PARIS — The model stood in the center of the ornate ballroom where three magnificent chandeliers dangled overhead. The runway was lined with glittering gold carpet. She stood simply, surrounded by rows of editors and retailers.
She was of a certain age, as they say, her face delicately lined, her hair silver. She was wearing a billowing skirt of ivory tulle, a bodice that seemed to have been assembled from bits of faux fur and fabric. Her feet were bare. And her torso was delineated by a golden breastplate.
A gold crown of branches was perched atop her head. And she looked beautiful.
The clothes — the styling, the setting, the entirety of the idea — were the work of a singular creative director. A fashion auteur whose hand is evident in every detail. To see that unfold is as exciting as watching a thoroughbred race or athletes in their prime.
Over the last year, some of fashion's most notable houses have lost their creative directors. One was dismissed; others quit; another is rumored to be on his way out. And one house is readying a debut.
This revolving door of creativity has caused an uproar among the fashion cognoscenti — not because there is no longer anyone picking out fabric or choosing the colors of the season, but because with this particular upheaval a certain thrill has subsided.
Just as film turns to its directors, fashion relies on creative directors to fabricate a wholly immersive experience. But at this level of fashion — in Paris, in elegant ballrooms and 17th century salons, in this cosmos of outlandish prices — they are expected to be mythmakers. Good isn't enough. Greatness is expected. They must be auteurs.
The average shopper doesn't typically notice the names of the designers behind the labels. What they see are the stories, the magic, the sex appeal. The products. They see pop culture changing. They see the contents of their own closet evolving.
The fall 2016 Undercover show began with models dressed in long, nubby cardigans, furry trousers, fuzzy slippers and photo-printed shirts. They cuddled into big furry jackets and toted handbags that looked like pillows. They were somnambulating beauties. A concrete jungle had been transformed into a fanciful forest. And the message for the curious consumer is that fashion is getting ever easier and more comfortable. So you might as well relent and buy a pair of fuzzy house shoes and wear them to the market.
The collection was conceived by designer Jun Takahashi, who appeared ever so briefly on the runway to take a bow after the audience's insistent applause practically demanded that he do so.
Undercover is well-known in Japan, where Takahashi was born. And he has collaborated with Uniqlo and Nike. But despite those mass-market relationships, in the world United States Undercover remains virtually unknown beyond those who make it their business to know such things.
Undercover is akin to an art-house film. It speaks in a very specific manner and without a big celebrity following or red carpet presence — which are fashion's equivalent of CGI special effects and car crashes.
Undercover is a vivid example of what it means for a brand to have an auteur. His eclecticism may have shoppers asking, "Who would wear that?" The answer may well be: "The same people who saw all those Best Documentary Short Subject nominees."
Yang Li is another designer who tells a unique story through his clothes. His namesake label is a kind of aesthetic poetry. His collection for fall was especially adept with outerwear that seemed to explode open, laying its interior workings bare. Garments that normally serve to cover and protect managed to expose — or threatened to do so.
Every brand that puts its wares on the runway here aims to make an intimate connection with its audience. But at the moment there is a crisis of communication at some of the industry's most established houses.
Dior does not have a permanent creative director since the departure of Raf Simons. Neither does Lanvin after Alber Elbaz was fired. Rumors abound that Saint Laurent's Hedi Slimane is poised to exit. And Balenciaga has yet to unveil the debut of its recently installed designer Demna Gvasalia, who stepped in after Alexander Wang left.
Without auteurs, fashion becomes mired in sameness. It becomes a conglomeration of lowest common denominator blockbusters and vapid sequels. Paris's reputation as a modern-day, global fashion center rests on the notion of disruption and provocation. Designers don't come to Paris to be loved; they come to be discovered. They come to be heard.
Audiences have already seen how mightily Lanvin has suffered after the dismissal of its creative director Alber Elbaz. The fall collection was dispiriting.
At Dior, the collection was fine. Not great, not shocking. Just fine.
It was respectable and beautifully made because Dior has an atelier filled with consummate professionals who have seen an assortment of designers come and go while they carry on with the business of tailoring and dressmaking.
The fall Dior presentation began with a sequence of jackets, skirts and dresses in basic black. It continued with pairings of skirts and blouses in a mix of prints. There were beautifully beaded skirts and elegant coats with portrait collars.
And in the parade, there were hints of Simons's informality and plenty of references to the house's history of of discreet femininity and jackets with nipped waists and full hips — the famous Bar jacket.
It was all packaged with strong makeup, sleek hair and cool shades. Nice.
Creative directors have an enormous job. They not only decide what the clothes will look like, they are also responsible for the mood of the advertising, the design of the stores, the way a customer feels when she is standing in a dressing room and assessing herself in the mirror.
But the auteurs go further. They are the messengers, the public faces, the suitors. The auteur creates magic to keep the company in the black. An auteur makes us talk.
Conjuring fashion voodoo is hard. There are any number of designers who are skilled at churning out one solid collection after another. And this season, Dior falls into that category.
Fashion's recent turmoil hasn't involved a random bunch of creative managers and team leaders. The upheaval is among folks with deeply held points-of-view and sweeping vision. They are the people who create collections that provoke a reaction — good and bad. The folks who make us think, who infuriate and inflame. And occasionally delight.