At the Balenciaga show Tuesday morning, the clothes, and the clothes alone, left one in awe. They were, quite simply, spectacular.
They left one inspired by the wizardry of designer Nicolas Ghesquiere and mesmerized by how he has given this fashion house new life without purging it of its past. As one retailer put it, the Balenciaga presentation has been the highlight of the last few weeks of the spring 2006 collections, as this traveling band of editors and store owners has sat through hours of runway shows and combed through crowded showrooms in New York, Milan and, for the last few days, Paris.
The Balenciaga collection was artful, direct and lush. The clothes worked together to paint a single creative picture. And as the models paraded out, it was possible to see how one garment naturally flowed from the other. Each successive ensemble made perfect sense, yet was an utter surprise.
Before the show began, the audience sat expectantly amid a maze of white benches that wound through a plain white room. Folks had arrived early because of French labor strikes that affected public transportation and threatened to halt nearly all city traffic. No one wanted to be stuck breathing in diesel exhaust, drumming his fingers against the side of a taxi and wondering if he were missing something grand.
It would have been a shame to have been late to the Balenciaga show and not to have seen the first white dress to appear on the runway: It was the prelude to an exquisite story. The boat collar stood starkly away from the model's neck. The dress fit snugly against narrow shoulders and then moved confidently downward, creating a gentle egg shape around the torso and the hips and finally narrowing slightly at the legs. It was a confident, unfaltering silhouette, and a flattering one. Cut from austere duchess satin, it spoke of the history of the house that so famously offered women sculptural clothes that they loved, but confounded gentlemen who longed to see a woman's natural hourglass shape served up for admiration.
Ghesquiere followed that first dress with one livened up with texture. With a third version, he added bronze embroidery to the hemline, transforming the dress from pure geometry into something with fluidity and warmth. The embroidery brought with it a sense of romance, hints of the French belle epoque, courtesans and unabashed indulgence. A lace pattern was etched along the waistline of a pair of cigarette-slim trousers. They were worn with the tiniest jackets, again embellished with lace, with high armholes, narrow shoulders and a snug fit. Whether a dress or a pantsuit, the tailoring was rigorous and controlled down to the millimeter. The clothes treated the body like the infrastructure of some sleek, soaring monument.
The models marched out in rapid succession, moving smoothly and confidently on towering metallic heels as thick as soda cans. The trousers and jackets grew more elaborate, with the delicate lace prints becoming a layer of fine lace and then blossoming into tiers and pleats and lavish trails. There were cheeky rocker T-shirts in black with ribbon embroidery and printed with the phrase "Devils in Balenciaga." It was, said the designer after the show, an unabashed come-on to a younger customer -- or those of more modest means. It was a way to draw them into the brand, provide them with a point of entry that does not require their making a choice between paying the rent or investing in a pair of pants.
By the time the last models made their way around the room, the jackets had become more draped, more regal and less structured. The shoulders were rounded and molded with knife pleats. The sleeves were little more than clouds of lace, and the cuffs melted into layers of soft organza. Creatively, one had to admire Ghesquiere's control of his own flights of fancy. It would have been easy for him to get entangled in yards of lace and embroidery, leaving the eye overwhelmed by too many pointless flourishes. Ghesquiere made tough decisions. He knew when a garment was finished; he knew when to stop tinkering.
Bridging the gap between the house's somewhat austere past and his own love for pastiche and decoration, Ghesquiere appears to have created a collection that is commercially viable -- the sure-to-be sky-high prices notwithstanding. For all of their details and historical references, these are beautiful clothes that have nothing to say about culture or politics or the state of the world. Instead, they tell a lucid tale about the evolution of shape, the romance of embellishment and the mysterious workings of desire.
Ghesquiere received a line of well-wishers backstage after the show, a crowd that included his boss, Robert Polet, chief executive officer of Gucci Group, the brand's parent company. Polet hadn't gotten an early look at the collection, saying he preferred to be surprised, to see the collection unfold in the way the designer intended. After all, he said, there is something inspiring about a creative soul who tries to offer up something artful, on demand, so many times a year. (And surely Polet must have been happy to see Ghesquiere's creativity conjure up signature T-shirts. They are likely to sell with the same gusto as the company's handbags.)
Ghesquiere, with a pleased smile, noted that the collection was predicated on his desire to find a way to make a transition from architectural shapes to softer, more free-form, embellished ones. That is a difficult journey; more than one designer has lost his way. Ghesquiere made the trip look spectacularly easy.
Galliano for Dior, Caspia, Viktor & Rolf
When the clothes are as good as they were at Balenciaga, gimmicks are unnecessary. That strong collection made other designers look as though they were cowering behind rhetoric and high drama, afraid to just put the clothes out there and let them be judged. What's hiding behind all the hullabaloo?
The clothes on the Christian Dior runway Tuesday night, for instance, were so wan and repetitive that they were mere suggestions of what beautiful clothes could be. The point of the evening seemed to be in admiring the location, the magnificent Grand Palais, with its soaring roof of glass and steel, recently repaired and renovated.
