The spring 2005 runway presentations ended here Sunday night with Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. It was the most anticipated collection of the season. And it was the most disappointing.
Models walked out in a high-necked polka-dot trench coat, frumpy pleated trousers and short skirts that curved up and back into a lumpy bustle that poked awkwardly from under the hem of a rather dull jacket. By the time a model appeared in a fluffy cocktail dress that resembled a lilac tree, dissatisfaction had been transformed into annoyance. Was the desire to erase all memory of former designer Tom Ford so powerful that the house was willing to present a collection free of sex appeal, sultriness and any hint of urbane, aerodynamic luxury?
This was the first YSL runway presentation by designer Stefano Pilati. He was Ford's assistant and took over the creative reins after Ford's departure earlier this year. It may be unfair to compare Pilati with his predecessor, but it is impossible not to.
After Gucci Group bought YSL, Ford became the label's provocateur. His cuts were tight and he kept the decolletage low. One season he painted models' nipples aubergine to complement the revealing clothes. He launched a fragrance by hiring a group of models to writhe nude at a party. He appalled and angered the house's namesake, but Ford had made it his mission to revive the revered French label and bring it back to profitability. His aesthetic was sophisticated, smoldering and womanly. If he had to get there through shock and scandal, he would.
YSL is still in the red. And although Ford had several memorable collections, he did not redefine the YSL aesthetic. There was too much emphasis on cocktail dresses and evening gowns, and not enough on day clothes. Still, Ford had ignited interest in the house from the fashion industry, Hollywood and high-end consumers. On the crowded schedule of fashion shows here, YSL was the hottest ticket.
With its black, acrylic invitations that arrived tucked into a box akin to a thin black cigarette case, YSL set itself apart. The show was held each season in a specially constructed auditorium in the garden of the Rodin Museum. The approach was lined with sexy young men in dark Saint Laurent suits with their lapels turned up. YSL wasn't making a profit, but its owners were spending money on enormous vases of fresh flowers, waiters passing flutes of champagne, perfume-scented air.
But as YSL President Mark Lee said just before Pilati's debut, "It's a new day." The setting was the old Paris stock exchange -- a location that suggested the evening was about commerce, not art. No Saint Laurent boys lurked in the shadows. No flowers. No booze. Just Lee greeting guests outside in the chilly night air. YSL has stopped pretending that it is successful, unique, unparalleled. This show made one feel as though it was just any other brand struggling toward reinvention.
Pilati's skirts and dresses were short, not quite minis, but hitting several inches above the knee. It is an unflattering length on many women -- no small number of them in their twenties and thirties. The skirt silhouettes reflected the emphasis on volume for spring, but the fullness was focused in the front, giving them a saggy appearance when the models' hands were not stuffed into the on-seam pockets. The jackets were trim with a low, jewel neckline and were the most promising elements in the collection. Saint Laurent was known for his well-cut blazers and they have been mostly missing the last few years.
The house was also known for its wide, waist-defining belts. Pilati smartly revived those at a time when fashion is intrigued with an hourglass shape. But he accessorized virtually every ensemble with one of those wide belts as if he'd gotten a discount by buying them in bulk.
The cocktail dresses were short, in jewel tones and with ruffles at the hem or running down the bodice. They had a romantic, flamenco air, but they enveloped the models -- swaddling them in too much fluff and obscuring any hint of a comely figure.
Three days before the YSL presentation, Gucci Group Chief Executive Robert Polet had described Pilati as a designer who truly understood YSL's history. At the time, that seemed like an admirable quality. YSL has a rich past. But Pilati's collection for spring was too mired in history. If the line is to have a profitable future, Pilati must find a way to cut a jacket with more verve and a cocktail dress that is not better suited for a prom.
Ford, in designing for the runway, was not always eloquent or polite. But he always had something intriguing to say. One hopes that once Pilati finds his voice -- surely this can't be it -- he will be even more interesting than Ford.
If only the Lanvin presentation had been the finale, the Paris runway season could have had a finale of boisterous cheers instead of a barely audible fizzle. Designer Alber Elbaz offered a splendid collection for spring. And who could blame him if he were gloating right now? He was dismissed from YSL when Gucci Group purchased the brand almost five years ago. Now, while YSL sputters, he shines.
Elbaz has created a beautiful aesthetic at Lanvin, one that is based on ease, elegance and femininity. He has developed signatures such as grosgrain ribbons that are used as belts on coats or in lieu of buttons on a blouse. Elbaz leaves the edges rough and unfinished on his suits. They give his ladylike silhouettes a bit of a louche attitude. While his palette typically has bursts of color -- for spring he chooses violet and marigold -- it is dominated by austere shades of ecru, taupe, chocolate brown, charcoal gray and navy. His subdued colors prevent his gentle shapes and charming ribbon details from turning too sugary. And just as one begins to believe that Elbaz is nothing more than a sweet-faced optimist -- uncomplicated and without nuance -- he sends out a sleeveless tunic seemingly studded with brass nailheads or a metallic gold suit that is brash and loud.
Elbaz is quietly and methodically giving new life to Lanvin. He's pleasing the starlets who will help put the house in the populist pages of People, Us and InStyle as well as the aspirational pages of fashion magazines. But he's also making day clothes that fit easily into the lives of women who may never have a red carpet moment.
Chloe, Rochas, Hermes
At Chloe, Phoebe Philo used to stand in the shadow of designer Stella McCartney. McCartney left the label and now struggles with her own brand. Philo has stepped forward and transformed Chloe into a line that offers femininity mixed with a cool nonchalance.
