Thursday, March 5, 2009

Back to the future...

Well, Paris Fashion Week is officially underway and yesterday, the second day of shows, was the real start to the excitement with not one, not two, but three of the most highly anticipated collections on the fashion calendar each season. Balenciaga, Balmain and Nina Ricci all showed today and with these collections, the 80s redux was firmly cemented as the message of the season. Even if the week continues and no other designer hints at the 80s, it won't matter, especially since the god-among-mortals Nicolas Ghesquiere has ditched his vision of the future for a vision of the past.


To be completely honest I wasn't sure what to expect from Balenciaga this season. Ghesquiere was one of the first designers to begin bringing back shoulder pads, and has since left them for other things, so I can't say I was expecting him to get on the 80s bandwagon. And on top of that, his last few collections have been so forward in terms of the ideas. Even when his inspiration was coming from the past (and it usually does) the clothes always look towards the future. That's always been his thing. Last season in fact, the clothes on the runway looked so far ahead that they seemed almost unrelatable to the here and now, which is fine in concept, but leaves the racks in Balenciaga boutiques kind of bare. So as I said, I didn't know what to expect, but I do know what I was hoping Ghesquiere would do. Given that this season is shaping up to be about two major messages so far, the 80s and post-apocalyptic futurism, I had hoped that Ghesquiere would deliver an incredible take on the latter. It's a completely logical step when you think about it. You take the brightly colored, shiny pod people from last season, imagine some sort of natural or man made disaster and presto; the techno pod people become a tribe of survivors in a desolate future.

But sadly that was not to be. Instead what Ghesquiere produced was something that was pretty commercial (which could come as a releif to people) and pretty retro (which could be a disappointment). The inspiration seemed to be mid 80s-era Saint Laurent, all rounded shoulder pads, colorful prints, puff sleeves and tulip skirts. Of course, that's slightly oversimplifying it. The main direction of the collection was softness and draping, which completely replaced Ghesquiere's signature scapel-cut tailoring and stiffened silhouettes. The collection began with a trio of dresses, each of them with a smooth, fitted long sleeve bodice in tweed, a dropped waistband in tightly pleated satin and a heavily draped short skirt in satin that formed a somewhat round shape around the hips. As a silhouette it was kind of interesting, and the draping on the skirts was perfectly done, but as I said, it was heavy looking. There is a point when using draping to construct a garment when it begins to look torturously worked, and these skirts all passed that point. Those looks then morphed in dresses that had the look of a silk puff sleeves blouse worn tucked into a draped skirt. Worn underneath were lacey badeau bras that were exposed by the deep plunging neckline. In colors like creamy beige paired with pale pink and icy gray with lavender they were definitely some of the more overtly feminine clothes I've ever seen from Ghesquiere. Those then moved into pants outfits that paired smoking jackets with drapery worked into the chest, waist or hip area worn over heavily draped sarouel type pants. The jackets were actually quite pretty, and between their belted waists and fuller hips, they had a great hourglass shape. I could see them looking flattering paired with a slim skirt or narrow trousers. Then, just as the draped, colorblocked satin was getting to be too much, out came two wrap dresses made of sheared mink worked onto knit fabric, an extremely luxe take on a wardrobe staple.

Up until now the 80s vibe had been pretty minimal and then came a beacon of hope that Ghesquiere hadn't lost his touch; an ivory silk puff sleeve blouse with a sharp black tulip skirt trimmed in satin with a leather waistband. Paired with gold cuffs at the wrist and a lacey bandeau bra it was a very sexy look; chic, a bit 80s, but still contemporary enough to be worn today.

