Monday, March 9, 2009

On the runway: The Man/Woman Meld

Dries van Noten A/W 2009

PARIS: The emotion of womanhood married to a casual masculine confidence - that is the message from an exceptionally powerful Paris season.

It has been spelled out in specifics over fashion's long weekend of shows. Liquid drapes for womanly shapes have taken over from girly dressing - most often shown with tailoring as the distaff side.

Beauty is the goal, for this autumn 2009 season has drawn a definitive line under the "ugly" aesthetic. You could say that fashion has reached a certain maturity, but that sounds stodgy - the clothes are not heavy, even if solid fabrics have often taken over from the ethereal.

The overall impression is that, in a time of world economic crisis, designers have emphatically staked out their own territory, giving each woman, in the free spirit of liberty and equality, the right to choose.

Feminism is not really a fashion issue, but at Comme des Garçons, Rei Kawakubo makes it so. Her collection trembled with emotion, as her models, flesh-colored veils marked with a kiss of sparkly, scarlet sequins, worn over shocking pink sausage-curl hairdos, created a whimsical wardrobe. It was based on solid coats, often in khaki with images of windows sketched as pockets. The childlike drawings complemented shoes with toes drawn on the outside.

Commes des Garçons A/W 2009

"Wonderland," Kawakubo said backstage after an ovation greeted this mystical meld of sturdy checked blankets folded into the tailoring, khaki, denim and knitwear - all embraced by a collection that ended where globules of pearls lay under an ethereal coating of tulle layers. The designer also called it her "secret garden," and it was a wondrous display of clothes embellished not with mundane accessories, but with the unfathomable dreams of a great designer.

Yohji Yamamoto's vision was more immediately accessible: outerwear, streamlined but with subtle challenges to the design status quo. One side of a long coat displaying the shorter hem of a peacoat or a graceful jacket and long skirt with twin zippers slicing the back.

The show's focus was red shoes - soft as slippers and bright as the lipstick that was a slash of color between head and feet. The color came later as patches of scarlet, as if the material had been dip-dyed.

Yamamoto's new collaboration with Ferragamo, melding two companies that both have iconic status in Japan, brought out the best in Yamamoto, whose clothes have always been dedicated to a serene beauty. That was expressed this season through a quiet exploration of intriguing fabrics, some slightly transparent, others with a raw edge and with little, but strong, color bleeding into black.

Yohji Yamamoto A/W 2009

Backstage, Yamamoto described the Ferragamo collaboration as an inspiration, with the shoemaker's technique that created soft boots without a seam. The designer's description of "so much quality - something to last" defined the shoes, his own approach to fashion and the spirit of current times.

"Feathers," said Junya Watanabe backstage to describe the inspiration of a collection of such beauty and grace that it had cynical photographers roaring "bravo." The proposal was the down coat - not so new in itself. But with "Tosca" soaring on the soundtrack and the elegant, shapely long coats and dresses, the show was in striking contrast to Watanabe in his more aggressive, rock 'n' roll mood.

It was perhaps a show on one note. But the designer turned that into an aria, as his noble women, with upswept hair, paced slowly, unfurling a short jacket into an ankle-length coat. The central idea of lightness - even when metallic chains were inserted in the puffy down - was underscored by pleated skirts and draped dresses. And if there was a hint of the Yohji Yamamoto look in the long coats, this was not a fashion echo chamber, but something Watanabe evolved in his own spirit.

The Maison Martin Margiela is certainly in need of help, after its founder has gone on "extended leave," as corporatespeak has it. The mix of intellect and instinct that made the Belgian designer's collections a fashion pacemaker have now become a parody - or even a travesty - of Margiela's vision. Based on a flesh-colored bodysuit and shown in a stadium filled with floating balloons of light, some acceptable, pieces, like trench coats with cutouts, were interspersed with dresses that turned to show a back naked except for a visible bra. Of Margiela's rigorous exploration of a personal vision, there is no sign and Renzo Rosso, chief executive of the "Only the Brave" company that owns his Diesel empire, needs to do something fast.

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