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

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.

The first model on his runway had the style and the swagger to stand up to the impressiveness of the room. She was dressed in a belted white trench coat with split cuffs -- their subtle curve mimicked the room's architectural flourishes. A textured ecru-colored skirt that fell below the knee was matched with a black and taupe printed halter that tied at the nape of the neck into a thick, dramatic knot.

In the past, Pilati's affection for jumpsuits has resulted in unflattering experiments with baggy crotches, winged hips and other awkward gestures. But all of that perseverance paid off for spring with an elegant jumpsuit in black that bared the shoulders and highlighted the back with a halter that tied into a grand bow. Any woman wearing it would be assured that her exit would be just as flattering as her entrance.

Pilati's decision to show his collection in close quarters was a wise one. The clothes were complimented by the grandeur of the architecture, instead of being lost in some vast warehouse. The audience could connect with the reality of the clothes even as the designer sold his fantasy.

King of his domain

John Galliano made the astute decision to present his spring collection in the intimate setting of the Opera Comique, where the tiers of red velvet seats, gilded walls and vaulted ceiling served to balance his elaborately draped gowns, embroidered kimonos, wide-legged khaki trousers shrouded in a veil of fine black tulle and his sheer evening gowns with their glittering embroidery.

Galliano allowed his guests to get close to his clothes so that they might appreciate their details and understand -- if only minimally -- how they were constructed, why they should be admired.

Yet his fantasy was writ large in the theater, with models walking slowly and dramatically around the main floor. Their hair was painted gold and silver; their eyes rimmed in kohl. They wore hats resembling abstract sculptures. And they playfully swooned and coyly smiled as they moved around the room. There were no scowling automatons on Galliano's stage.

Galliano is the consummate romantic, and the woman of his dreams never has to work. If she is not an empress or duchess, then she is a charming grifter who makes her way through life with a smile and a wealth of good fortune.

Galliano needed this show, where his craft, as well as his imagination, were vividly on display. He will never be the sort of designer who would invite his audience to finger his garments without the aid of smoke, glitter and evocative music. But his willingness to let just a hint of reality invade his magical kingdom made it a far more believable place to be.

Transformations

Chanel was also a fine balance between fantasy and reality. Lagerfeld presented his collection in the Grand Palais, using the full breadth of the glorious building with its domed roof and elegant infrastructure of crisscrossing steel beams.

A full orchestra performed during the presentation, and the models wound their way through an enormous maze. But as they meandered through the audience, one could take in the exquisite architecture of the building, the live fountains, the gray light filtering through the glass ceiling and the clothes themselves.

One felt an intimate connection to these frocks but also a sense of awe. The collection included distressed black knit dresses and cardigans mottled with jagged holes, tweed suits in Easter egg colors and trimmed with downy feathers, black gowns in high-tech lace and chiffon dresses blooming with oversize floral prints.

It was a collection that celebrated the house, spoke directly of a woman's -- a very wealthy woman's -- daily needs and offered just enough fantasy to make one believe in the possibility of transformation. Which is ultimately what fashion is all about.

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