Unfortantely my enthusiasm over that look was short lived, because after it came a deluge of blurry, splattered print dresses. For the most part, they all came with some kind of accentuated shoulder, whether by use of a pad or due to a puff shape, and they were all draped, ruched, pleated and wrapped. Now, if the draped satin pieces at the beginning of the show looked a bit heavy, they at least had a very discernable shape to them. It was impossible to make out the silhouette of these printed pieces because between the busy prints and the busy detailing it all wound up looking like a shapeless blur of color. On top of that, they looked retro. Now, I'm not old enough to remember what YSL was doing in the mid 80s first hand, but I'm definitely old enough to have fleeting memories of the YSL inspired dresses that my female relatives wore during that era and I can tell you that from what I remember, these dresses shown today look pretty familiar. That's not to say some of them weren't pretty. Two beaded V-neck numbers both with a black and white splatter pattern, one in cobalt blue the other in jade green, were simple and conteporary enough that I could see them working with different styling. But even still, except for the beading they could easily be by Diane von Furstenburg. Ghesquiere did relent from the colored dresses a bit, sending out an all black ruched jersey number with a leather belt on Chanel Iman, a sharp black smoking jacket worn open over one of those lacey bandeaus with great gray and black striped trousers, and some printed tops and jackets with more variations on that sharp, straight cut trouser. Unfortunately though those looks were too few and far between, and by the time I saw pictures of them I had already started to feel like I hated the collection.

That opinion hasn't changed yet. Hate is a strong word, and under most circumstances I would probably just say that I disliked or was disappointed by a collection. But in this instance, the collection being Balenciaga and the expectations being that much higher than they are for most designers, I'm going to stick with hate. While it's decidedly more wearable in conventional terms than anything Ghesquiere has put on his runway since F/W 07, as well as being more traditionally feminine, it's completely lacking the vision one associates with Balenciaga. Ghesquiere has shown that he can combine concept with clothing to make modern fashion that is easy to picture on flesh and blood women, notably with his fall collection from last year, so this is just a complete head scratcher. But more than that, more than not having the creativity one normally gets from him, this is just lacking in the technique. Draping is clearly not what Ghesquiere does well, and while you could applaud him for pushing himself into an area where he's not normally drawn, you could also ask why the hell he would abandon everything he and the house are known for at a time like this. And what gets me most is that almost everything that's contained in this collection, bold prints and colors, exaggerated shoulders, 80s influences, has been done by Ghesquiere in the past with much, much better results!

Who knows, maybe the risk of doing something unexpected will pay off. Maybe this collection will end up growing on me and maybe hell will freeze over. But I have my doubts.


Sequins, studs, shoulder pads, leather and lots of leg, it could only be a Balmain collection (well, maybe not anymore since for three weeks designers have been using all of those elements in force). Christophe Decarnin's brand of 80s inflected trashy glam party clothes has proved to be one of the most influential trends of late. Though I tend to think that people give him too much credit at times, making it sound like he invented sparkly micro-minis and shoulder padded jackets, he does deserve credit for being at the forefront of their ressurection. I'm sure that my comments about the label make it sound like I hate it, and really, that's not the case. While I do hate how worshipped Balmain is, and how hypocritical it is that so many people that would criticize designers like Roberto Cavalli and Donatella Versace for sending out clothes that look very, very similar fawn all over Balmain like it's the most amazing thing they've ever seen, I do understand the appeal of the clothes. They're fun, and they don't require a detailed explaination of what they're all about. But still, that doesn't explain why they're worshipped the way they are.

Here's the catch though, at this point Decarnin has basically been sending out the exact same collection with a slightly different twist since he began. It's always got a popular music inspiration, the skirts are always short, the jackets are always sharp and it's always styled in a supposedly off-hand, cool way, i.e. minimal makeup, wash and go hair, and a slinky t shirt half tucked into whatever pants Decarnin is showing for that season. Bottom line, it's become a forumla. You can pretty much predict what a Balmain collection will look like each season. The only reason more people aren't bitching about that yet is because Balmain is having a huge moment. The 80s are back in full force, the Vogue Paris crew are the darlings of every blog dedicated to street style, thus every "hip" fashion acolyte dies over it, and celebs are catching onto the Balmain buzz now too. But what happens when things get old? Does Decarnin have anything else to offer besides overpriced 80s inflected party clothes? Does he even have any aspirations to take the Balmain image and expand on it? I have no idea, but I'll tell you this, with the 80s comeback at it's crux this fashion season, it's only a matter of time before what's hip now is rejected in favor of something else. Such is the nature of fashion. And when that time comes, it might not be so easy for Balmain to continue riding this wave of success. In a strange way that time may very well have begun as far as Balmain is concerned.

