Playing to Their Audiences

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

PARIS — Isabel Marant, whose name has become shorthand for a certain brand of messy-haired Parisian chic, took inspiration for her new collection, she said, from the tribes of Africa.

It doesn’t do to delve too deeply into anthropology here. The influence was loose rather than literal: a handful of shells here, some raffia there, a flat sandal with every outfit. The Marant look remains the Marant look: short-skirted below, slouchy-sweatered on top, unfussily and imperfectly bohemian. If there’s a tribe to be glimpsed on Marant’s runways, it is her own, mirrored in the stands and in the streets by the women who have made a cult of her clothes.

Their adoration may have hemmed her in. The collection included pieces sure to please her fans (those fringed tunics and tops, for instance) but didn’t dispel a niggling sense that she has become the prisoner of her success and in danger of growing formulaic — or worse, stale.

Yet consistency has its clear advantages, and it isn’t only Marant who has created herself a tribe. Much of fashion, whether its designers are pondering it or not, divides along tribal lines.

Few but the most committed chameleons carom among styles and labels with complete abandon. Affinities assert themselves, no less among the professionals than the general public. For every Anna Dello Russo, the Italian editor and street-style fixture whose generosity (or rapacity) of fashion spirit requires several outfit changes a day, there are many more who may sample widely but rarely stray far. The rest of the world, too, tends to find what works and returns to it.

As such, it behooves a line to consider its core strengths and core customers as Marant has done, all the squishy intangibles that fall under the catchall of “DNA.” Thus, the tricky balancing act: Evolution is crucial, but forget where you’ve come from at your peril.

For Acne Studios, the founding value is youth. Acne grew out of denim, expanding into inexpensive, casual clothes for the street, then further onto the Paris runway. But its own history is probably its most reliable guide. Jeans are a testament to the power and durable cool of simplicity, and the label is at its best when it isn’t burdened by undue complication.

There were great pieces in this vein, like a leather barn jacket that cinched at the waist, but more often concept weighed heavy on this collection. Jonny Johansson, the company’s creative director, said he had been thinking about how young people absorb and repurpose luxury, so power suits became plunging tops or A-line dresses, gold watchbands were worn as bracelets.

The overall effect was less celebrating youth than aping age. At least the terrycloth dresses wrapped like bath towels, silly as they were, made the mature suggestion that leisure is as good a measure of luxury as gold.

And at Kenzo, the values came printed on a card on every seat (“Purity,” “Lightness,” “Energy” and “Wind” among them), but who is the tribe?

To judge by the staging, at a massive concrete skate park where video screens displayed mountain ranges, the enormous face of a digital avatar and a voice on the loudspeakers intoned threateningly, “There is no Planet B,” they are the inhabitants of some not-entirely-rosy future. According to a company spokeswoman, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim have completed a three-year audit of their suppliers to ensure sustainable production and are “exploring how to deepen its commitment” by adding suppliers who provide more eco-friendly raw materials.

Leon’s and Lim’s magic with stagecraft and taste for innovation (dramaturgical and ecological) is such that their shows are never less than events. Yet they tend to leave their collections and their point of view hazily defined. For all the pleasant pieces sprinkled throughout — fit-and-flare trumpet skirts and dresses, tiered blouses ruffling over pretty lace skirts — it never became terribly clear whom the clothes were designed to serve.