Given the smash hits presented by French designers this year, let's hope it is easier to dress French than to speak it.
A fresh, French look sweeps the couture world
We've reached that funny mid-year mark. Enough into the season to be slightly bored by its "hits" - YSL's cage booties, Louis Vuitton's tribal heels, Chloe's harems, boyfriend jackets, et cetera - and understandably wary about pointy shoulders and Eighties power suits. So, what exactly, should we be wearing right now? Prada's crumpled pencil skirts and blouses? There seems to be an overall reluctance to buy into the "crumpled is the new ripped" mantra, even if you are travelling or on holiday. Creased can never look truly chic. And here's a tip: "chic" is how we should look exactly now.
When people ask me what is hot, I tell them anything French. Not just très but trop (the more French the better). If you see something you love, ask yourself: would Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot or Catherine Deneuve have worn it in her glory years? Could you picture it on Lou Doillon, Marion Cotillard or Audrey Tautou? If the answer is non, steer clear. Marc Jacobs nailed the closest we will come to a fashion zeitgeist this summer in his Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2009 collection, which was inspired by Paris in the Forties.
His eclectic take on Parisian chic contained all the elements of French dressing: risqué, bourgeois, classic and feminine, along with some indulgent Jacobs-isms celebrating stylish women that have inhabited La Ville Lumière, or the City of Light. His show highlighted the fact that looking French no longer means you must be a clichéd clone in a ladylike tailored day skirt suit or alternatively, in a Breton-striped sweater, riding a bike and carrying onions.
Consider the two fashion frenzies of the moment. On the one hand, there is Balmania, the craze of wearing Balmain top-to-toe, from glam rock skinny jackets and torn jeans to shredded bandage frocks. Due to its extortionate price tags, this has been limited to the super rich, but nothing has impacted the mass market more than this French label's silhouette du jour. On the other hand, there is Chanelmania. Clever Karl Lagerfeld for using the mystery (not just the fashion legacy) surrounding the pioneering designer to make the brand not just relevant, but trailblazing, in 2009.
At his recent cruise show at the Venice Lido last week (one of Coco Chanel's favourite summer haunts, apparently), guests witnessed "extreme" glamour. I rather like the sound of that. Imagine not just pure, but extreme, Chanel. Lots of creamy lace, frothy blouses, long-line cardigans, boyish beachwear and high-heeled striped wedges, all worn with silent-movie star hair and make-up. And did you notice how it wasn't just homegrown actresses at Cannes who were rocking the effortlessly French look?
Marc Jacobs is by no means the only designer tapping into the Paris vibe. He has more in common with Christophe Decarnin at Balmain, Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, Stefano Pilati at YSL, Albert Elbaz at Lanvin, John Galliano at Dior and Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga than with an esteemed French fashion house (Jacobs designs for Louis Vuitton as well as his own name range). Despite their various nationalities (Pilati and Tisci are Italian, Galliano is Gibraltarian/British and Elbaz is Moroccan-born of Israeli/American parents), these guys seem to collectively share a French "gene" in their diverse designer handwriting.
They haved ushered in a new wave of Frenchness, one that is honed in the classic conventions of the Paris atelier but that is also cutting-edge and sometimes even bohemian. So, Galliano does a version of what Christian Dior's New Look might look like in the 21st century. Or Marc Jacobs puts a spin on what haute couture customers wore in the 1980s, taking inspiration from Mugler, Lacroix and Montana for his Louis Vuitton collection.
But fear not. Most of the French designs aren't a million miles removed from the originals (can you imagine the national outcry?) Albert Elbaz's lightness of touch stays true to the smooth lines of Jeanne Lanvin's full-skirted satin dresses while allowing him to feature elaborate zippage on dresses and embellishment on shoes without it ever looking brassy. Finally, one more tip. Don't forget that French women always wear make-up. One hopes learning to dress French isn't as difficult as learning to speak it.