In Paris, the past with a modern twist

PARIS — Many fashion designers, you may have noticed, are squeamish about breasts. They prefer boyish waif bodies or a tolerable B-cup — largely on the grounds that the clothes hang better. With obvious exceptions like the body-conscious designs of Azzedine Alaiea, their clothes almost seek to neutralize the female form.

Meanwhile, the demand for padded bras and breast implants suggest that women like a kind of reconstructed femininity. They want hips and breasts, phony or not.

Two designers, Miuccia Prada and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, really captured that appetite this season, and with a style that was deliberately unnatural looking. Natural would be a minimalist beige tunic or maybe a gently nipped-waist jacket that you could wear with a skirt or a pair of khakis. With those styles, the objective is to look purposeful and energetic. And how many women would quarrel with that?

But Jacobs rarely takes the easy route. Set around a splashing fountain in a courtyard of the Louvre, his Vuitton show was called, unambiguously, “And God Created Woman,” after the 1956 Roger Vadim film starring Brigitte Bardot. From the first outfit, on the curvy model/actress Laetitia Casta, to the last, on the swimsuit legend Elle Macpherson, there was an impressive sense of the physical — corseted breasts, bare arms and legs, womanly hips under full skirts. In a way, the body was the main event.

Realistically, most of those skirts are too old-fashioned and clunky to wear; you’d be exhausted before you went a block. The wool corsets would look just as pretty with a pair of pants. But to me, this collection wasn’t about returning to the glories of Bardot as it was about presenting an artificial and super-enlarged beauty — and where else could Jacobs go but to an era when women were still built like women, right down to their girdles?

A month of ready-to-wear shows ended March 10 with a last-minute blitz of strong collections. Jean Paul Gaultier usually finds a comfortably shallow theme for his Hermes collections, so it was no surprise that he selected the music from “The Avengers” and the bowler hats and furled umbrellas appeared on cue. Yet the tailored pantsuits and superb examples of leather coats (mostly in black) and leather-trimmed pieces expressed in depth the taste for clothes with savoir-faire.

For her Miu Miu show on March 10, Miuccia Prada replaced the hard, slatted wooden chairs she typically uses with blue foam cubes. The buoyant seats, along with the ’80s dance music, were consistent with the lighter — and less conceptual — mood of the clothes.

Minidresses in black wool, or a wool jersey, had wide straps or prim collars closed with a big cord bow; hems had a stiff flounce, and some of the skirts appeared to be made of two curved, overlapping panels. Everything, then, had a rounded quality, like the bell shape of a tunic over skinny pants with belled cuffs, or the silver metal flowers that decorated waists and straps, or the black spats that flopped over the mirrored shoes.

Late that day, Alaiea had something of an impromptu presentation of his fall collection in his studio in the Marais, with drinks and dinner. His classic knits were lush and short, some with a sparkle. He showed one or two gorgeous dresses in black velvet, dresses for which you didn’t need a perfect body and certainly not a corset, but perhaps the most compelling looks were a handful of trim wool jackets with a play of seams of the back. Shown with velvety knit miniskirts, their modern energy was hard to beat.

The designers of Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, referred somewhat obliquely in their press notes to a “digital romanticism.” Maybe they meant a pretty feminine style or pattern that could be endlessly manipulated without really producing a new or different result. That was the sense, anyway, of the many ruffled pieces in their latest collection — ruffles spilling down the fronts of day jackets or around chiffon evening dresses. The clothes, especially dresses done in lace or with fur, had a lot going for them, but overall the collection felt a bit one-dimensional.

No collection dominated the Paris season quite like Alexander McQueen’s, and not because it represented the final work of the late designer. The 15 dresses and caped coats — each one different and all referencing 15th-century paintings or carvings — were exceptional because no one else thought to make such a personal and subtle connection to the function of art on human consciousness.

McQueen’s fashion often embraced historical styles, but rarely with more feeling and modern sense of purpose. He had details of medieval paintings, in particular Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” captured digitally and then woven into jacquard or embroidered. He cut each of the patterns himself.

Given the subject matter of the paintings, the imagery is necessarily gothic, glorious but also dark. Lions are embroidered in gold around the hem of a beautiful black silk caped dress. On the front of a long white dress are the slightly shadowed, downcast heads of two saintly figures. Above each is a dove in flight. The silk dress, with the details rendered in different shadings of gray, extends the figures’ robes to the hem, duplicating their swirls and folds in jacquard chiffon.

What may not be obvious is how the stiff silk flowed into a fluid one, or indeed how McQueen engineered these seemingly complicated pieces with a minimum of seams. Those techniques fascinated him, but it was his artistic sensibility that could make his fashion so uplifting.

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