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c.2012 New York Times News Service

PARIS On the morning of Sept. 26, at the beginning of the spring collections, the cover of Women's Wear Daily arrived at fashionable hotels across this city bearing a composite image that pitted designers Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane against each other, with a headline in bold type that declared a "Paris Face-Off."

For months, the industry had been buzzing about the arrival of the popular designers at two of the biggest houses here on the world's greatest fashion stage. Simons, after a well-received couture collection in July, would show his first women's ready-to-wear for the house of Dior on Friday; and Slimane, whose slimmed-down suits for men were wildly influential during his years at Dior Homme, in the early 2000s, would have his first runway show for Yves Saint Laurent on Monday. The label is now called simply Saint Laurent, at his direction.

Suzy Menkes, writing in The International Herald Tribune that morning, described the competition as "the clash of two new titanic designers." Simons and Slimane are the same age, 44, and they established their reputations in menswear at roughly the same time. This has contributed to the impression that they would again be competitors.

Nevertheless, the news of their debuts this week has, in its drama, approached the Shakespearean. For it is an ancient grudge or at least a verifiable rivalry between the households of Dior and Saint Laurent and the luxury conglomerates that own them that has made this story so fascinating to behold. At the very least, theirs had been the two most anticipated collections of the season that ended here Wednesday.

''I saw fashion people starting the week in New York thinking, 'Oh, the clock is ticking, three more weeks of waiting until tonight,'" said Virginie Mouzat, an influential critic who is ending her role as the fashion editor for Le Figaro this week to become an editor at the about-to-be-introduced Vanity Fair France.

The arrival of Simons at Dior and Slimane at Saint Laurent coincided with a prolonged period of intense change in fashion, as the great couture houses established in the 20th century, while still powerful, seek to find critical paths to relevance with a new generation of consumers. Both labels have undergone considerable strain in recent times: Dior, with the career-derailing implosion of John Galliano; and Saint Laurent, with a culture of resistance to attempts by any designer to create a look that is not in keeping with the tradition of Saint Laurent, who died in 2008.

Ultimately, the approaches of Simons and Slimane proved to be more different in nature, and less illustrative of a rivalry, than anyone had expected. And their differences could be seen, literally, in spaces that were black and white.

Simons went first.


His show took place not far from the Rodin Museum, the site of many recent Dior shows by Galliano and by the design team that filled in during the arduous search for a new designer. It was held in a vast white cube that had been erected on one side of the Hotel National des Invalides, practically at the doorstep of Napoleon's tomb.

Inside, the space was divided into more-intimate rooms, with bright lighting, white carpeting and pastel-curtained windows placed randomly in the walls so that guests could see into the neighboring rooms.

Simons told reporters in advance of the show that he was interested in breaking free of the restrictions of minimalism, an aesthetic with which he is often associated, by "embracing the sexual, emotional, sensual and feminine in the collection."


Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, was one of many guests at the show who said that Simons was an inspired choice for Dior. There had been a widespread impression that Galliano's collections had not really changed in years and that the company had become almost singularly focused on the sales of lucrative accessories and cosmetics.

''Dior was not just about the hourglass," Steele said. "He did the 'H' line, the 'A' line, the 'Y' line, and that's perfect for Raf, who is all about line."

In many ways that day, Simons sought to break free of the past (both of Dior and his own) with clothes that had more freedom of movement, creating new shapes and jackets, some based on a tuxedo, that were long enough to be worn as coats. And he conveyed a sexual notion through short dresses in a combination of electric and pastel colors, some made of a fabric that looked like cellophane.

The reviews were exceptional.

Bridget Foley, in WWD, wrote that it was "well worth every drop of anticipation and every second of the wait."

Menkes called it "a triumph of 21st century modernism."

At the show, Sidney Toledano, the chief executive of Dior, looked like a proud father. Retailers who had never carried the line have been sending him notes asking for appointments.

And the mood in the atelier, he said, has been remarkably light and open, not only because Simons had succeeded in wiping away the gloom left by Galliano's unceremonious exit but also because, as the critics said, he understood the vision of Christian Dior and interpreted it in his own modern way.

Just as important, Toledano said, "he respected the people inside the atelier, from the first moment he joined the company."


The phone calls came late Monday morning, on the day of the Saint Laurent show. In turn, reporters and critics from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Style.com, WWD and other publications were each presented with what amounted to ground rules for covering the collection, which is highly unusual.

