A return to fashion with what Anne-Valérie Hash called ‘wisdom and philosophy and art.’
Paris Fashion Week returns to the fine art of fashion
There have been splashes of orange, slashes of red and blasts of blue from New York to Paris, but if you're looking for a colour story to sum up the season, there's only one contender: black. Prints came and went, neutrals had their moment, gradations of navy and grey appeared, but black was the constant, the perfect medium for both the minimalist, sculptural tailoring of those back-to-the-1960s shows, such as Calvin Klein, and the intricate textures of the more romantic lace and velvet pieces, such as the Victoriana of Nina Ricci.
While fashionistas still love black, of course, it can be a touch harsh - especially in the glorious sunshine that marks a Middle Eastern autumn/winter, in stark contrast to the icy climate of all four fashion capitals at that time. It was a relief then, that the main alternatives to black appeared to be light, bright and cheerful: creamy cashmeres, punchy bright tangerine, dramatic red, subtle teal and, in Paris, a fair amount of bottle green. The precision-cut orange coat was an item that made it into an extraordinary number of shows, and bright, graphic prints were also used widely.
The unifying factor, though, was luxury. As fast-fashion shows no signs of slowing down, prêt-à-porter has to deliver on quality, and its designers and businesspeople seem to be realising that it is not a market that can compete in speed with the high-street, however much money there is to be made from it.
Tom Ford's approach to womenswear - highly selective relationships with the press, and few stockists - appeared at first merely cranky, but the demise of John Galliano's relationship with Dior has refocused the industry's eyes on the pressure that designers are under to come up with two ready-to-wear, two resort and, in some cases, two couture collections a year, not to mention the additional chores of those who work on multiple labels, menswear and accessories.
Similarly, while there is certainly excitement in the air as designers start to cast off the caution with which they have been forced by the recession to approach their business, even as fickle an industry as fashion cannot immediately forget the privations of the past few seasons. What they have learnt is something they were taught once before, in the days of over-licensing of brands: prêt-à-porter relies on exclusivity and exceptional quality for its appeal.
It's a lesson that appears to have stuck. Doing the rounds of re-sees in Paris, the details that came up again and again were all about quality: the double-faced cashmere, the dual-purpose coat, the contrast lining, the hand-constructed grosgrain knitting... And for design, this meant that wherever there appeared to be simplicity there must also be either hidden complexity - as with the complex draping of apparently simple pieces at Lanvin - or luxurious fabric, such as the treated cashmeres at Rochas. It was, as Anne-Valérie Hash pointed out to me on the final day of fashion week, an end to bling in prêt-à-porter (leave that to the quick-fire trend-following of the high street), and a return to fashion with what she called "wisdom and philosophy and art". She cited Celine's Phoebe Philo as the visionary designer pioneering this approach.
High ideals, then, but manifested in the simple beauty of material: lots of stiff, shot silk at Haider Ackermann, current favourite to succeed Galliano at Dior, fluid printed chiffons everywhere, heavy silk satins, panne velvet and lace that was worked in some way or painted, as at Vionnet. The painting of metallic shades on to fabric also appeared at Stella McCartney, in her Michelinesque gold tunics, and metallic treatments of leather were a popular shorthand for "disco" in shows in New York and London, too.
Elsewhere over the past months there have been a number of shapes that define autumn/winter 2011. The flat-tailored, round-necked, knee-length coat, with a natural or curved shoulder line, has appeared in its simplest form at its source, Celine, as well as in American shows such as Alexander Wang and Derek Lam, or as an embellished jacquard at Kenzo. Another popular coat shape has been the wrap coat, often with a shawl collar and belted on the natural waist - Nina Ricci and Donna Karan had exemplary versions, the former in a gothic, antiqued look, the latter with all the cocooning luxury that has characterised the season.
Trousers remain skinny and either cropped or rumpled towards the ankle, though wide, super-long 1970s-style trousers appeared at a number of shows too - a more forgiving way to lengthen the silhouette.
There remains, as with last season, an emphasis on the waist-shrinking effect of the peplum (particularly on jackets and dresses at Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney and Monique Lhuillier) and the wide, stiffened skirt (Jason Wu, Collette Dinnigan), though the hemline on these looks has risen somewhat from the difficult-to-pull-off mid-calf of the Louis Vuitton original. Indeed, the favoured skirt and dress length is just on or below the knee, which looks best with a slender, form-fitting shape as seen at Victoria Beckham, Lanvin and Stella McCartney.
The alternative to that curvy peplum is the boxy, raglan-sleeved jacket, a 1960s style revived over the last season or two and widely used for next autumn. As a loose shape, this looks at its best with a form-fitting wiggle skirt to a demure knee-length. It has also been used as a short-sleeved tunic in super-stiff fabrics - an almost-inflated look to be worn with caution by all but the very slim.
Last season's incipient move towards a lower waistline has found full expression across the shows, too, with a flapper dropped-waist offering a relaxed alternative to some of the rigid, sculpted pieces on the catwalks. For those who value that nonchalance, there are plenty of options at Rochas, where pockets in evening dresses allow the wearer to strike a satisfyingly aloof pose, and among the flowing chiffon and silk frocks of Lefranc Ferrant, Lanvin and Martin Grant. The use of knife-sharp box pleats or sunray pleats in these fluid fabrics creates a certain bounce that will make dressing for winter in a hot climate a less onerous task.
Certain accessories were used across the board: butter-soft long, leather gloves, big-brimmed fur-felt hats of the Bianca Jagger variety, particularly fetching at Lanvin, long, loose-legged boots, the best of which were those made for Victoria Beckham by Christian Louboutin, and low-heeled work shoes and ankle-boots, the kind of thing a grubby child in a James Guthrie painting might wear. That shabby-genteel, Victorian urchin look is a versatile, wearable alternative to the minimalism that currently dominates fashion.
And trends off the catwalk? The front row is still about the cult of the colt: with hooflike platforms, same-colour skinny trousers on long, deer legs and a shaggy, baggy top half, it seemed the whole of the Paris fashion world was channelling Mr Tumnus. Next season: the White Witch, coming to a fashion week near you.
See more from Paris Fashion Week here Paris Fashion Week Autumn Winter 2011/12