-- The models at the Helmut Lang show Friday afternoon strode by at a rush-hour pace, faster even than their usual whiz-bang speed. They passed by only once, instead of the typical two and three times, so the jigsaw-puzzle clothes seemed especially disjointed. One only caught glimpses of fur, pleated gray chiffon, tabs of charcoal cashmere and one lone violet strap that took on vague symbolism in the way that a single splash of color is elevated to metaphor in one of those inscrutable black-and-white art films in which all the men seem to be named Gunter.
Lang always presents his clothes at a rapid-fire pace, and in some sense that is the best way to get a clear understanding of how they might be perceived on the street. In a city -- and these are purely urban clothes, utterly unfit for strip malls and office parks -- people move along quickly, constantly checking their watches, aware that time is the most valuable currency. Most folks will get only a peek at Lang's tailored coats with their shieldlike bodices, his short skirts with their dangling bits of fur, the lace-up and cutout leggings, the corset references, the pleated chiffon mini-dresses. Impressions have to be made on the fly, so drawstrings, belts and ribbons flap in the breeze. In the blink of an eye, the collection established itself as artistically rendered tailoring.
If there is any symbolism to be lifted from Lang's fall 2003 presentation and from others shown over the weekend, it is that time -- chronicling the passage of it and the desire to spin it backward -- is a nagging itch.
Hussein Chalayan Hussein Chalayan called the Friday night presentation of his collage frocks "Kinship Journeys"; a digital clock hung above his stage set. After the audience had endured a tableau vivant of a black-clad model crouched on a trampoline, the show began.
The stage held a chamber orchestra with bassists energetically bowing and a large wooden confessional with its own red, streaming news ticker that, instead of updated sports scores, offered encouragement to confess one's sins -- to sow them like seeds. "Your sins will manifest themselves as a fruit or a flower," read the ticker. There also appeared to be a wooden sarcophagus on stage. Or perhaps it was a boat. In any regard, Chalayan seemed to suggest that we're all going somewhere together. Perhaps we're bouncing up to Heaven or rowing down the river Styx? Time is zipping along and we'd best get our house in order.
Ultimately, who knows exactly what it all means? Who cares? The disappointment was that the designer's clothes seemed more like an afterthought than the central point of this fashion happening, like a book club meeting in which the potluck distracts from the literary discussion.
Dries Van Noten Dries Van Noten slowed the frenetic pace at which life speeds by with a collection shown amid the twinkle of thousands of tiny, multicolored lights. The presentation seemed to decrease the heart rate by shifting the mood from one of agitation to charmed serenity. So often, the presentations here distract from the beauty of the clothes by creating an atmosphere of unnecessary tension and even despair, which is not difficult in a crowd among whom getting a second-row seat rather than one in the first is a supreme act of professional insult. Indeed, the experience of walking approximately 10 minutes from a chauffeur-driven car, across a well-lit cobblestone square, to a clearly marked hall was what one editor described as "terrifying." A subway car must be such a delicate person's fifth ring of Hell.
The venues in which shows take place are not particularly polished, since designers are more likely to put on their presentations in a dilapidated building rather than one that sparkles with fresh paint. So Van Noten's conscious effort to conjure magic with a forest of colored lights was a welcome departure from flea market sheds and warehouses.
The collection lived up to its setting, too. The clothes reflected Van Noten's history of vintage-style fabrics, extravagant pattern mixes and embroidery, but they were more gilded than in the past. They spoke of a level of luxury that had been missing from his collections. There were short-sleeve cardigans in silver matte sequins, burnished gold coats trimmed in a woodsy olive, red fur stoles topping coats, and floral embroidery decorating tank tops.
Van Noten didn't put any trousers on the runway, and the dominance of skirts and dresses nodded to an earlier time when femininity was defined by fabrics such as velvet and brocade. The collection possessed an Old World patina: Gold always looks richer when age cuts the gleam; silver seems warmer when a hint of tarnish deepens its tones. And Van Noten makes the convincing argument that clothes are all the better when they, too, bear the marks of time.
Rochas and Gaultier Olivier Theyskens, in his debut at Rochas, reached into history for his self-consciously ladylike clothes. There was a good deal of curiosity surrounding Theyskens's first collection. One had to wonder whether the young designer, who once sent a hair suit -- a garment adorned with tufts of hair -- down his runway, would offer something equally audacious for this old French house that is looking for a renaissance. Instead, against the video backdrop of bees buzzing around a honeycomb, he sent out trim black lace suits with bracelet sleeves, egg-shaped coats and suits with honeybee prints. The collection was attractive but unremarkable, and again makes one wonder about the wisdom of trying to revive these old houses that have graciously faded away.
Jean-Paul Gaultier revisited an iconic childhood -- one most likely spent in reform school. He indulged in baby doll tops with puffed sleeves and shirred bodices and enlarged them to Brobdingnagian proportions by turning them into dresses that billowed around the body. Few things seem quite so irritating as a designer sending some model down a runway dressed up like a Lolita. It's meant to be all in good fun, of course, but it plays like a stale joke that was never particularly funny. One would expect a designer of Gaultier's stature to come up with a more original way to take up girlishness.
