It is a great day to be a great designer. Because nothing better proves the need for imagination, intelligence, invention, irreverence and sheer creativity than the rudderless shows we have watched at Dior and Lanvin in Paris this week. In both houses, the collections have not been bad — as in crass, vulgar or ill-fitting.
The opposite is true. The houses and their workers respect the quality and the name of the “Maison”. To be honest, people who shop these clothes across the world will still register the well-known names and wear the clothes with pride. Yet two designer directors have disappeared: Raf Simons at Dior walked out under pressure.
At Lanvin, Alber Elbaz was fired. Their replacements have been the so-called “teams”, people who worked hard behind the scenes when the masters were there to guide them. The result is at best a feeling that a pallid version of what came before has been worked over. There may still be a scent of the fashion house. But it will inevitably fade.
Dior: Celebs and mirrors
Dior took the same two Swiss designers, Serge Ruffieux and Lucie Meier, who worked on haute couture, to handle the Winter 2016 collection. The house built yet another grandiose set, this time interspersing giant silver baubles as entrances to a facade mirroring the Louvre building. That was the last bold gesture of the show - unless you count filling up the ranks with a possy of celebrities from Jessica Alba in a black jacket, white, collar, gold-trimmed blouse and red trousers — an outfit she described to me as “100 per cent Dior”.
She was joined by Rosamund Pike, Bond girl Naomie Harris and Riley Keough — best known as Elvis’s granddaughter. The gossip was that Kris Jenner had been put in the second row. I totally missed her, but her daughter Kendall was on the catwalk in what was one of the bolder outfits: a different fur on each bosom. Dior shows had become known for a certain boldness, or perhaps that should be “madness” towards the explosive end of John Galliano’s tenure. Raf Simons, who followed on, started with an emphatic statement about geometric modernity. This show was young, strict in its long opening period of black, and cute when little floral prints were inspired by a Christian Dior print of ice cream (at least that’s what I read in the show notes). There was a lack of those big, fat roses that Mr Dior loved in his garden and on his dress patterns.
Instead the prettiness was in coats and knitwear with gathered sleeves. If that wasn't enough of a draw, handbags came out in tubes. What stood out in this tunnel of silvered tubes and arches was how tame, if relatively appealing, this collection seemed. It’s as hard to define inventive design in fashion as it is in any decorative art. It is never about the crass Zoolander idea of a good show. But there are moments when people who love fashion have moist eyes and a shiver of excitement. Dior never approached that magic moment today.
Lanvin: Losing the Appetite
Seeing the runway at Lanvin inspired a variety of analogies – a restaurant with only a sous chef came to mind — especially as previous designer Alber Elbaz had a habit of offering around his own funky food and cookies rather than the house’s nice-but-banal pink champagne. The most obvious change in the show itself was the lack of those witty, pretty, iconic or ironic pieces, perhaps jewellery announcing “Yes!" or “Mine" or so many other whimsical expressions of womanhood.
Then there was Alber’s insistence that every show should have different elements — long, soft, aggressive, sweet — to accept the different characters and needs of women. Whoever cut the square silver-grey suit that opened the show did give the impression that inside the stiff garment there was a woman with yearnings and needs. Everything was perfectly designed and well made, but you cannot fake the inner soul of an artist, any more than you can clone a great work of art and claim it has the same value as the original.
Fashion is “only” an applied art, so it is not required to carry bags of emotion inside a mannish check jacket worn with pleated chiffon skirt; nor is it when the palette switches from a golden wrap coat to calf-length ginger suede. The whole point about emotion in clothing is that it is intangible. Alber had the talent to make something desirable.
The team left behind showed technical prowess but no rush of blood. What will be done to help these rudderless houses continue? It has to be recognised that the case of Gucci, with backstage designer Alessandro Michele waiting in the wings for a decade, is a fluke. What high-level and important fashion houses need is a designer with the technical and emotional skills to make the magic of a great fashion moment happen.