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John Galliano redefines Maison Margiela with Paris Fashion Week comeback

Models present creations for Maison Margiela during the 2015-2016 fall/winter ready-to-wear collection fashion show on March 6, 2015 in Paris. AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND GUAYBERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Robin Givhan, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning fashion critic, is covering Paris Fashion Week. Follow along as she makes her way from runway to runwayRead her stories on Style Blog and follow her on Twitter: @robingivhan.

PARIS — Designer John Galliano did not take a bow after his ready-to-wear debut at Maison Margiela. The former creative director of Christian Dior, who transformed the pro forma runway bow into a theatrical production with personal costuming and flashing lights, remained behind the scenes. Galliano, who fell from grace after an anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bistro, was as anonymous as an infamous man could be.

He let his work stand alone. And on Friday evening, when he re-entered the fashion fray, he did so with a collection that was heavy on charm, light on ideas but with his technical skills exquisitely on display.

Galliano was fired from Dior in 2011. After spending time in rehab for substance abuse, enjoying a short residency at Oscar de la Renta and delivering several public mea culpas, he was hired by businessman Renzo Rosso to take over the creative reigns at Maison Margiela, a fashion house known for deconstruction and discretion.

[How good do John Galliano’s clothes for Margiela have to be to earn forgiveness?]

His first creative gesture for the brand was in January, when he presented an haute couture collection in London before a small and mostly friendly audience. In February, he took part in fashion’s great pop culture ritual — the Academy Awards red carpet. He designed a spare and sophisticated evening gown for actress Cate Blanchett that received plaudits from fashion fans.

And for his fall 2015 ready-to-wear collection, he transformed a pin-stripped blazer into a corset, wrapping the body of the coat around the model’s torso and leaving the sleeves dangling from her back. An oxblood shirt dress sparkled under the spotlights and clung beautifully to the model’s form. And he expertly laid waste to the rules of tailoring with trousers that merged seamlessly with a dress to form a single garment, and a coat that looked to have been finely shredded.

The show ended after only 30 looks — a relatively small number. He didn’t leave his audience with an unforgettable silhouette or a single item that captured the imagination. What one did remember were the handful of models who stole down the runway — playing skittish and frightened as though being chased by an unseen monster. They wore pieces from the collection, just as the other models did, but their makeup was more exaggerated, including bright orange fluorescent lipstick.

They were, it seemed, stand-ins for Galliano himself. Who could blame him if he were full of nerves and fretfulness as the demands of fashion once again are poised to snap at his heels?

When the show ended, the audience applauded warmly and waited. There was no musical crescendo. No cartoonish backdrop. Indeed, the entire show had taken place in a white-walled gallery in the Grand Palais, a space made as sterile-looking as an operating room. Galliano did not emerge from backstage and the guests sat in confused silence for several beats until finally, Rosso stood up, releasing them. That was it.

Maison Margiela has rebranded itself with the hiring of Galliano. It has not added his name to the label, but it has added his point-of-view to  the company’s aesthetic language. And it is his voice that is, so far, the loudest in that duet. The dresses have Galliano’s distinctive romantic touches and the flashes of kabuki makeup on the models call to mind countless Galliano shows from the past.

In this debut, there was less a sense that Galliano is starting over and building something new, rather that he is simply starting again.

Fashion companies talk a lot about their brand identity and the importance of protecting it. Fashion observers were surprised by Galliano’s hiring at Margiela because he seemed so at odds with the company’s identity. But fashion houses regularly hitch their identity to other brands that seem wholly at odds with their legacy. They constantly strive to energize the brand by injecting it with a youthful energy that often leaves long-time customers aghast. They are constantly striving to connect.

Dior, for instance, is now under the creative guidance of Raf Simons. He steeped himself in the history of the venerable label and then made it his mission to move that history into the present.

He presented his fall collection Friday afternoon in a specially constructed pavilion in the courtyard of the Louvre. As guests sat watching the models stride past the tent’s transparent walls, one could see the grand lines of the Louvre in the near distance.

The collection was inspired by the wild side of femininity — the raw sexuality and toughness. Simons focused on tweeds tailored with menswear’s strong lines and subtle animal prints in a kaleidoscope of colors. Dior’s history was less in evidence for fall. But Simons beautifully situated the brand in the present.

Alexander Wang has revamped Balenciaga into a brand that speaks of urban savoir-faire rather than the rarified world of high society and salons. His work for fall explicitly bridges that divide with the cocoon coats and bubble dresses for which the house is known, and playful contemporary gestures such as metallic “staples” that appear to bind the seams and collars constructed from leather belts.

He is at his best with his cropped trousers and pajama-style jackets. Unfortunately his regally embroidered skirts delight the eye but hobble the legs. They are impossible to walk in at full stride — and that roots them not just in the past but in obsolescence.

Wang’s work has a lively spirit and bears a through line to contemporary culture. And right now, that line dead-ends at the Kardashian-Wests. Their presence at a show serves as a kind of stamp of its pop culture relevance.

There’s Kimye leaving Balenciaga. There’s a picture of West arriving at Dior. And as the Lanvin show was poised to begin in the great hall of the Ecole des Beaux Arts on this city’s Left Bank, a mighty rumble echoed from the far end of the room. The Kardashian-Wests! They strolled across the runway to their seats while a hungry mob of photographers shuffled backwards to capture their every footstep.

Kim! Kim! Over hear, Kanye! This way! S’il vous plaît!

Together, Kim and Kanye are combustible alchemy — a brand that no fashion house seems capable of resisting. Inviting it — the brand, the machine, the monster — to a show means hitching one’s corporate identity to it. And while that might turn off some customers, it isn’t such a big deal since fashion is pop culture. They both are a little tawdry, flashy and insatiable in their need for attention. They are obviously flawed and guiltily mesmerizing.

[What Kanye West gets right about fashion, and what he gets wrong]

But what about the clothes at Lanvin? For fall, designer Alber Elbaz offered multiple storylines. One is polished and tailored in shades of navy, wine and black with power dresses accessorized with leather or reptile harnesses. Another is bohemian and free. There are patterned skirts and shaggy shearlings. Finally, one is raucously indulgent. There are layers of paillettes in ruby red and piled up on top of black tunic-style dresses and coats.

So many ideas, so much extravagance, so much fashion. Folks consume it greedily. Brands evolve. Pop culture expands. And Kim and Kanye give it all their seal of approval.


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