Alexander Wang's debut at Balenciaga last week signals the passing of the flame to a younger generation in Paris fashion, as more of the older 70-something generation retire - Karl Lagerfeld is one of the few remaining from that era. The likeable 29-year-old New York designer, known for his street-style aesthetic, was the surprise replacement for Nicolas Ghesquière (admittedly only in his early 40s) late last year as the new creative director of the famous old French couture house.
Wang only started work on the collection in early January and pulled ideas from the rich heritage of the house for clothes that he felt revisited the sculpted elegance of Cristobal Balenciaga's original work. This meant curved silhouettes, with rounded shoulders, sack-backs and some fresher cutaway jackets for the autumn collection. He used the marble pattern of the catwalk as inspiration for the crackled texture of his white, coated knits, or reproduced the theme in swirling prints and velvet fabric for skinny trousers. It was a credible if safe start at a house which has big plans to develop its commercial collections.
Wang's appointment at Balenciaga is echoed by the arrival of Fausto Puglisi from Milan to resuscitate Ungaro, another French house with its roots in haute couture.
There has also been a changing of the guard at Sonia Rykiel, which is now owned by Li & Fung in Hong Kong, with Geraldo da Conceicao, formerly at Miu Miu and then Louis Vuitton, showing his first collection, which naturally majored on knits. In fact, the finale was a parade of geometric and lacy patterned sweaters teamed with red and blue flared leatherette trousers. There were some lovely Milano knit tailored pieces with white buttons opening the show and also elements of da Conceicao's design CV creeping into the boxy fur jackets and wide cropped trousers.
Only last season, Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane introduced new blood and a fresh approach to Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent respectively. Saint Laurent is yet to present its collection this week, but Simons teamed Dior's signature Bar jacket with baggy trousers for autumn and cut a lovely black coat with white facings; the emphasis was on the Andy Warhol-inspired drawings, which were reproduced as printed motifs on simple black or white silk dresses.
Olivier Rousteing is only into his third season at Balmain and advocates "more is more" with his big 1980s shoulder lines, ornate diamond-encrusted tunics and gold lamé harem trousers. All of which is in contrast to the overall sober mood emerging from the Paris shows. Nina Ricci's graceful ballerina-inspired collection was one of the exceptions. Peter Copping created a long lean serene silhouette for the label - pencil skirts and warm-up sweaters were a motif of the collection - along with glamorous parkas, pretty bustier dresses and artfully draped, slightly undone cocktail dresses.
Another early highlight of Paris Fashion Week was Alber Elbaz's Lanvin collection - he, like Copping, is a designer who is a perfect fit for his brand. His 1940s silhouette and subtle glamour for autumn melds perfectly with the retro 1940s vibe that we saw last week in Milan at Gucci and Bottega Veneta. Flinging fox-fur stoles over shoulders, Elbaz produced a feminine look that came toughened at the edges - raw-edged fabrics, men's sparkly Oxford shoes and rock 'n' roll necklaces saying Cool or Help.
French fashion's penchant for sobriety in recent seasons, however, doesn't suggest all is downbeat, although one feels less of a crackling of creativity in fashion right now as designers rework familiar themes such as the 1980s, 1970s and punk. However, Yohji Yamamoto's almost all-black collection produced some lovely moments that reflected on his masterpieces from the 1980s with their complicated constructions and also some of his great masculine/feminine tailoring of the 1990s. It felt like a greatest hits collection of great, wearable clothes.
There is absolutely nothing that you wouldn't want to grab straight off the catwalk at Stella McCartney, so appealing are her oversized coats and cropped pants. She riffed on her British heritage, working faded tartan weaves for her coats and pinstripes that twist on the body for her tailoring. There is a feel for tradition but slightly skewed, be it in the cut of her cloth or the tractor-soled shoes that ground her collection.
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