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Spring Forward

For spring, designers are seeing everything in black and white.

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It would be as well to start at the end. The most eagerly awaited event of the Paris collections, if not the entire season of spring shows, was the last one of all: Tom Ford's first collection for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. The minute the Paris week kicked off, the rumor mill went into overdrive. The show would seat 100. No, 300. (In the end, it was somewhere around 700.) Spies claimed that the entire collection was black -- and then Ford announced in an interview that he loved color. He also said it would be a tribute to an older fashion icon. WWD guessed stylist Polly Mellen, but in the end it was Betty Catroux, Saint Laurent's longtime muse, who provided Ford's inspiration. * The frisson carried over to Paris's two Yves Saint Laurent boutiques. Though the Gucci Group had bought the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear label and installed Ford as its designer in March, Yves Saint Laurent will continue to design the couture line for the near future. So on one end of the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, the haute couture store was selling items presumably designed by the master himself -- much to the chagrin of the new regime, according to the press -- while the Rive Gauche store, further up the street, was giving the public a small taste of Ford's first efforts, a cruise collection, in its windows. (It was sharp-edged and almost all black. That color theory began to fade.)

So what about the clothes? Ford opted for a monochromatic color scheme, revamping some of the Saint Laurent classics (wide-shouldered duchesse-satin pantsuits, trench coats in patent leather or waterproofed satin). Some things worked, like the elastic corset tops worn with a miniskirt or tapered pants, and a sublime ruched-chiffon dress. Others -- a one-shouldered tuxedo jacket and a top with an enormous satin sleeve -- just didn't. Ford claimed that you could always tell a Saint Laurent garment by the shape of a shoulder or the cut of a sleeve. That's certainly true, but served up in this form, the idea didn't really play out.

In keeping with the mania for accessories, he offered a witty take on Saint Laurent's famous "le smoking" tuxedo: Ford's dinner-suited models carried a satin-and-silver cigarette case with a matching lighter. In France, where learning to smoke is part of the process of being weaned off mother's milk, they'll no doubt use nothing less to carry their Gitanes. By the time you see someone with one at One 51, I suspect it will be used to hold a minute cell phone.

The Rive Gauche uproar was the culmination of a year of industry intrigue. Prada bought controlling shares in Helmut Lang and Jil Sander -- only to see Sander abruptly jump ship from her own label. The newly minted American fashion conglomerate Pegasus snapped up Daryl K and Miguel Adrover. Some of the buyouts even took place during the spring 2001 shows. At the New York collections, Azzedine Alaïa announced he was going into partnership with Prada; amid the Paris shows, Nino Cerruti sold controlling interest in his fashion house to Fin.part, an Italian company that also owns Frette.

The first collection of the Sander-less Sander line, shown in Milan, almost had YSL beat for Show With the Biggest Buzz. It was a pertinent reminder of what can happen when new partnerships turn sour. What we got were some perfectly fine clothes (in particular, the pantsuits and the shirtdresses), but the show lacked an element of surprise. While a design team can certainly extrapolate from a designer's signature style, they're rarely able to go off on the tangents that can deliver the most interesting parts of a collection. In her last couple of seasons, Sander had begun to playfully introduce color and print -- and there was precious little of that in this collection's dour palette of black, brown, and blue.

The Sander collection did, however, capture the prevailing aesthetic, which became more pronounced as the shows progressed: a departure from the ladylike prettiness that has dominated fashion for the past year. It's something that is altogether harder, and it has been dubbed tough chic, or butch chic. At its worst, it's irrelevant (does any woman really want to wear a tie?) and it smacks of clichéd male fantasies (models draped around each other as they made their way down the runway). But in the best collections, spring's tough chic offers a smart, fuss-free way to dress: Miguel Adrover's superlative preppy, just-androgynous-enough trouser suits; Helmut Lang's eternally perfect coats and jackets worn with shorts or lean pants; and a snappy black denim suit from Ralph Lauren that came accessorized with strings of pearls.

It's why the clean-cut, simple shirt -- and its longer relative, the shirtdress -- are going to be sure things for next spring: They suddenly look like such easy, attractive options after twelve months' worth of frothy chiffon blouses. Spring's shirtdresses manage to be as no-nonsense and straightforward as the most sharply cut pantsuit, but they also look deeply feminine. Manhattan's finest proved particularly adept at them: Standouts came from Oscar de la Renta (sleeveless and tied with a leather sash), Carolina Herrera (in honey suede or metallic stripes), and, again, Ralph Lauren (a black-edged, belted white dress that was the last word in chic).

