New Blood, Old Soul, Stale Water

The change of guard at heritage fashion houses is usually an exciting time. More so the debut show of the new creative head. We remember John Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga, and most certainly Raf Simons at Dior in 2012. Mr Simons’s first show for the French house was haute couture, no less. Looking back at it now, we still feel those sleek suits and ethereal dresses tugging at our heartstrings. Alber Elbaz, who witnessed it all in the front row at that time, later told the media that it “was a beautiful marriage between a designer and a house.”

Three marriages were made in Paris in the past months, but whether there is going to be conjugal felicity, we won’t know yet. Still in the honeymoon period, many would say, the designers for Dior, Lanvin, and Saint Laurent respectively debuted with as much excitement as a brioche turning musty. Were we expecting too much? Were the designers offering too little? Or were there too many familiar phantoms?

dior-ss-2017Was expectations too high at Dior? Photos: Dior

At the house of Dior, ex-Valentino co-créateur Maria Grazia Chiuri preferred not to wow. Instead, she reminded us where her flair lies—diaphanous blouses, skirts, and gowns of a distinctive finesse honed at the atelier of her previous employer. Not that that is surprising. Designers do bring along with them pieces of their past. Not everyone is Karl Lagerfeld. But alongside what you already can do, there should be more—a lot more. This is not Gigi Hadid having a little bit of fun with Tommy Hilfiger.

It was said that expectations should not run high as Ms Chiuri had a mere two months to put together the collection. Her predecessor Raf Simons did not have much more time to prepare for the 2012 fall couture show either. Yet he was able to construct a collection that was as imaginative as it was replete with subtle references to the codes of the house. Ms Chiuri, instead, chose to imbue hers with ideas from past creative directors, including the now-mostly forgotten Marc Bohan. Mind boggling then how fencing jackets got into the mix. The result is a weak, colourless, soporific pastiche.

We’ll risk sounding sexist or anti-feminist (“We should all be feminists” went the pronouncement on a T-shirt): Ms Chiuri is playing the woman-designing-for-women card. As she told WWD, “I want to introduce into the house of Dior a natural attitude, to dress women to feel comfortable, to feel their beauty.” By natural attitude, it is possible that she meant innate feelings only a woman knows, to feel comfortable is to wear what women always wear, and to feel their beauty is to magnify their femininity.

lanvin-ss-2017If this is post-Alber Elbaz, the future of Lanvin looks bleak. Photos: Lanvin

It appears to be the same approach at Lanvin, so much so that if the collections were switched as, say, an act of mischief, we’ll be none the wiser. Lanvin’s Bouchra Jarrar is a commerce-minded designer. “I create to sell,” she told the New York Times. And so she did. Thing is: do women really like wearing sheer this and that over solid-colour underclothes, a pairing also seen at Dior?

Ms Jarrar, to new-gen consumers, is considered to be one of the more promising haute couturières, and that is evident in her sense of luxury that, by her own admission, is calibrated to sync with founder Jeanne Lanvin’s—whose own high fashion aesthetic was highly feminine and decorative. That Ms Jarrar should operate from a woman-for-women standpoint is, perhaps, consistent with the house since Ms Lanvin herself started when she designed for her daughter, Marie-Blanche de Polignac, who married the Comte Jean de Polignac, a nobleman. The younger woman, also known as Marguerite, was a trained milliner and dressmaker, and took over her mother’s business after the old lady’s death in 1946.

Sure, Ms Jarrar provided the satisfaction of individual taste within a wide selection of garments, but there’s still something missing. Mr Elbaz brought joy to Lanvin. Ms Jarrar’s vision of Lanvin is, on the contrary, a joyless one. In some ways, it mirrors what happened at Gucci after Tom Ford left. Frida Giannini did replicate Mr Ford’s sex-infused clothes, but they were arguably not sexy. Lanvin needs the joie de vivre that has sustained it for the past 14 years (for one, we remember the happy painted faces of the mannequins in the store windows). Ms Jarrar has a lot of impressing to do if she were even to catch up with her men’s wear counterpart Lucas Ossendrijver, whose homme collections, in its tenth year, continue to entrance, even post-Alber Elbaz.

saint-laurent-ss-2017Saint Laurent is strutting to the groove set by Hedi Slimane. Photos:

Similarly at Saint Laurent, nothing sent out on the runway made the heart beat even a tad faster. After Hedi Slimane’s unchanging West Coast of America’s rock-chic excesses, we’re hoping for the brand to move away from that direction. That’s, of course, wishful thinking when many observers already knew that Anthony Vaccarello isn’t going to dial down the extreme sexiness. It was said that he was selected because owner Kering knew he was the guy to pick up where Mr Slimane left off.

The silhouettes and styling were so similar to Mr Vaccarello’s predecessor that it is quite certain that the brand has truly found its groove, or unwilling to rock a commercially successful formula. The slim and the short, they were all out in full force. So were the strong shoulder, the one shoulder, the one sleeve (even appearing as a sort of full-length, modern-day, leg-o-mutton-shaped engageante). Could these be clothes a Peculiar Ymbryne such as Alma LeFay Peregrine might wear if it wasn’t 1943 and she was brandishing a smartphone instead of a pocket watch?

This isn’t about right or wrong, beautiful or not. The definition of elegance—even French elegance—has been re-written so many times in the past decade, and more so recently, that we no longer associate it with women of a certain bearing, living a life of certain rectitude. Mr Vaccarello knows that this elegance does not exist anymore. But rather than take the route of just creating looks or riff on what rockers already wear, he has given his output some elements of design. For that, perhaps he’s taking a divergent path. For some, that is good enough as point of view.