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'The rich look' lives on in Paris
[PARIS] Sometimes it feels necessary to resist the easy seductions of beauty. Other times it is pointless to refrain. If designers here produced little in the way of big ideas or innovations this season, they seemed to have agreed on the same aesthetic mandate: Excite the attention of viewers without in any way challenging it.
This was as true of the often unruly Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons Homme Plus as it was of the orderly and corporately obedient Kris Van Assche at Dior Homme. Where Kawakubo's particular line of beauty is typically composed of grand and even baroque gestures, her approach this time was starkly simplified. If you eliminated the muslin dinosaur heads worn by some of the models (they were made by the fabric artist Shimoda Masakatsu) and focused on the clothes, what you saw was a designer more eager than usual to please.
Through her press office, Kawakubo usually issues a couple of cryptic phrases purporting to elucidate her state of mind.
This time she offered "white shock" and "the punk inside", as if those terms explained anything about pretty and modestly asymmetrical jackets printed with panels from Superman cartoons (or else covered with brick patterns reminiscent of paintings by the artist Martin Wong), or a grouping of elegant padded white jackets worn over billowing trousers suitable for a modern Zouave.
Van Assche is a designer who often makes references to punk and teen boy culture while designing for a house that, more than any other, emblematises conservative dimensions of French cultural identity. Dior is owned, after all, by Bernard Arnault, the richest man in France.
Mr Arnault attended the Dior Homme show with his wife, Hélène, and they were surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards. (The unevenness of wealth distribution is striking in Paris, where immigrant tent encampments line the boulevards and medians at the outskirts, and the unemployment among the young, in all of France, stubbornly hovers around 20 pe rcent.)
What Van Assche produced was in the main a selection of handsome dark two-piece suits - snugly tailored, bristling with buttons, vaguely feminised through the use of dressmaking techniques, yet still armoring and tough.
Though he showed them at the Grand Palais on the usual bevy of boy lovelies barely old enough to shave, he also cast a group of men in their 40s - the models Cameron Alborzian, Mark Vanderloo, Arnaud Lemaire and others - who, though well preserved, also look as if they've been around the block.
For all that designers have worked up a collective lather trying to get at the millennial consumer (and there were some terrific jeans in high-waist, full-leg cuts aimed at those guys), the commercial exigencies of a house like Dior Homme count on the inevitable maturation of Generation Z. The perma-adolescent look of sweatpants and hoodies may work for now. But, eventually, Van Assche seemed to be betting, the time comes to man up.
A generalised fatigue with athleisure was an underlying theme at the shows here, sometimes expressed in unintentionally humorous ways. Backstage before Alexander McQueen, the designer Sarah Burton spoke of how elements of classic British tailoring are hard-wired into the house's identity.
Mostly that meant a collection replete with suit jackets whose "exploded" silhouette amounted to a slight amplification of the usual hourglass McQueen proportions and lavish deployment of woolen weaves (chalk stripe and windowpane checks) one associates with Savile Row.
Asked whether, like many, she had wearied of the cliché deployed by a lot of designers now - track pants paired with a jacket as a bastard form of suiting - Burton nodded. "That isn't in the McQueen vocabulary at all," she said.
Soon enough the show started, and there, along with her typically impeccable offerings, like a handsome scarlet woolen parka, fat shearlings and military-type greatcoats, were jackets paired with luxurious woolen track pants, striped up the side.
Back in the 1970s, when Andy Warhol was making regular trips to Paris with his business manager, the Texan Fred Hughes, to scour the Clignancourt flea market for underappreciated Art Deco treasures and the society salons for portrait commissions, Warhol used to refer to a kind of attire he encountered on European men as "the rich look".
Berluti was a venerable but obscure high-end Italian cobbler then. It had not yet been acquired and repurposed by LVMH to furnish a new generation of prosperous men with the rich look. By now we are well into a transformation effected by several designers under the guidance of Antoine Arnault, the LVMH scion, and the Berluti label is a definitive sartorial marker of how the other one-half of 1 per cent lives.
With Nick Cave on the soundtrack and the tyro actor Timothée Chalamet in the front row, the designer Haider Ackermann sent out a gorgeous if, to the average observer, fanciful collection of covert coats and suede trenches and bicolour parkas that subtly telegraphed the difference between those who furtively check hang tags and those for whom price is no consideration. In fact, for those people it is often the point.
At a certain level, the denominator of luxury fashion is cost, according to Joerg Koch, the guiding force behind the influential Berlin fashion and culture journal 032C. "It's gross," Mr Koch said before a mini-fashion show staged for a crowd that included Courtney Love by the fledgling label SSS World Corp and held at the restaurant Caviar Kaspia.
That show featured sparkly and shiny "Miami Vice" thug wear by Justin O'Shea, the Australian merchant-cum-designer who tanked so extravagantly during his brief stint as the creative director for Brioni and who yet still knows a thing or two about stimulating consumer appetite.
Ackermann's designs for Berluti are refined light-years away from O'Shea's satin cabana sets, but, at core, they reflect the same macho urge. In Hollywood's lamented Golden Age, the visual tell for money and social arrival was a tuxedo or, at the highest end, white tie and tails. Except at pretentious costume extravaganzas like the annual Met Ball, people no longer aspire to dress like that. Yet, the desire to communicate arrival to one's economic peers remains powerful.
And what better way than with a subtle green suede trench coat from Berluti that likely costs the equivalent of several months' rent for an average Joe? Or how about a white-shearling-lined navy coat or a bicolour parka or one of the gorgeously anonymous-looking flasher coats Ackermann showed on women including Mica Argañaraz, Liya Kebede or the aristocratic British model Stella Tennant, the latter with her hair cropped in a manly cut?
"People are always telling women to get in touch with their boyish side," the Balmain designer Olivier Rousteing said before his customarily extravagant show on Sunday.
"Why don't men get in touch with their femininity?"
Faulting Rousteing for his vulgar vision is like hating Siegfried & Roy for raising white tigers. So much of what he produces - in this case beaded and embroidered T-shirts proclaiming, "Fashion Is Not Evolution but Revolution", chain-mail tunics, fringed bouclé outerwear and enough kinky PVC stuff to keep Johnson & Johnson in business (NB: talcum powder is key to wearing skintight vinyl) - is reminiscent of Vegas spots like Circus Circus or Paris joints like Le Palace that you have to admire his historical research. Or maybe you don't.
"There is literally no memory" of anything predating the Instagram era, said Stefano Tonchi, the W editor, who professes to be a Rousteing admirer. Young people encountering Rousteing's designs, Mr Tonchi said, are giddily discovering glitzy club wear for the very first time.
Money is obligatorily hushed at a house like Hermès, as befits a label founded centuries ago to cater to the French carriage trade. Season after season, the designer Veronique Nichanian delivers the goods. To say of Nichanian's new collection that it was memorable less for any particular item than for the sense she conveyed of quiet wealth is to say she achieved success.
More than her handsome designs, though, it was the enchanted production staged by the Brussels-based Villa Eugénie and held in the Hôtel de l'Artillerie on the Place St-Thomas d'Aquin that will remain indelible in the memory of a fortunate observer.
Installed in the winter-bare garden of an ancient arcaded courtyard were vertical braziers holding firewood. Each was set alight in the minutes before the show started on a drizzly Paris night. Smoke drifted into the air as the models paraded around in their luxurious finery. Fires crackled and orange sparks scattered into the air. For all the orgies of effort and expense that go into creating fashion spectacles, the true wonder is how much enchantment can be created by the simplest of means.