Decarnin continued with the 80s MTV inflected spirit he started pushing last season, and even though some of the pieces may as well have been leftovers from spring, the collections couldn't be more different. While spring was definitely tacky and trashy, I think it succeeded in not looking like garbage. It looked expensive, not as expensive as it actually is, but definitely at a higher level than the Zara and Topshop knockoffs. This season I'm afraid, the same cannot be said. The show really didn't start out on a promising note. The first look out was a loose sparkly black top with sharp pagoda shoulders and a loosely tied bow at the neck paired with hideous (beaded???) drapey zouave pants tucked into moon boots a la Napoleon Dynamite, but with a stiletto heel. The Balmain look has always been body conscious, so it's a mystery to me why Decarnin decided to cover a body in soggy, shapless glitter. A leather jacket with those same pagoda shoulders worn over a white t shirt with skinny black capris was a cute look, if a little bit Rizzo from Grease. Seriously though, you could get the entire look for much less elsewhere, and I don't just mean from high street retailers. Some of the leather jackets from the spring collection are retailing for close to $5,000 US, so I'm guessing that jacket will be around the same price. Considering that you could get two full priced Rick Owens leather jackets for that kind of money, you'd have a hard time convincing me to buy it even in the best economic climate. As for the denim capris, they're cute, but so not worth the price. There was a black long sleeved dress covered in grommets that was cool enough, but honestly, I liked the ones that Cavalli showed last week much better, and they'll probably be less money. After that came the only shot of color in the all black, white and silver collection; cobalt blue. The dress in that color was straight up ice capades; one shouldered with a sleeve, covered in contrasting bands of sequins with a giant ruffle running across the top. I don't care how cool the label has become or how many Vogue Paris issues feature it on their pages, the dress is ugly and extremely cheap looking.

There were some off the shoulder and sleeveless minidresses worn with a single sleeve that were right out of a Bangles music video, high waisted crystal covered mini skirts and truly the most heinous thing in the collection, MC Hammer pants that were split down the front to show off some leg. There were also two sequined mini skirts, one in black, one in cobalt with industrial zippers down the front which begged the question "who would be stupid enough to pay for that when you could find the exact same thing in Topshop?". Seriously, they didn't look even remotely expensive. Two spacey mini dresses with sharp panels sticking out at the shoulders or hips covered in bands or triangles of crystal mesh were a skosh too drag queen for my taste, and jumpsuits with those hideous zouave pants or mini dresses with huge ruffled trains weren't much better as far as I'm concerned.

Overall this collection feels like Decarnin has let the coolness go to his head and has taken things a step too far while at the same time making the clothes look crappy. And the constant comparisons to Gianni Versace that both critics and acolytes are throwing around are really starting to bother me because a) Gianni Versace's clothes were revolutionary and therefore helped to define not on the look of the era when he came to fame, but also helped to define an entire aesthetic and b) because Gianni Versace's clothes weren't so one dimensional. There was thought involved in the designs, as well as a range in what he created. Like I said, I really think this collection will set some change in motion. It's not new and exciting any more, and this collection seems very self-consciously cool rather than genuinely so. That's what really sets the greats apart from the flash-in-the-pan types. Designers like Tom Ford, Miuccia Prada, Nicholas Ghesquiere and Marc Jacobs have managed to, if not extend that moment when their coolness is at it's height, then at least build upon that moment by knowing exactly when to change gears. I just hope that when the time comes for things to shift, that Cristohphe is prepared to offer us more than bedazzled minidresses.

Nina Ricci

Perhaps the last person anyone would have expected to be channeling the 80s this season is Olivier Theyskens at Nina Ricci, which is perhaps why I'm still not quite able to get my head around the collection he showed for F/W 09, rumored to have been his last. For a few months now, rumors have been going around that Theyskens was in trouble due to the poor reception his S/S 09 collection received with buyers. The suits at Puig (the company that owns Nina Ricci) had denied the rumors, but still they circulated. Now with this collection, which some weren't sure would even be shown, the word is that Theyskens has already been replaced and is only sticking around until his contract expires in October. But unbeknownst to the management, his collection would be extremely well received, if commercially, then at least critically. Perhaps in response to the blade hanging over his head, or perhaps just wanting to do something different to push himself, Theyskens delivered a collection that can only be described as being the exact opposite of his previous work at Nina Ricci; very structured, very dramatic and very bold.