But if you've come to love dressing up, don't worry. There are still ladylike clothes to be had -- they've just evolved from last spring's prim and proper belted skirt suits into something that's redolent of the fifties. The silhouette is tighter on the top and fuller from the waist down. Some of the more extreme examples -- which might make you look as though you're dressed for a Sandra Dee convention -- are unlikely to prove a commercial hit (show me the New Yorker who plans to navigate the subway in a skirt that's made up of yards of fabric). But to see how you might wear this trend next spring, look to Miuccia Prada's cropped sweaters and box-pleated skirts, or Alberta Ferretti's flared skirts worn with boxy jackets and delicate blouses.

Alexander McQueen brought the two trends that defined the season -- masculine chic and the romantic fifties -- together in his brilliant collection for Givenchy. For every razor-sharp pantsuit there was a ruffled top worn with a full skirt. He also did some of the best slim sheath dresses, cinched with wide belts. McQueen's performance at his eponymous collection in London was very different -- sexy jersey dresses under slim coats, suits with asymmetric miniskirts -- but equally good. And it answered the question many of the best working designers are facing: Can you succeed in designing your own collection and that of another house?

That query certainly seemed to be on John Galliano's mind. He had fun with it at both his own and his Christian Dior collections. At Dior, early in the Paris week, he gave a glorious, gaudy display, with zippers festooning everything from asymmetric wrap skirts to cropped jackets, models tricked out as beauty queens in the house's new swimwear line, and loads of trailer-trash customized denim. (Incidentally, the customizing trend -- a punklike penchant for slashing, studs, and scrappy appliqué that has been news on the streets of New York and London -- was a surprise hit at the couture houses. In addition to Dior, both Emanuel Ungaro and Christian Lacroix accessorized their aggro-chic collections with hip belts weighed down with chains, studs, and jewels.)

A few days later, Galliano's own collection featured a virtual rerun of Dior, right down to the staging and the opening outfits. (The soundtrack? A heavily remixed Britney Spears singing "Oops . . . I Did It Again.") Galliano sent out scaled-up versions of his Dior collection, so that those ubiquitous zippers assumed gargantuan proportions. Prior to the show, a buyer from Neiman Marcus could be heard telling his team that the showroom collection, i.e., the real clothes, bore no resemblance to what they were about to see. It's to be presumed that this was some relief to them during the next fifteen minutes.

While Galliano was recycling his own looks, other designers were recycling everything else, with just as mixed results. There were ad nauseam nods to the eighties. There were the endless homages: When designers weren't kneeling at the altar of Azzedine Alaïa, they were liberally quoting the looks of the talented Nicolas Ghesquière (designer of Balenciaga and Callaghan), in particular his beyond-narrow pants and broad-shouldered jackets. As the fashion pack scurried from New York to Europe, the constant refrain was that fashion's Holy Grail -- the mythical new thing -- just didn't seem to be around.

Part of the problem is the speed at which fashion is moving now. Trends are making their way into the mainstream -- and onto the market -- so fast that designers, with their twice-yearly collections, can't really keep up. Remember that nice, easy-to-understand cycle where designers showed a collection, magazines shot it, stores bought it, and then you might think about investing in it? That brave old world is going, if it hasn't gone already. Take the New York label Imitation of Christ's Spring 2001 collection. Their reconstructed vintage pieces (given added buzz by actress-cum-creative director Chloë Sevigny) were the most-talked-about items of the season -- so much so that both Barneys and Yasmin Cho, a boutique owner in London, bought pieces from the collection to sell in their stores now. And they're selling out: By the time you read this, the spring items will most likely be completely gone. Fashion editors can't even get them into their magazine pages that quickly.

So in this atmosphere, where designers were desperately looking for a new way to hold their audience's attention, it was a relief to see some simply stick to what they do best. Giorgio Armani did it with his luscious beaded dresses and an effortless take on the season's recurrent androgyny theme. So did Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, with their drop-dead-gorgeous curvy black suits. In both his own and Celine collections, Michael Kors went back to his outdoorsy, luxe sportswear roots with a sexy take on military and safari wear (flak jackets and epaulet shirts worn with leather miniskirts and microshorts). And Karl Lagerfeld offered up another masterly deconstruction of Chanel, with leather military jackets, a Sonia Delauney-esque circle print on silk tea dresses, and blousons and shorts from the house's new sports collection. (Still, not too sure about those Coco-logoed tulle veils over the face, Karl.) Lagerfeld also scored at Fendi, turning in some of the best examples of the draping-ruching-one-shoulder mania that looked set to engulf just about every fashion capital.

But it was up to one of the new guard to provide one of the best collections of the season. Belgian designer Veronique Branquinho's full skirts, bias-stripe shirts, and intricately woven sweaters were clothes that had edge and elegance in equal measure. They were supremely wearable without being the least bit dull. Now, that's not something you see every day -- especially this season.


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