Hermès presented the final collection of the spring 2015 season. It arrived like a sigh of relief on Wednesday evening. Tucked into the Luxembourg Gardens, inside a greenhouse relieved of its plants and transformed into an indoor Sahara, the show was filled with timeless clothes of exquisite luxury. Fluid ivory trousers looked as comfortable as pajamas. Roomy pullover sweaters fell with the weight of indulgent summer cashmere. And sand-colored walking shorts — crocodile walking shorts — were remarkably elegant with only the barest hint of ostentation.
Hermès has always been one of the rare collections that eschews trends and aims to speak to a woman who prefers quality over quantity. The brand, which is planning a new store at CityCenterDC, is the kind of collection that rarely suggests a woman wear something constricting or too revealing. It is reserved and serious — although not somber.
Hermès is a reasonable choice for a well-to-do woman who doesn’t want to spend much time considering her clothes. Many would consider it “intelligent.”
But what does that really mean? The question comes up because the spring 2015 runway season, which lasted a full month, with shows stretching from New York’s Central Park to the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, has raised all sorts of heady concerns: respect, our reliance on celebrity culture and even feminism.
Ralph Lauren had a virtual show to introduce his Polo women’s collection in which 3-D models and the designer appeared to walk on water. The clothes, however, were just a blur of color and fuzzy patterns. The event was really a celebration of a brand, not a group of garments.
Thom Browne transformed women into living daisies and poppies. And while admiring the blissful beauty of his work, there was the nagging worry that he’d turned women into pretty little objects — what about their minds! — and gotten away with it without raising a single eyebrow among his guests. Were they remiss?
Designers at Givenchy and the newly revamped Mugler made forays into overt sex appeal with corsets, tight trousers, plunging necklines and hemlines that ended just below the derriere. Are such clothes inherently disrespectful? Or empowering in the Camille Paglia-Madonna-Beyoncé model?
But it was the designer Karl Lagerfeld who directly raised the question of feminism in fashion with his show for Chanel. The finale was a staged protest in which models paraded out carrying placards with slogans such as “Feministe and Feminine.” The scene came across as a lark but also as a missed opportunity to comment on the relationship between women and the fashion industry — a bond that tends to lean toward dysfunctional, wary or obsessive.
Looking back over the long list of shows and the varied points of view, one wonders what it means for a fashion house to take a feminist stance. Surely it would involve considering the roles of women within an individual company: whether they are in leadership positions and whether women who are part of the staff are treated fairly and given equal pay.
But is there such a thing as a feminist aesthetic? And what would it look like? Would it include collections such as Calvin Klein, Céline and Hermès because they favor a non-body-
conscious silhouette and non-
ornamented style? Or would it be Donna Karan, because even though her collection was a Boho romp from Haiti back to Soho, her company philosophy is all about female sensuality and she did that woman-as-president advertising campaign back in the 1990s?
Fundamentally, feminism is discussed in the context of respect: respecting the body and the mind as well as the heart.
As a matter of aesthetics, the spring collections have been, as a whole, particularly exuberant and colorful. In New York, designers were infatuated with floral prints and embroideries. The enthusiasm left one feeling practically giddy, as if spring promised to be nothing but prosecco on the deck and picnics by the beach. The optimism was palpable with designers intent on that most fundamental of purposes: making their customers smile. The collections aimed to appeal to the emotions.
And surely, in their attempt to bring pleasure through a singular garment — as if it were an intoxicating meal or a wonderful piece of music — a woman would feel respected.
For some designers, the focus is on the glamour of the brand, not the clothes. The goal is to conjure up a cool environment, the right front row and a louche attitude. There’s little apparent interest in elevating customers’ taste, educating them about construction or nudging fashion forward so that it doesn’t merely reflect contemporary times but influences them.
One of the most controversial collections for spring was Saint Laurent, where designer Hedi Slimane has refrained from developing new silhouettes or exploring fresh techniques. He has instead focused on exploiting the energy of a gritty, music-driven lifestyle. He is engaged in a love affair with Los Angeles, where he spends half his time. And he is infatuated with its youthful underground, subversive artists and shadowy underbelly.
As guests arrive for his shows, the space is almost pitch black. People click on their mobile phones just to get a bit of illumination for fear they might stumble over a bench. Down to every detail, Slimane snubs his nose at rules, propriety and the possibility of a lawsuit from someone who falls and cracks a rib.
Commercially, his collections have been successful, with double-digit growth reported earlier this year. But with those purchases, what are people really buying?
There are no rules that dictate what qualifies as good fashion and what is bad. What makes something attractive, after all, is subjective. And people will shell out money for the darndest things. (See: the Pet Rock, circa 1970s.) But is it fair to ask whether Saint Laurent is making our cultural understanding of fashion better? Is it respecting women’s intelligence?
Time may prove that Slimane is democratizing fashion, that he is elevating bar-band style and bringing it into the atelier. He may ultimately do what so many younger American menswear designers, such as Tim Coppens, Public School and Patrik Ervell, are doing by taking street gear and athletic wear upmarket.
Slimane is certainly part of a trend for spring that had designers finding inspiration in the 1970s. They have turned to fabrics such as denim, cotton eyelet, suede and leather. The trousers are fluid or wide and sculptural. The dresses are breezy with a hint of Bohemia. The colors are rich and complex — shades of olive, chartreuse, butterscotch and violet. And the patterns are lavish, ranging from tapestry-style prints to pop-art flowers.
But if there is one thing designers agreed on from one side of the Atlantic to the other, it’s that heels are low. Flats are in vogue. And for a lot of women, that is the ultimate sign of respect.