That architecture gave the evening a grandeur and importance that the clothes did not command. Dior designer John Galliano began with an idea that had its roots in his couture collection, the layering of black lace over "nude" silk. The use of the term "nude," of course, suggests that the body being referenced is one that is beige -- not ebony, mocha or chestnut. But then, that's a question for diversity scholars, equal-opportunity activists and Jesse Jackson with a bullhorn. Galliano mixed lace and silk in every possible combination until he had to resort to knotting the fabric and allowing the degrade hemlines to blur into jarring shades of raspberry and lemon.
The runways have been a place to act out punk aggressions, to scream and roar and flail against the system in the form of torn and twisted frocks. The anger on some of these runways is palpable, swaggering -- and hackneyed. There is plenty of trickery and sleight of hand. And there's plenty of just bad clothing, too. At Costume National, designer Ennio Capasa rejected his sleek tailoring and recent elegant references to Africa for a collection that seemed to explicitly cater to a woman with plenty of ready cash and the taste level of a goat. If it's in her line of sight, she will consume it.
The Viktor & Rolf show Monday night was an extraordinarily entertaining production. Designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren turned the traditional fashion show upside down, literally. Taking a cue from their Milan store, where potted urns hang upturned from the ceiling and light fixtures sprout from the floor, they flipped their stage so that the runway ran along the ceiling and their nameplate on the backdrop was upside down. The show began in reverse order, with the designers taking their bows at the start and the models parading around in an early version of the traditional finale promenade. It was all topsy-turvy, absurd and delightfully disjointed.
The clothes were turned upside down as well, with the pleated skirt of an evening gown fanning out over the torso and its spaghetti straps dangling around the feet. Blazer sleeves became pant legs. Necklines became hemlines. The soundtrack, a distorted loop of the Diana Ross single "Upside Down," played relentlessly -- sometimes fast, sometimes in slow motion for a maddeningly irritating effect. The show was all in good fun, and once the dresses were turned right side up, one had a sense of the designer's vision for spring with full skirts and blouses that slipped off the shoulders. But the clothes had trouble living up to the sly wit woven throughout the presentation.
For some designers, the runway became the equivalent of a therapist's couch -- a place to vent anger and frustration. Junya Watanabe on Tuesday morning offered a teeth-gnashing punk collection of camouflage trench coats, cropped trousers and angry T-shirts.
Their heads encased in enormous spiked headdresses, the models stomped along in black work boots. And although they tried to sneer at the crowd, they were mostly unsuccessful, since they had to spend most of their energy just trying to breathe. Clear plastic wrap covered their faces, except for a tiny hole just over the nostrils. (In the general population, this sort of behavior would probably be considered assault.)
While on the subject of breathing, we must pause a moment to discuss the Jean Paul Gaultier show Tuesday afternoon. It was presented in the designer's headquarters and was inspired by Ukraine -- the same geography that guided his recent couture collection. There were colorful peasant blouses and skirts. They were pretty and frilly, but it was hard to get excited about designer peasant skirts for spring when just about every street vendor was selling cheap versions at two for $10 this summer.
Gaultier covered his runway with hay -- because, apparently, Ukraine is one giant farm -- and as the temperature in the unventilated room began to rise, one could smell ammonia, urine or something mysteriously excremental wafting from the floor. What was that stench? Was the hay beginning to compost? The show ended with Gaultier romping down the runway with the last model in the sequence -- the designated peasant girl with her fleshy arms, ample rear end and mop of dark hair threaded with bits of hay. But who could be bothered to remember the clothes when you felt as though some noxious gas had eaten a hole through parts of your brain?
Rei Kawakubo for Commes des Garcons
Now back to all that anger -- on the runway rather than in the audience. Beware a ticked-off fashion designer wielding a pair of scissors, several bolts of plaid fabric, plaster of Paris and the desire to tell you how to dress. No good can come of this.
At the Commes des Garcons show Tuesday evening, Rei Kawakubo seemed perturbed by imperialism, colonialism and any other ism in which powerful Western countries trample on the rights of others. One may admire her indignation, but the merging of Black Watch plaids, the Union Jack and battery-powered light-up plaster crowns was disjointing and confusing and failed to make any of the provocative statements to which it all aspired. Instead, the effect was of claustrophobic clothes in heavy fabrics and a review of all her signature humpbacks and tumorlike lumps that have helped her to explore the relationship between clothing and the body.
But then, over lunch the following afternoon, while we were describing the collection to a retailer who had only just arrived in Paris, and getting puffed up with our own smarty-pants analysis of just how the Comme des Garcons collection had gone all wrong, a young Japanese woman, with her long hair dyed auburn, sat at a neighboring table. She was dressed in a yellow plaid skirt over skinny black trousers and was wearing a more streamlined, straightforward version of the jacket and attitude that Kawakubo had just offered.
What seemed so stilted on the runway, in a courtyard surrounded by classic French painting and soaring sculptures, looked smart, knowing and desperately cool settled into a hotel bar in the early afternoon.
Which can only mean that the runway had taken the life out of these clothes. It had distilled them down to anger and protest. What had gone missing was the sense of optimism that was evident in that young woman's demeanor. It is inherent among those who bother to raise their voices in objection to the status quo. They believe that something better not only is possible, but is worth demanding.