Of course, the whole kiddie business was a gimmick (could a mink romper be anything but silliness?). The collection ultimately focused on tailored suits with sharp shoulders, splendid cropped shearlings with bracelet sleeves, and generous overcoats that were classic Gaultier.
Celine and Chloe It was almost quaint to see some anti-fur folks jumping onto the runway at Gaultier and at Celine by Michael Kors. The fur protesters seemed to have leapt from another time, when protecting the rights of animals, rather than planning peace marches, had greater urgency. Friday evening at Celine, where the collection was a graphic mix of black and white mini-dresses and skirts, a quartet of security men -- who collectively were about the size of a one-story building -- stationed themselves around the runway. Their eyes darted from one side of the crowd to another. As a fur protester stepped onto the runway clutching a sign, she was tackled by one with the fervor of a linebacker sacking a quarterback. She was, in fact, hit so hard that she flew into a row of seats, then appeared to be dragged out, quite possibly by her hair.
By Saturday morning, guards were using greater finesse. At Gaultier, they threw fur blankets over the interlopers and carted them out of the room.
This morning, Phoebe Philo's collection for Chloe captured the feel of a boom-boom dance party that stubbornly continues on. It was a raucous collection of ruffled skirts and tailored suits worn with hoodies. There were no new silhouettes, nothing that made her skirts more captivating than anyone else's. But she had the music, an expensively mixed dance track. (It unfortunately tossed around the N-word, which in the context of a hip-hop club with a knowing audience would not be jarring, but on a Sunday morning, in a mostly white crowd of more than 500, it is unsettling.)
Philo, in her presentation, captured an instant of abandonment -- Mardi Gras before Lent. As suggested by her invitation, which featured a scantily clad Carnival reveler in Rio, Philo was celebrating the ecstasy just before it fades to solemnity.
Demeulemeester and Viktor & Rolf It used to be that collections such as Ann Demeulemeester's were perfectly of-the-moment. They were composed almost solely of black. and the slouchy silhouette seemed to speak to the way folks tended to slink through their days absorbed in their own thoughts. The clothes are evocative of self-conscious brooding and navel-gazing. There is an intellectualism involved, but the sort that bubbles up in tipsy late-night bar conversations and focuses on topics that couldn't really stand the scrutiny of daylight: Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, the yin and yang of musical poetry? Whatever.
One can still find pleasure in Demeulemeester's work. Her dresses and pullovers printed with images of moonlit skies and her skirts and trousers with their double waistbands -- one sits at the natural waist, the other rises higher -- are enticing. But folks aren't slouching through their lives anymore, one realizes. People are sitting up straight, paying attention and speaking up.
The collection from Viktor & Rolf was sharp, formal, a line in which shirts were quite literally stuffed. The design team is known for shirts that blossom around the torso or shoulders that can fill a door frame. They continue with that sensibility, but it's now more streamlined. They focused on a mannish aesthetic with dark suits cut with executive formality. They opened with the actress Tilda Swinton modeling skinny black trousers and a jacket shaped like a funnel, the wide neckline surrounding the shoulders. The stark, masculine clothes are the perfect complement to Swinton's androgynous features. Indeed, the actress has become the design team's most prominent customer, and this collection was a homage to both her taste and her influence. The models were all styled to look like Swinton, with their hair colored red and with pale faces.
The collection was at its best with severe tailoring. Viktor & Rolf's fabrics typically are bulky, the details broad, the cuts extreme. That works to their advantage when they are crafting a serious suit. The lines are unwavering, the point of view uncowed. With more delicate enterprises -- dresses, for example -- their work drifts toward costume.
Branquinho and McQueen The best of the clothes here have exuded calm and stability. They are not dour and they are not retro. Instead, they have a timeless quality that suggests that they have a history as well as a long future. Veronique Branquinho's work is an example of that sensibility. Her models circled the center of a performance space as a faceted mirrored ball shot rays of light and a waltz played. Metallic pullovers topped her wool skirts, which opened on the side to reveal a wedge of delicate tulle that spilled out like sweet ganache.
The quiet details have been the most memorable ones of the presentations. The bold strokes seem to come off like artistic flailing. It's hard to remember much of anything about Alexander McQueen's presentation, other than it was not among his best. There were wasp-waist dresses that blossomed at the hips over pleated crinolines, showy tailoring and heavy-handed ornamentation. But the fact is, the most striking feature of the presentation was the sight of a model trudging across an enclosed glass bridge transformed into a wind tunnel filled with artificial snow. As she moved forward against the wind, in an embroidered kimono, the coat blew open to reveal her underpants, her ribs, her clavicle, her pelvic bones and the silvery glitter that had been splashed across her taut skin.
Time could not move swiftly enough.