"Cool" suggests a certain dispassion but without being aloof. It is trendy but not obsessively so. It evokes informality but not sloppiness. Philo creates a collection of over-the-hip camisoles, loose-fitting jackets, generous trousers, full skirts and swingy sundresses that barely skim the body. Each piece is perfectly calibrated in proportion and sensibility. They achieve the magic that allows a woman to be effortlessly cool.
At Rochas, Olivier Theyskens's wonderful suits, with their slim skirts and ruffle-hemmed jackets, have entered the fashion vernacular. He is one of the few younger designers focused on formal daywear reminiscent of a time of kid gloves and cocktail hours instead of happy hours.
He still is looking for ways to blend more sexiness into his feminine silhouettes, but he did not find the answer in the open-back dresses he offered for spring. They look as though they are unzipped to reveal the hooks and eyes of a brassiere and the top of a pair of panties. While there is something suggestive about glimpsing the top edges of a beautiful lace bra, there is nothing particularly attractive about the back of a bra or the top of a pair of panties.
Jean Paul Gaultier showed his second ready-to-wear collection for Hermes. It was more restrained than the exuberant line he showed for fall. And although there were beautiful woven leather jackets and shirt dresses that shouted luxury from across the room, it was a collection that was lost within the deluge of frocks here.
Hermes is sponsoring a museum exhibition here about the history of the handbag. It presents a variety of carrying sacks used by country doctors, a Cameroon healer, a shaman's bag and modern bags from Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Christian Dior and, of course, Hermes.
One wonders why the company doesn't take a lesson from its own fine exhibition. It makes a persuasive argument that creating an enduring handbag is, in itself, artful and a reflection of cultural needs and beliefs. Hermes should spend more time training artisans to construct its ever-in-demand Birkin bags, instead of bothering with ready-to-wear.
Louis Vuitton, Chanel,
And if Louis Vuitton is not going to make Marc Jacobs's fine ready-to-wear collections for the house available more broadly -- they aren't even carried in most Vuitton boutiques -- the company should stop pretending the shows are about the clothes and just send out naked models holding handbags. Jacobs created a spring collection of colorful glamour: cherry red skirts sprinkled with sequins, polka-dot skirts paired with shiny raspberry blazers and a kaleidoscopic mix of prints.
Chanel presented a pretty collection of pleated skirts, glittery Capris, filmy eveningwear and smart variations on the traditional tweed jacket. But chaos ensued when actress Nicole Kidman, who had been seated in the audience, stepped onto the runway to congratulate designer Karl Lagerfeld. Kidman is starring in a television advertisement for Chanel that is being filmed by director Baz Luhrmann. Photographers crowded around Kidman and created pandemonium, much of it orchestrated by Chanel, which was recording the entire scene. It would be fair to say that the Chanel spring 2005 collection will be remembered more for the scrum of paparazzi that nearly fell off the runway than for any of the garments on it.
Alexander McQueen is prone to similar theatrics, but he never plays the clown or the ringmaster. He is more thoughtful and uses extravagant gestures to bring his clothes to life. McQueen's spring collection was inspired by the 1975 film "Picnic at Hanging Rock," about the disappearance of a group of students in Victoria, Australia, on Valentine's Day 1900. The clothes had an Edwardian sensibility with full skirts, fitted jackets and the sort of embroidery and piping that reflected the period.
The presentation ended with an elaborate chess game with models playing all the parts. What the chess game had to do with missing children or Edwardian style is anyone's guess, but it was amusing to see models dressed as knights and bishops pretending to gore each other on a life-size game board.
Valentino continues to make pretty evening dresses that flow with elegance. One of his best was a strapless silk gown in chartreuse with a spray of pleated chiffon streaming into a train. Hussein Chalayan still believes in the power of fashion to make philosophical statements that are indecipherable to all except him. No matter. His hooded gray blazers and galaxy print sundresses still had the power to please even if one had no idea what they were supposed to mean.
Lars Nilsson applies his terrific color sense to Nina Ricci, mixing orange and raspberry, for example, in startling but beautiful ways. His lace overlays tend to be too fussy and his skirt silhouettes -- tight at the hip with a burst of fullness at the hem -- are flattering on about five people. Still, one keeps watching, sensing that he is on the verge of some truly splendid ideas.
Celine, Rick Owens, John Galliano
Roberto Menichetti, who took over the Celine collection from Michael Kors, did not have an auspicious debut. His collection of fussy tops and blouses that buttoned at the shoulders left loops of fabric fluttering about in the distracting manner of gnats hovering around a fruit bowl.
Rick Owens added more vivid color to his collection of draped jersey skirts and stretched out tops. But it was impossible to focus on his lovely shades of tangerine and pink when many of the women appeared to be wearing bloomers with a skirt attached to the front. There were jackets with puffy, fabric horns poking from the shoulders. And in what could only be described as a study in humiliation, Owens sent out men wearing high-heeled platform boots and shorts. Their naked torsos were draped in feather boas. If there is any justice in the world, the maribou boys will one day corner Owens in a dark alley and make him walk a mile in his own ridiculous clothes.
One could suggest that designer John Galliano be forced to suffer the same fate, but when he takes his runway bows in a gnawed frock coat, torn T-shirt and Pilgrim hat, would anything embarrass him?
Galliano's Saturday night runway presentation was a more extensive collection of clothes -- rather than costumes -- than he has shown in years. It is tempting to applaud him for that alone.
But that would be setting the bar far too low. In fact, the bar would just be lying on the floor. In his cacophonous display of garments, there were some intriguing pieces: a pop art print dress doused with sequins, long patchwork denim skirts and a return of his yellowed newsprint patterns.
But Galliano makes clothes that are full of hyperbole when fashion has turned toward garments that speak calmly. He is the shrill jester when everyone else is engaged in wry repartee.