There would be no backstage access before the show, they were told. Afterward, they were welcome to talk to Slimane, but they were not allowed to ask him questions or use anything he might say in their coverage.

In the months before the show, virtually every action by Slimane, who had mostly been working as a photographer, had been weighted with significance. He changed the name of the house, designed a new logo and, most controversially, decided to base his studio in Los Angeles, rather than the Paris atelier.

But the handling of invitations and access to the show (as many editors, including some editors-in-chief, privately grumbled) left a feeling of ill will. Stylists and editors who are normally in the front row were given seats in the second, third or fourth, including the stylist Karl Templer, several magazine fashion directors and many editors from Vogue.

Several journalists, including Cathy Horyn of The Times, were not invited (although this reporter was); others, including veteran writers like Marylou Luther, who was present when Yves Saint Laurent showed his first collection for Christian Dior in 1958, were given a standing ticket.

Of course, intrigue and mystery have surrounded the house of Saint Laurent since its founding in the early 1960s. And for all of the complaints about their treatment, some found it amusing.

''There isn't enough theater in fashion right now," said Ingrid Sischy, the international editor for Vanity Fair Europe.

The show, held in a black-swathed gallery in the rafters of the Grand Palais, so dark that it was difficult to read the names on the seats, was attended by an impressive list of designers, including Marc Jacobs, Azzedine Alaia, Vivienne Westwood, Riccardo Tisci and Alber Elbaz (many of whom also attended Simons' couture show in July). Valerie Trierweiler, the partner of French president Francois Hollande, told WWD she was there "to discover this show that has everyone talking before they even see it."


There was more anticipation for Slimane's show than that of Simons, namely because Slimane has been absent from the runways for more than five years, and he had never before shown a complete collection for women.

''I remember the Dior Homme shows that Hedi did, and instantly, within six months, one year, everyone wanted to wear the jacket and the slim jeans, whether they were boys or girls," Mouzat said. "This is another interesting point of the legacy of Mr. Saint Laurent, the crossing between the men and women with pants and black tie. I think in Hedi's mind, this was a very strong statement that he did with Dior Homme. Even though it was labeled for men, lots of girls wanted to wear it, too."

Slimane also has the support of Pierre Berge, the co-founder of the house of Saint Laurent, who has championed the designer since he worked on YSL's menswear early in his career and has criticized everyone else who succeeded Saint Laurent. The contract of the most recent designer, Stefano Pilati, had not been renewed, partly because of Berge's frequent complaints that his work was not respectful enough of Saint Laurent.

As Berge said after the show, Slimane's collection had indeed paid homage to the codes established by Saint Laurent, something that was also not lost on the audience, for better or worse.

Slimane's look echoed the sort of bohemian chic of long caftans, peasant blouses, frilly bows, tiered skirts and fringed jackets that Saint Laurent designed in the 1970s. His fellow designers praised the collection for being "very Saint Laurent" (Diane von Furstenberg said she completely identified with the look because she wore the same thing in her youth). And it should be noted that retailers appeared enthusiastic.

But the collection was not entirely well received. Although Slimane's signature skinny suits were there, in the form of tuxedos, the collection was not what critics expected.

Sarah Mower, writing at Vogue.com, said his womenswear debut "shone an unexpected light on him, not as a raging rebel but as someone who declares himself, first and foremost, loyal to the house's founding principles."

WWD said, "It was interesting to the point of odd."

In the end, there was no chance to not ask Slimane a question. About two dozen guests waited at a backstage door, then were roughly ushered to another exit and told that he had left.

After the show, many online commenters, perhaps unaware of Saint Laurent's influences and his close study of the bohemian style of eccentric heiress Talitha Getty, among others, noted the similarity of Slimane's style with a contemporary one that was probably not as Slimane intended: that of the Hollywood stylist Rachel Zoe, who more than anyone is responsible for reviving that Saint Laurent look in celebrity fashion, especially in Los Angeles.

Tuesday morning, at the Chanel show, someone handed Zoe a copy of that day's WWD, with pictures of the collection. Even from across the runway, she looked to be floored.

''You're the talk of the town," Joe Zee, the creative director of Elle, told her.

''I literally received 20 phone calls last night in the span of 20 minutes," Zoe said with a cackle. "I don't know what to say. I doubt I really was an influence, but I think it's the most unbelievable collection. I literally want every single piece."