Zac Posen, Hakaan Yildirim among designers outshone in the City of Light

Designer Dries Van Noten's palette of Sweet Tart hues and prints of flowers in full bloom helped to brighten a spring 2011 collection that revived some of his favorite silhouettes.
By Robin Givhan
Saturday, October 2, 2010

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 Gar├žons' 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.)

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