Paris Fashion Week spells the departure of the harsh, structured look of 2009, replaced by a season of dark romanticism.
Paris Fashion Week: A return to reality
The presentations of next winter's fashions came to a close last week in Paris with the final shows - Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Elie Saab among them - confirming a more grown-up, chic and feminine mood for next season, and finally closing the door on the hard, flash-trash, body-con looks that have continued to linger. Saab continued Paris's love affair with black, starting his show with a series of exquisitely cut and panelled fitted dresses, in crêpe, tulle and wool, which were all about the va-va-voom shape. Though the designer seemed to favour some of the more agonisingly thin models, in a fashion week that has made a few steps, at least, towards a less emaciated look on the catwalk, his dresses remained perfect for the curvier, hourglass shapes with which we associate his work.
As ever with Saab, the evening wear was knock-you-out glamorous, from the glitzy, glitter-glue-effect, block-coloured sequinned numbers, to the ethereal swathes of shaded tulle in soft hues. Saab's wonderful, almost sinister forest print made a covetable series of cap-sleeved evening gowns, which was a dark counterpoint to the winter-garden pieces of Nina Ricci back at the start of Paris Fashion Week. This Gothic romantic look was one of the emerging themes of the season, seen also in the limpid evening wear at Rodarte in New York, the feminine silk bows and dark lips at Dolce & Gabbana in Milan, the floral prints and embroidery of Christopher Kane and Erdem in London and even in the neo-Byzantine gilded ornamentation in the collection of the late Alexander McQueen, which was shown to a small group of guests, off the schedule, in Paris.
At Hermès, Jean Paul Gaultier was inspired by Emma Peel, the lead character of the classic British 1960s spy series The Avengers, with Lily Cole heading up the collection in a black leather catsuit, a natty bowler hat and an umbrella. The leather coats, capes and suits that followed picked up some of the key shapes for outerwear this autumn - in a winter that could be dubbed the season of the coat, for the sheer number and variety seen on the catwalk. Trenches, raglan-shouldered belted wrap coats, pea jackets, double-breasted suit jackets, floor-length great coats, ovoid wraps: they might not seem all that relevant to our sunnier climate, but the silhouettes are important to the season, appearing on almost every catwalk, and are likely to turn up in lighter fabrics here.
The coats that may not see the light of day over here are the supersized men's overcoats with giant shoulders that appeared at Lanvin, among others. Simply put, they are too cartoonish, though more reasonably proportioned versions will no doubt be paired with mannish trousers in Katherine Hepburn-style suits that look chic and relaxed, like those at Chloé or the quirkier Annie Hall versions of Sonia Rykiel and Kenzo.
More fittingly for the UAE, those coats often sat over delicate frocks that would work just as well in the summer as the winter. From Burberry's khaki tulle and silk dresses to the billowing Empire-line chiffon evening gowns of Dior and the rose-appliquéd nothings of Nina Ricci, there was a multitude of pretty dresses, part of the move towards an old-fashioned femininity. Apart from pretty, fluid jumpsuits and the oversized men's suits, there was barely a pair of trousers to be seen, and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton dispensed with them altogether.
This was a collection that had an uncharacteristically formal bent for Jacobs: more coherent than his super-styled eponymous collection, more mature than his hipster-ish Marc by Marc Jacobs collection, nevertheless the retro feel was in keeping with both. Vuitton was all about the big Fifties skirts, at the mid-calf length that has been threatening to break through for a couple of seasons. Close-fitting or even corseted tops and bodices, or shrunken-knit sweaters with wide, stiff skirts were waist-cinching and glamorous, with bow-embellished crystal-heeled shoes that were notably platform-free. These were pieces that a woman of any age could wear, and at the showroom it was possible to see the couture-type finish of some of the fabrics: feathers inserted by hand into quilted organza, hand-applied sequins on knits and distressed jacquards and bronze lamé that made their way on to the matching "Speedy" bags. Evening wear, worn by models including the 46-year-old Elle Macpherson, was showstopping - another departure for both Vuitton and Jacobs. The collection was certainly playing to an older, richer market, perhaps signalling a post-recession strategy to step away from its pop image.
And, for all the black and neutrals that pervaded many collections, it did feel a tentatively optimistic season, as designers looked towards a winter that we hope will be less economically gloomy. An element of this must be reassessing the mass luxury strategies that were part of the boom before the bust, which seems to be Vuitton's approach this season, and the increase in demi-couture finishes - hand-painted lace at Vionnet, hand-applied chiffon roses at Nina Ricci, densely decorated surface textures everywhere from Miu Miu to Givenchy - may also reflect this. Customers are, it seems, demanding more bang for their buck; or at least more exclusivity for their dirham and, if these shows are anything to go by, the designers are happy to oblige.
It doesn't make for groundbreaking stuff - if you're dipping your toe back into luxury waters you are unlikely to go for the mythical three-armed asymmetrical suit - but there is innovation within the parameters of fabric, cutting and draping, and the result is extremely wearable and beautiful pieces that aren't necessarily ornate - think of Saab, Chloé and even Viktor & Rolf for simple-but-interesting examples.
One area that saw little excitement, though, was colour: black, beige, caramel, navy and soft putty shades ruled. While winter does traditionally lend itself to more sober shades, this season was limited in the extreme. The paler end of the palette was, at least, radiant, particularly at Chanel, Valli and Rykiel, but it was on the rare occasion that a bright colour came through that things started to come alive. A vivid red coat at Vanessa Bruno, bright coral highlights at Givenchy, delicate pastels at Dior and the multicoloured ethnic frenzies of Kenzo, Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano and, over in Milan, Roberto Cavalli, hinted at a more colourful spring to come in 2011.
What may not make it through to spring are the furs that appeared on almost every catwalk. Encouraged by its appearance in so many shows and with few of the protests that were seen back in the Eighties (the last time the material had a resurgence in popularity), by the end of the week it was rare to find a fashionista who wasn't wearing at the very least a mink collar. Yet its very popularity might have been its downfall, as the saturation could tip it back into uncoolness by next season. The final nail in the coffin of fur, though, will probably be Karl Lagerfeld's decision to use highly realistic faux fur in his Chanel show. Fur trousers, fur skirts, fur coats: all looked convincing but, in a show for which the invitation featured a Lagerfeld drawing of the endangered polar bear and the set featured glaciers (equally endangered), the presence of real pelts would have been odd, to say the least.
So to sum up: feminine clothes for women; grown-up clothes for grown ups; and fake furs instead of the skins of endangered species. Could this really indicate a return to sanity for the exotically barmy world of fashion? Nah. That's just crazy talk.