According to Theyskens, he wanted to express a nocturnal mood, and I can see that in places. The largely black palette with occasional pops of color and glitter like neon signs in a city at night, a jacket that looked like wet pavement with those neon signs reflected off the surface, beading that looked like the night sky, but that's really all I got from it. If there was some sort of deeper meaning to the "nocturnal" elements of the collection, it went over my head. Balanced on huge platform boots (we're talking a good 6 1/2 inches) that had no heels whatsoever, the first looks out recalled Mugler during his late 80s heyday of big shoulders, sharp lines and plenty of drama. A black wool jumpsuit was worn over a black tulle turtleneck with a sprinkle of beading on the arms and a helmet on the models' head. It perfectly demonstrated the point of the ridiculous and honestly quite hideous footwear, to create the longest line possible. Between the use of all black, the fact that the jumpsuit was one unbroken piece and that the pants had a flare towards the hem, it made the model look bizarrely long and lean, very much like how designers draw their sketches. Then came a beaded mini dress paired with a cropped jacket that huge rounded sleeves and padded shoulders. It made for an interesting shape on the runway, but I doubt if many women want to look like they have the arms of a steroid junkie. There was a black mini dress with the hem dipped in teal glitter, sharp jackets and skirt suits with exaggerated points and swoops a la Mugler, full pleated trousers, beaded tunics and mini dresses, sculpted bodysuits in metallic pewter and a beaded catsuit worn with a corseted leather jacket. And that was only the first half of the lineup.

From there things moved into eveningwear, which is what Theyskens has become known for best at Nina Ricci. Ever since he sent Reese Witherspoon to the Oscars in a royal purple tiered organza mermaid gown he has specialized in fantasy evening pieces, from sculpted gowns covered in white ostrith feathers, pleated metallic ballgowns, Pre-Raphaelite empire dresses in the colors of autumn leaves, or ruffled Victorian inspired chiffon. This season however, there would be none of that soft-focus romanticism. Instead, Theyskens sent out gowns with molded shoulders and hips covered in beads, strapless gowns with dropped hems in the back that had scrolling edges built on boning in shades like teal, inky purple and one in an iridescent blue/copper color that looked like an oil slick, ruffled floral patterned lame mixed with a nude bodice and even an iridescent inky blue/violet taffeta pantsuit. The scrolling hems built out with boning did hark back to his work at Rochas, though the effect couldn't be more different. Whereas those gowns were about capturing an old world couture sensibility, these were more graphic and aggressive in spirit. Like some of the other looks in the collection, they definitely had a bit of a Mugler feel to them, though not in a very literal way. It was more in the overall drama and severity that they exuded.

While the reviews from the critics have so far been extremely positive, reviews from the fans on the Fashion Spot (which can sometimes offer a better look at things than the pros do) were more mixed. Some people loved it, some people hated it, and some people, like me, don't know what the hell to make of it. I'm still trying to decide if my unease about it is due mostly to the fact that this is so unexepected for Theyskens or if I really just dislike the clothes on their own. I'm definitely leaning towards the former though, because there are some things I like in this collection, namely a lot of the jackets. But as it stands, this just isn't the Olivier Theyskens I know. It's not like his work at Ricci has been, it's not like his work at Rochas was, and it's not like his namesake collection was either. So at the current moment, I'm more perplexed than anything else. The collection may grow on me in time, or it may just make for an impactful last collection from Olivier at Nina Ricci (should the rumors prove to be true). If the rumors turn out not to be true, or if the suits at Puig change their minds because of the way this collection is received, I'd be very interested to see where Theyskens will go from here. One thing is for sure though, this collection is bound to make for some great photographs come summer.

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