Robin Givhan: Wang Brings Hipness and Joy to Balenciaga

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For a moment Thursday morning, Paris let go of its burden of being the place where fashion is taken as seriously as religion. At Balenciaga, once the most somber of all houses, it felt as if the entire city heaved a sigh of relief and cracked the tiniest smile.

The models emerged onto the runway wearing pale pink skirts and matching tops cut with the simplicity of a child’s sketch. The elaborate basket weave of the leather was reminiscent of the handmade friendship bracelets a kid might construct at summer camp — intricate, yet sweet. The skirts stood away from the body, sculpted and unyielding, rather than floating on air. The same was true of the tops, with their rounded shoulders and metallic closures that were more industrial than delicate.

The blend of elements in these opening pieces from the spring 2014 collection that designer Alexander Wang created was a mixture of contradictions: sweet pastels and hard lines, confidence and understatement. They were part of a collection that included skirts and trousers cut with sleek peplums that mimicked the protective outer shell of some mysterious beetle. Three-dimensional prints of abstract flowers gave the effect of lace atop linen. Dresses with butterfly sleeves dropping off the shoulder were embroidered with jet beading that called to mind glossy flies.

There was a brief urban interlude, during which Wang played with the classic tuxedo, creating stark dresses out of the formal jackets with their signature satin lapels and breezy minidresses based on the traditional crisp white shirts.

But as the final models navigated the warren of rooms at the Paris Observatory, with its stone-colored walls layered with climbing ivy, it was as if they had emerged from a fanciful forest. Even the minidresses with their pretty ribbon embroidery, topped by sheer scrims that reached to mid-calf, called to mind butterflies wrapped in a delicate cocoon.

Wang came galloping out for his bows, his hair streaming behind him and a big smile on his face. There was plenty for him to be happy about. Balenciaga continues on the path that it has been on for some time, with its technologically inscrutable fabrics and trompe l'oeil prints. Sure, there were misfires in this collection (notably, the cupcake dresses with corseted waists and poufy hemlines). But Wang has lightened up Balenciaga, relieving it of the burden to be so marvelously yet agonizingly cool. Under Nicolas Ghesquière, Balenciaga had an edge that was sharp and intimidating. The clothes practically dared you to take on the challenge of wearing them. Are you hip enough? Thin enough? Woman enough?

Wang’s aesthetic doesn’t come with that kind of pressure. There’s a little breathing room in these clothes — a little space for imperfections. He brings hipness with a happy grin.

Paris needs more easygoing, good cheer. The folks take their fashion so seriously here, and while that is a good thing — fashion is major business, after all — it is exhausting, too. There’s a sense of plodding and enduring, scrutinizing and criticizing. Where’s the fun? Fashion should be a pleasure above all else.

At Balenciaga, guests picked their way across the stone courtyard of the observatory, their sharp heels wobbly on the uneven ground. The street-style photographers were out early, their cameras focused on the guests festooned with designer gear who gamely looked up into the lenses while trying not to lose their balance. Another day, another swarm of photographers moving ever backwards, pushing into each other trying to get the shot that pretty much looks like the one from the day before.

There was nothing serendipitous about the scene. No dashing about joyfully with shutters clicking on a surprisingly chic woman or well-dressed man. The photos — taking them and posing for them — have become part of the job. The effort in each getup is apparent.

There are still plenty of designers striving toward unexpected cool and reveling in unplanned subversiveness. But they seem stuck in their codes. Duty bound to a certain sober dreariness that seems mandatory for the perpetually unimpressed crowd.

The previous night had seen the unveiling of collections from Gareth Pugh and Jun Takahashi of Undercover. Both designers have a devoted following and it seems that over the years they have not changed, not even a bit. At Pugh, guests came wearing head-to-toe black; at Undercover, they dressed in vaguely cartoonish, cheeky gear. They are as reliably turned out as the suit-wearing politicos of Capitol Hill or the sweatsuit-wearing moms of suburbia.

Pugh’s models were not as darkly cloaked as his fan base; indeed, his first look was a silky floor-length dress in pale green. And his tailoring technique is evident in cropped jackets with bold collars and unseen shoulder seams. But like so many designers who work in the vocabulary of the rebel, he liked his dresses long and dragging, his jackets confining and his models looking like they might have some startling deformity. Pugh’s women had stylized makeup that made them look as if they’d only just evolved from sea creatures, with gills and scales standing in for eyebrows. Throughout, there was a kind of antagonism of the feminine. Show no legs! Hide the bosom! It’s as if the more masculine the aesthetic, the cooler it is.

Takahashi took a similar approach, although his work is more boyish than mannish. His collection revolved around anagrams and antonyms. The word evil was written on one side of a frock and the word live on the other. Trust was juxtaposed with violate. And so on. For his finale, the words lit up, flashing across the chest and back of shirt. The ideas were admirable — or at least interesting — but we’ve all seen this before. The single solemn word or phrase inscribed across a garment and meant to resonate as it is juxtaposed with the ostentation and consumerism of fashion. Folks have been beaten with that stick before. It no longer has the original sting.

Somewhere between suppressed femininity and the effusive femininity of Marco Zanini’s last collection for Rochas — which was like a nuclear explosion of shiny, glittering, glossy shirtwaist dresses, swing coats, and ballerina skirts — there is a kind of cool that resonates today. (Next season, Alessandro dell’Acqua takes the helm at Rochas. Perhaps he’ll find that middle ground.) Somewhere there is a sleek, urban sensibility that comes with a less fretful attitude. There were hints of it at Ann Demeulemeester, where the designer kept to her beloved black but gave it life with shadowy, flocked black flowers against a white vest, hemlines of drab jackets trimmed in glossy black brocade, and trousers in pale peach delineated with streaks of black. The clothes were tough enough for any urban street but they were not mean.

Paris has long ago proved that it can produce fashion that makes us pause and think about the relationship between the individual and social pressures, about the strictures of gender. Demeulemeester gave her audience a respite from such serious thoughts. And Wang showed us a cool girl who could also be a happy one.

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