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 runway. Read her stories on Style Blog and follow her on Twitter: @robingivhan.
PARIS — The young men hovering around the benches at the Saint Laurent fall 2015 fashion show Monday night are as thin as whips. They are wearing skinny jeans, faded T-shirts and black leather jackets. One has hair that’s bleached platinum. Others have dark locks that have been clipped close but with enough length on top to create, with a bit of help from gel, something akin to a rooster’s crown.
They look as though they have just rolled in from playing an underground concert venue with the other members of their indie band. They look cool. Not naturally relaxed and charismatic, but studiously so. They have observed themselves in a mirror and they know that in a selfie they look best in three-quarter profile and with their shoulders rolled forward.
Their ping-pong repartee makes it clear that they are enormous Saint Laurent fans and regulars at the brand’s shows.
Designer Hedi Slimane has connected with this crowd by tapping into the independent music scene, the aesthetic of Los Angeles and that period from the Saint Laurent archive when the founding designer was still a young man stumbling out of night clubs and into the dark wee hours with a crew of debauched friends. These are the young men — and their female counterparts — who have helped Slimane define luxury in his reinvention of Saint Laurent.
The clothes for fall are as they have been since Slimane took the creative reigns here in 2012. They tap into a moment in music history. This time it is punk. His gang of models stomped down the runway — which rose from the floor on what appeared to be some sort of chain and sprocket system — wearing black leather motorcycle jackets, leather leggings, lampshade mini-skirts with stiff crinolines, shredded stockings and Technicolor furs. There were tight minidresses in black with metallic shimmer. They bared one shoulder, some adorned with a single giant bow, colorful waist details or nothing at all.
Slimane loves a rock-and-roll homage, and he has transformed pieces of that vernacular into classics within his collection. Time and again, he offers car coats and minidresses, skinny pants and sharp-shouldered blazers. The fabrics and embellishments change, but the silhouettes remain the same.
The aesthetics of Saint Laurent are boozy and sweaty. The clothes do not look expensive on the runway although they most certainly are in stores. There is a certain wanton, tawdriness to them. They reek of rebellion and ennui.
The commercial success of Saint Laurent is undeniable. But more than improving the bottomline of parent company Kering, the brand has forced several questions on the industry as a whole: What is luxury fashion? How do we define value? What exactly do we want our clothes to do for us? And where does a pair of ripped pantyhose — which one editor only half-jokingly suggested would probably sell for a whopping $800 a pair — fit into that story?
In the past, luxury was always equated with perfection. The cost of a garment was, to some degree, reflected by its appearance of flawlessness.
Hermès contines to function within that model. And in the first collection by the brand’s new designer, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, it adhered to that philosophy. Her narrow leather trousers, decadent mink pullovers and riding jackets with removable linings are all precisely described — right down to the fabrics, silhouettes and mineral content of the jewelry — in a booklet handed out at Monday evening’s show. The details, the provenance all matter.
Vanhee-Cybulski brought a soupçon of youthful vigor and edge to the collection, but she did not veer far from the brand’s legacy of perfectly understated luxury.
The Hermès model, however, is increasingly rare. And for those customers who long for clothes that are the equivalent of five star restaurants with hovering waiters, finger bowls and lemon sorbet palate refreshers — they are often at a loss. Even when Old World houses are revived and reinvented, perfection is not the aspiration. Why? Because it’s too easy for it to look matronly and boring. That’s what designer Guillaume Henry struggled with in his debut at Nina Ricci. (He succeeds designer Peter Copping who became creative director at Oscar de la Renta.)
The clothes at Nina Ricci were dull. The full-cut camel trousers and matching coats looked beautifully made but did not speak to the imagination. His sheer lace dresses seemed more like distractions than serious proposals. Henry’s best work was in his outerwear, such as a glamorous patchwork fur car coat. But at some point, a woman goes inside and has to doff her jacket. Henry did not offer her many enticing options for what to wear underneath.
Today, fashion aims to offer a modest aura of cool, a palpable connection to contemporary culture and ease. Luxury has become a perfect white T-shirt worn with wash-and-go hair.
Stella McCartney is often hailed as a consummate woman’s designer. The suggestion is that she understands how to create clothes for modern women — young mothers, in particular — because she is one herself. But what ultimately defines her aesthetic is a willingness to cede perfection to another day. Life is hectic and time is limited. Who has the wherewithal to truss oneself into some elaborate get-up accompanied by impeccably blown-out hair and a full face of makeup?
Luxury, for many people, means time. I don’t want to think about my clothes! That’s the plea from many women who are ready to plunk down their credit card for any frock that makes getting dressed faster and easier — without sacrificing style.
McCartney’s collection, which she showed Monday morning in front for an audience that included her father Paul McCartney, was a mix of thick, ribbed knit tunics, trousers with a narrow ruffle at the hem, floral embroidery that was purposefully imperfect to imbue it with character and ivory dresses with insets of metallic brocade.
One can envision McCartney’s clothes on the street — and not just in some rarified, fancy neighborhood, but in the city, down in the subway, in the thick of life.
There are other designers whose work has a connection to the street. But of all of them, Saint Laurent represents something unique. Rarely has a fashion house with such high-brow bona fides, one that essentially is the Establishment, made such a concerted effort to pull away from that legacy. Not in the quality of the garments, but in the aesthetics, the presentation, the aura.
He has done so by appealing to customers on a visceral level, not an intellectual one. He is not a designer like Chitose Abe, whose Sacai collection takes basics like a white shirt and reworks them into something surprising and challenging to the eye. Her fall collection, for instance, leaned heavily towards outerwear — actual coats as well as skirts and jackets that at a glance looked as heavy and daunting as a shearling bomber but were, in fact, light and could be worn without need of a polar vortex.
There is nothing evidently intellectual about Slimane’s work. It shouts and rages, curses and moans. His models, with their dark eyeliner and wild hair, stomped down his runway practically breathing fire. His women don’t want to get lost in their head. They don’t want to overthink or parse.
Slimane has defined modern luxury, in part, as the ability to break free and not care. At a time when everyone is pulled in countless directions, who wouldn’t want to turn away? Slimane’s work taps into that desire and then some. There’s no walking away. There’s no retreat. The collection leans in close. And yells.