scented with their fragrance?

The presentation suggested that each of us is burdened -- or protected -- by those who have come before, by loved ones who have died or simply gone away.

That was a provocative idea to deliver in a fashion show -- a setting that some people willfully refuse to see as a place where anything substantive can be debated. One wonders how much more receptive a wider public would be if designers, particularly those with such moving commentary, were less introverted and distant. What if a designer like the reclusive Kawakubo, who practically speaks in riddles and haiku, were more accessible?

Deep insights

Lanvin's Alber Elbaz is not an aloof man. He is quick to offer a warm, if slightly fretful, smile. In short, he does not engage in pretentious airs, but his work is no less thought-provoking and insightful because of it.

"He builds up excitement with music while everyone is lollygagging around," said Karen Daskas, co-owner of Tender in Birmingham, Mich. "He gets you hyped up and you can't wait for the first model to come out."

His show opened with the model Karlie Kloss, with her soaring height, galloping down the long black runway at full tilt. Her champagne-colored, pleated skirt billowed out behind her as her long legs punched through the skirt's thigh-high, front slit. Her slim torso was wrapped in a taupe halter with sparkling jewels at the neckline, and a camel belt cinched her waist. Her powerful, determined, get-out-of-my-way strut sent a clear message: I am here.

It spoke directly to Elbaz's recently revised creative philosophy: "I started to think that fashion doesn't dress the body, but your head, your heart and soul."

The collection included tightly pleated dresses and skirts in rich, jewel tones and iridescent hues. Full-sleeved jackets topped slim skirts that were worn over snug leggings. Crystal baubles adorned other simply cut dresses. There were towering stilettos and elegant flats -- for day, for night, for whenever a woman might want to wear them.

And for his finale: a group of five black models dressed in a leaf-inspired print -- frocks that Elbaz admitted were a bit disconnected from the rest of the collection. "If I had been a good editor, I would not have shown them," he said in a conversation the evening after the show. But he loved them, and so he presented them with a distinctive flourish.

The black women walked out together. The audience applauded the black pack -- a rarity on the runways -- like it was a declaration of civil rights. And then people began to ask each other: What did you think? What did it mean? Was it a political statement?

People were asking themselves whether grouping the models together was celebratory or ghettoizing -- no matter that at least one other black model had walked alone earlier in the show. Was the enthusiastic applause weirdly self-congratulatory -- reflecting an industry thrilled that Elbaz had embraced diversity, thus letting all those photographers, editors, et ceteras off the hook? Talk amongst yourselves, folks.

Without funereal darkness or gloomy ostentation, Elbaz made a simple, but important, point: "I was trained by Geoffrey Beene and Yves Saint Laurent," Elbaz said. "They both worked with African girls, black girls. Not because it was a political statement, just because they were beautiful girls."

He chose the black models for his finale because they were "just gorgeous women."

And because, he said, with little pretension, "I wanted to see reality."

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