A Melting Pot, or Perhaps a Quilt

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

PARIS — It’s hard not to wonder sometimes, as we sit idly by waiting for a show to start in, say, the Tuileries (where Nina Ricci was held) or the École des Beaux-Arts (Lanvin) or a hidden courtyard of the Louvre (Dior) or the Palais de Chaillot (Rick Owens) — or, indeed, any one of the multiple historic French institutions where prêt-à-porter can be found — what Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, preacher of France for the French, European Union skeptic and increasingly popular potential presidential candidate, would think?

Well, your mind has to go somewhere before the lights go on, and you can spend only so much time looking at people’s shoes and Instagramming Kimye at their quazzillionth show. The rise of Le Pen is something to consider. Especially because there’s no disputing the fact that French fashion, one of the great economic success stories of recent years, is being defined almost entirely by the non-French.

Simply consider Christian Dior, one of the core names in the mythology of Gallic style, now under the artistic direction of Raf Simons, a Belgian who has made a trademark out of what he calls “the process of finding something extremely modern through something very historical,” be it the Dior Bar jacket or, this season, 18th-century court dress.

A continuation and streetening-up of ideas he first showed at couture in July, this meant stretch jersey tank tops attached via tiny buttons to balloon skirts of floral jacquard; taffeta flight suits covered in miniature posies; crisp cotton nightgown dresses with lace inlay; and frock coats of many kinds — sleeveless raspberry satin, blue velvet, jet-embroidered black, white flou detailed in flowers — all worn with slouchy Bermuda shorts and knit tops.

Imagine if Marianne (aka the symbolic face of the French nation) had hopped onto a skateboard to Versailles, and you’ll get the idea. Certainly Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and the new minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, applauding happily from the front row, seemed to.

Then there’s Nina Ricci, where Peter Copping, who is British, continued to refine his tightly drawn version of a Parisian coquette. Basing his silhouettes on the founder’s work in the postwar years, specifically the late 1940s, he offered slim and swish crepe or houndstooth or leather pencil skirts slit to midthigh on one side and topped by sweaters and jackets curved by the thinnest of snakeskin belts, painterly tones (pink with a tangerine lining; cherry with periwinkle blue) and bias-cut silk dresses blooming stylized tulips, and gently curving lace and silk gowns, all slightly off-center, crushed and twisted like a raised eyebrow. Bon chic, bon genre, with a dollop of flirtation between consenting adults on top.

It is understood that this is Copping’s last Ricci show, as he is moving to another house in another country. If so, it demonstrated just how much he has contributed to taking what was a perfume brand and giving it meaningful corporeal form. Smells like French spirit.

Ditto Lanvin, where Alber Elbaz (an Israeli) has done much to revive the house that Jeanne built. Coming up on its 125th-anniversary year, he relaxed into a range of offerings, including stripped-down columns of flowing jersey in burnt umber and turquoise blue hung from delicate gold wire; strong-shouldered jackets over pencil skirts; little brocade black shift dresses trimmed in pearls; cocktail numbers of three different colors and directions of lace; and a silk-screened print of a fawn frolicking in the garden, paired with gold brocade. It was rose (or rosé)-tinted, no glasses required.

The result wasn’t so much a statement as a smorgasbord of options with something for everyone, the through line between the minimal and maximal being a certain generosity on the body. No coincidence it was shown on models not just of the moment but of a certain age.

As it happens, generosity isn’t generally part of the definition of chic in this city, and it is a welcome addition. Which may be why Elbaz gets a perennial roar of applause at the end of every show: he has actually added to the conversation.

As has Rick Owens, an American who set up his house in the Seventh Arrondissement more than a decade ago and whose aesthetic signature is a kind of brutalist de- and reconstruction of the most hallowed traditional forms. To wit: this season’s collection, built from the starting point of the ballet “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune,” based on the Mallarmé poem, music by Debussy, as performed by Nijinsky, which in its contrasts of classicism and carnality, led Owens to the idea of making tulle look like concrete. (These are the kind of intuitive leaps that take place in the designer mind.)

Obscure as that sounds, the result was layers upon layers of light gray or musty green or muddy transparency, sculpted into cloudlike trapeze shapes with flying buttress sides, overlaid with patches of rough leather and bleached denim, occasionally honeycombed, often surprisingly pretty, sometimes sprouting an unexpected tangle of tubular arms, or flowers, down one side.

What made it work? Je ne sais quoi.