PARIS, Feb. 27 -- It isn't necessary to be weird in order to be cool.
The fall 2007 collections opened here on Sunday with presentations by designers known for pushing fashion toward the edges of understanding. No other major city on the fashion circuit, including New York and London, is so amenable to designers who speak in riddles and half-truths.
Paris nurtures designers who believe a career can be built on expensively tattered rags or artfully destroyed sweaters. And thank goodness. These are the creative goofballs and intellectuals who keep the fashion industry off balance, who keep it from getting too comfortable with what was profitable last year and the year before that. They are invaluable to an industry fueled by the unexpected.
But a lot of the weirdness here has gotten routine.
The design team of Viktor & Rolf sent models down a runway Monday with lighting rigs attached to their torso and individual speakers broadcasting a personal soundtrack -- dance music for one, classical for another. The clothes were cut in classic silhouettes: loose-fitting skirts, boxy jackets, pleated skirts, dresses with flouncy sleeves and trompe l'oeil bows. The models wore cumbersome wooden shoes -- a reference to the designers' Dutch heritage as well as the folkloric flourishes in the collection. But as is often the case with Viktor & Rolf, the gimmick driving the presentation was the selling point of the collection, not the clothes themselves.
At the show presented by the eccentric Maison Martin Margiela on Monday, the design house offered dresses fused to leggings to create what appeared to be a simple sheath from the front but a pair of heavy tights from the back. Pants seemed to magically transform into shoes. Instead of two sleeves, the shoulders of a sweater blended into a single uninterrupted tube that looped down the back. (Arms poked through unobtrusive slits in the side seams.) As always, the Margiela presentation focused on an exploration of clothing construction rather than on simply showing beautifully constructed clothes. More aesthetic riddles came down the runway than solutions to the daily challenges of dressing well.
In many ways, designer Yohji Yamamoto is the dean of the Paris avant-garde. (A position he shares with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons.) Yamamoto took the lead in creating modern fashion that celebrates a thousand shades of black, embraces the notion of camouflaging the body rather than emphasizing it and injects an Eastern sensibility into Western traditions. Without his work, there would arguably be no Margiela or Viktor & Rolf. No Jun Takahashi or Rick Owens. Without Yamamoto, a host of other designers may never have figured out how to layer dresses over pants, how to imply an aesthetic vision rather than state it with heavy-handed banality, how to create a mood out of wool and cotton.
In the collection Yamamoto showed Monday, there were the expected multilayered skirts forming a thick curtain over skinny black trousers. Black jackets with ruffled tails topped both. Dresses and coats were adorned with symbols and logos that made one think of the famous Louis Vuitton iconography. In watching the models come down the runway, first in a logo-covered leather coat and pulling a "designer" wheelie bag and later in a red dress equally as decorated, one couldn't help but take it all as a sly joke on the Paris corporate fashion establishment and the consumption of flashy designer goods as a form of self-definition.
But it was a joke that Yamamoto has told before. It still has relevance. It still evokes a polite chuckle. But it no longer registers as a revelation. Gimmicks, trompe l'oeil flourishes, multiple black layers and idiosyncratic cuts have become almost as traditional as a Chanel jacket.
By contrast, Takahashi of Undercover and the American expatriate Rick Owens each found a way to remain fresh and startling in their blissfully oddball ways. For fall, they offered collections that were accessible, logical, wonderfully practical and yet still creative.
There were no tricks at Owens's Sunday evening show. He focused on outerwear. Who knows what the models were wearing under all those coats? They never took them off to reveal that secret. But for a designer who excels at making leather jackets and shearlings look as worn and comfortable as a pair of old jeans, Owens made a smart choice. He turned a spotlight on his strengths.
His truffle-colored shearlings wrapped thickly around the torso but their narrow, elongated sleeves kept the bulk to a minimum. His nubby wool coats were distinguished by oversize collars that stood starkly away from the neck. And he mixed fur and leather to create coats that were sleek, with an almost rustic sensibility. There is nothing precious or overtly luxurious about a Rick Owens fur. Owens's coats make the wearer look as if she slayed the animal herself. They resemble trophies rather than purchases.
For his Monday show, Takahashi put aside the dramatic headgear that he has often used to punctuate his collection. He moved his show into an airy room where the clothes were not hidden by murky lighting, awkward sightlines or a cloud of cigarette smoke. This time, it seemed that he really wanted his audience to get a good look at the frocks rather than getting a load of cool attitude. Takahashi offered smart examples of re-imagined ski wear, quilted jackets, mountain gear and other cold weather clothing that had been taken apart and reconstructed in ways that blended technology, glamour, humor and youthfulness.
His knit sweaters were interspersed with nylon-like insets that kept the eye entertained. Knit miniskirts were trimmed in satin. Dresses had pockets that looked sewn on inside out. Takahashi used high-tech fabrics designed to distribute heat when the temperature drops and to wick it away when the temperature rises.
To a soundtrack of Philip Glass, his models walked the room in cuddly clothes that surprised the eye no matter where it landed but that did not leave the mind whirring in confusion. His soft quilted coats with their watercolor prints were sprinkled at the collar with chunks of glittering baubles. A gray fur coat had a sporty knit collar. Takahashi managed to make the collection both grown-up and youthful. It was a mark of accomplishment by a young designer who has figured out that, while it is fun to play with the cool kids, it's the cool adults who've got the money to spend on designer clothes.