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PARIS — You sometimes think, at the bleary end of a runway season, that fashion would be better off if companies didn't have labels to sell.
Take Saint Laurent. One of the first things the new designer, Hedi Slimane, did was to remove "Yves" from the label, thereby severing a symbolic connection to the founder, and everything he stood for, like good taste and feminine power. But it was also a test of the label's enduring appeal.
Who needed the extra syllable when Saint Laurent was virtually lodged in people's ears, and so much fun to say?
Slimane has been the talk of Paris Fashion Week, or at least the closing days, largely because he showed a grunge collection of baby-doll dresses and flannel shirts — which I viewed online because I was not invited to the show. Opinion varied widely. Many people said the clothes looked like stuff sold at Topshop or a thrift store, while others defended Slimane's approach and identified pieces, like a pink fur chubby, that relate back to Yves' designs of the late '60s and early '70s, when he got ideas — say, for a pea coat — from the street. It's doubtful that customers will make that connection, but such comments serve to validate what Slimane has done.
And the controversy is good for Saint Laurent. But mainly it was clear to me how strong the name is. In terms of design, the clothes held considerably less value than a box of Saint Laurent labels. Without the label attached to them, Slimane's grunge dresses wouldn't attract interest — because they're not special. But a box of labels is worth a million.
Hermes stands in sharp contrast to the Saint Laurent show and its lazy values. From the first few outfits, shown in a school library near the Sorbonne, you were aware that real design was at work here and that Hermes was not resting on its fancy haunches. For my money, this was one of the top two or three collections in Paris, and maybe of the entire ready-to-wear season; and for the simple fact that somebody at Hermes refused to let fashion take over the clothes. You could see elements of Martin Margiela's eye-changing designs for the house, in one or two pants outfits and an austere gray V-neck wool dress with a white collarless shirt, but even his fashion was not allowed to intrude.
Somebody made incredibly good judgments: about the fit, the proportions, the selective use of silk prints, the natural looking prettiness of the models. Christophe Lemaire is the women's designer at Hermes, but past collections have tended to be overloaded with volume and color — nowhere near as sharp as this one.
Also, there wasn't a lick of branding in the show, unless you count a suede and calf-hair coat in a horse-blanket medley of colors. You knew it was Hermes, because Hermes is supposed to be about good taste, and here was the modern expression of it.
Good taste doesn't have to be old-looking or bourgeois. What a crummy prison of ideas, the fashion world can be. Nor does it have to scream luxury. In fact, it shouldn't. At Hermes, it was conveyed in the balance of impeccable cut and rustic textures, like goatskin coats, and in the array of pieces, like cashmere wraps or a blousy shirt worn with a full leather skirt, that owe as much to simplicity as the attitude of the woman who wears them.
The fall collections closed on Wednesday with a lively big-time show by Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, and a fresh look from Miu Miu. These are really editorial collections, with a fashion gesture usually blown up, like the extra-long silhouette at Miu Miu (thanks to cute, slim-fitting cardigans bundled over long silk-print skirts with 1890s button boots) and a spree of polka-dot midi-coats. The silhouette made the collection.
Jacobs re-created the glamorous mood of a hotel, or rather the half-dressed attitude of women coming and going from their different rooms, apparently with seduction in mind. Though most of his audience probably had sleep in mind (Jacobs wore pajamas), this collection was indeed inviting, with some beautiful undies mixed in with handsome, strict coats and powder-puff bags.