Robin Givhan: The Stars (and Strugglers) From Paris Fashion Week

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The spring 2014 Paris fashion shows came to their informal conclusion Wednesday afternoon with a presentation by the stalwart French luxury brand Hermès. The show, set in a glass-enclosed haven within the Luxembourg Gardens, had a pebble-strewn path as its runway, which wound through a lushly orchestrated landscape of ferns and palms. As guests arrived, waiters passed flutes of Champagne and fruit juice, along with fresh madeleines — still warm, so good. When the clothes, designed by Christophe Lemaire, finally appeared, they were reserved and dignified — not particularly exciting but very much in keeping with the stately classicism and decorum of the house. With his tropical-print skirts that fell to mid-calf, full trousers, wrap blouses, and roomy blazers, Lemaire offered reassurance rather than invention.

A model, with a faint smile briefly interrupting her serene visage, closed the show dressed in a pair of ivory trousers and a crisp white shirt. With that final note, Lemaire essentially said to his audience: Don’t worry. You can simply choose to opt out of fashion’s enduring chaos. Salut!

This season has, indeed, been somewhat frenetic; one in which many of the legacy brands here are in — or are beginning — a transition. At Saint Laurent, designer Hedi Slimane is attempting to restore the venerable brand’s rebel yell, but in a 21st century filled with pop-culture crudeness and anything-goes nonchalance, it’s hard to know what that really means. Marc Jacobs is departing Louis Vuitton after sixteen years as creative director — signaling a new beginning for the leather-goods behemoth. The reconstituted Schiaparelli brand, a pet project of the Italian business mogul Diego Della Valle, finally has a full-time designer in Marco Zanini, who will debut his work in January. Alessandro dell'Acqua replaced Zanini at his old post, Rochas. And Alexander Wang is slowly settling into his role at Balenciaga with a solid sophomore effort for the house this season.

While a few major brands continue to hold steady — Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld being the epitome of endurance — one can no longer rely on the big houses as reliable sources of surprising ideas or influential points-of-view. Sarah Burton’s collection for Alexander McQueen, for example, was inspired by the modern art of Piet Mondrian. Her runway was a literal sandbox of colorful squares and rectangles and her collection played on that geometry through texture, cutouts, and the unflinching, harsh lines of skirts and dresses. The theatricality of the shapes was what one would expect from Alexander McQueen, but the collection felt bloodless. It was as though it had been plucked from the archives rather than invented from a place of passion.

Balmain struggles for an identity now that the fashion winds have shifted and the moment for shredded rock-star gear has passed. Designer Olivier Rousteing’s quilted jackets, which he belted at the waist, had the effect of making the reed-thin models look practically obese. One can only imagine the wretched effect they would have on the figure of even the most rigorously toned, yoga-fied, cookie-denied customer. And over at sad-sack Emanuel Ungaro — a brand that once-upon-a-time had to endure Lindsay Lohan as its artistic consultant — the house is still trying to make its way back from fashion’s intensive care unit. Its current designer, Fausto Puglisi, made a valiant effort with zippy little skirts covered in polka dots and stripes that captured the exuberance of the brand. But his color palette of teal and sea-foam green suggested he had been inspired by old public-school gymnasiums and hospital rooms. The institutional colors did not match the girlish cut of the clothes, and the clothes themselves were far too repetitive.

Meanwhile, Stella McCartney was at her best. She showed off her strength as a designer who can create clothes with both personality and verve while still keeping them grounded in reality. Her lace dresses, with just enough of a lining to make them wearable right off the runway, had a lot of grace but steered clear of preciousness. Kenzo, designed by Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, hit on a winning print that mimicked the ripple of waves on water. They presented their collection at filmmaker Luc Bresson’s Cite du Cinema in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis. And they took advantage of the warehouselike space by decorating their runway with shallow vessels of water that danced as the soundtrack’s bass notes reverberated from tiny, well-positioned speakers.

Miuccia Prada returned to an often-visited schoolgirl motif with a Miu Miu collection filled with Easter-egg-colored coats, botanical prints, sixties kitschy vinyl-look jackets and skirts, and enough bedazzlement to charm a pack of preteens.

And while the Valentino collection presented by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli at times turned so ecclesiastical that one expected the models to start administering Holy Communion, it contained beautiful, luxurious examples of embroidery and exquisite use of tablecloth lace.

But the real breakout performances came from small brands Yang Li and Chitose Abe’s Sacai. The two designers injected energy into the schedule, exuded authority, and offered a bit of reassurance that this city’s fashion future does not have to be constructed on its past.

Abe, who once worked with Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, brings a potent combination of femininity, intelligence, and good humor to her work, which this season was inspired by the sporting life. Her trousers were cut with the open-sided ease of track pants but in serious Glen plaid made less serious thanks to tiny pinholes that gave it the feel of airy mesh. Windbreaker-style jackets had gently puffed backs that called to mind backpacks while also mimicking the effect of couture technique. Hooded jackets were hemmed in feathered fabric — a modest alternative to ostrich or some other exotic bird. Track-style shorts hid beneath light, floating dresses. It was an enticing new way of making sportswear more formal, femininity less precious, and tailoring less staid.

Sacai has always been a label that has played with layering and proportions. Abe continued to do so for spring, but the collection was less reliant on her affection for trompe l’oeil, in which a shirt is a sweater is a jacket. Instead, it moved that aesthetic forward, providing a reliable road map as she explored other possible ways of challenging garment construction.

Yang Li — born in Beijing and raised in Perth, Australia — isn’t upending any assumptions; he is simply obsessing over details, making wise use of fabrics and creating a collection that takes simple and familiar shapes and pushes them ever closer toward perfection.

The designer, who interned with Raf Simons, opened his spring collection with a pair of loose-fitting black trousers, topped with a black leather apron that sat along the hips and created a kind of skirt. That was finished with a shaped black jacket cinched with a nylon net belt. His leather jackets were cut cleanly and without a lot of hardware. They will surely only get better with age. And his long billowing skirts with their raw hems brought a sweeping sense of romance to his collection.

Paris is a city fueled by invention and experimentation. Yet Li is not a wild risk-taker. He expresses his aesthetic using a familiar vocabulary. But his eloquence has attracted the attentions of American retailers from Barneys New York to the independent boutique Relish.

Neither he nor Abe have the kind of platform of the big houses or those labels that — as part of one of the massive luxury conglomerates such as LVMH or Kering — have deep resources. But in a Paris season dominated by pleated skirts, revamped baseball jackets, sheerness, floral prints, and desperate flash, they stood apart.

They had something more interesting, more unusual, and more substantial to say.

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