In Paris, fashion's flights of fantasy, with doses of reality

Designers played to their strengths in the fashion shows wrapped up in Paris.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 10:08 AM

PARIS -- The spring 2011 shows wrapped up here with designers having to wrestle with the burdens of history and tradition, balance fantasy and reality and even clean up after a fallen starlet.

Sarah Burton formally stepped into the spotlight as the new creative head of Alexander McQueen with her Tuesday evening fashion show. Giles Deacon tried his hand at saving the floundering design house Emanuel Ungaro -- the venerable brand to which Lindsay Lohan nearly laid waste. Yves Saint Laurent's Stefano Pilati offered a contemporary take on classic Parisian chic -- something that had nearly gotten lost in a season of minimalism, romanticism, punk-rock references and intellectual cogitation.

And Karl Lagerfeld presented a Chanel show at the Grand Palais that accomplished the near impossible: It was elegant in form, sweeping in scope, yet intimate in feel.

It's hard to imagine the pressure on Burton as her first model walked down the runway at the Palais de Tokyo. McQueen's talent was enormous, his death sudden and his memory still fresh. Indeed, he was memorialized in London just this past month.

Although she had worked alongside McQueen for more than a decade, Burton did not try to duplicate his dramatic gestures. Instead, her setting was modest, the atmosphere light. The collection referenced pagans and bohemians. And while it was technically solid and had moments of artfulness, it lacked the intense emotion and soaring imagination of the brand's namesake. But how could it compare?

McQueen poured himself into his brand. Burton is, for now, only its caretaker. And in that regard, she dutifully preserved many of his signatures. Her low-slung ivory trousers were cropped at the ankle; the matching jackets were slit at the shoulders and frayed along the hems. A sculptural basket weave dress had a thick tale of hair, raffia, grass, something hanging down the back. Floral printed dresses with fluted skirts were cinched at the waist with heavy black leather belts. And in a nod to McQueen's romantic side, Burton did her best work: a mid-thigh dress printed with butterflies with a tiny swarm of hand-painted beauties -- Monarchs maybe -- fluttering around the shoulders.

Deacon, too, had to deal with the burdens of taking over a well-known fashion house. But the pressures on him were quite different. Emanuel Ungaro had become a sad-sack punch line thanks to the installation of Lohan as its artistic adviser. Last year, the troubled gossip column mainstay presided over the worst fashion show ever by a major brand. Deacon had a lot of work to do in order to erase -- or at least dull -- the memory of bedazzled pasties.

But with a low-key (if crowded) presentation at the Parc Andre Citroen, he was off to a tremendous start. Set inside a glass house, the show had models sipping champagne and milling about a life-size, cartoon car bursting with fresh flowers. The women -- young gazelles and older power players -- wore black lace cocktail dresses, lilac suits and pink feathered party frocks.

They looked pretty and vibrant. And one immediately recalled the coquettish aesthetic that once defined the house and that had gotten lost as designers cycled through, each with his own reinvention and resurrection plans.

Deacon didn't do anything revolutionary. He merely made lighthearted party clothes that were chic and fun. Will it be enough to revive this house that, at the moment, has no identity at all? (Or at least not one it would want to discuss.) Deacon proved his technical skill and his discerning eye. Now he needs patience, as well as fashion's magical ingredient: luck.

Architecture meets fashion

Only a designer with patience, along with restraint and confidence could have created the kind of sophisticated chic that was on the runway at Saint Laurent.

Stefano Pilati showed his collection in a refurbished hotel particuliere that once belonged to the Rothschild family. With its carved ceilings, soaring windows and grand staircase, it oozed French swank.

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