The Ebullient One

Obituary | Alber Elbaz, considered one of the most likeable designers in the business, will always be remembered for turning around the fusty house of Lanvin

Alber Elbaz succumbed to complications due to COVID-19, as reported by The New York Times, quoting a statement issued by Richemont, the Swiss luxury group that backed Mr Elbaz’s latest venture AZ Factory. He was 59. The fashion designer died in the American Hospital in Paris, the same institution where Kenzo Takada too died from COVID-19 in October last year. According to Israeli media, Mr Elbaz was “infected with the South African COVID variant despite being fully vaccinated”. Poised for a major comeback in January, the Moroccan-born Israeli designer was once a major force of fashion when he held the design directorship at Lanvin, ushering an era of unabashed elegance tinged with fun and sometimes (subtle) irreverence for the more-than-a-decade-old French house. Women adored his clothes. Meryl Streep, who wore a gold Lanvin dress in 2012 to receive the Oscar for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, later told Vogue, “Alber’s dresses for Lanvin are the only ones that, when I wear them, I feel like myself, or even a better version of her.”

Born in Casablanca in 1961 to Jewish parents—a hairdresser father and painter mother, Albert Elbaz (he later dropped the T from his first name, apparently to ensure the right pronunciation in French) immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 10. As he recounted, he started drawing dresses when he was seven. Dana Thomas told British Vogue that he said to her, “I would sketch women—queens, nurses, women in pictures… It’s funny—a lot of what I’m doing now, I did then.” But he did not pursue that path—at least not as soon as he was old enough. After national service with the Israel Defence Forces (“I had asthma, so they put me in charge of the entertainment of the soldiers,” he once told Sarah Mower), Mr Elbaz enrolled at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan (a city in the district of Tel Aviv) to study design. He was close to his mother (his father died when he was 13) and with her blessing and financial support of US$800, left for New York in 1985, a month after his graduation, to pursue a career in fashion.

The finale of the AZ Factory spring/summer 2021 video-show. Screen grab: AZ Factory/Youtube

When in New York, Mr Elbaz began in an unnamed dressmaker’s shop in the Garment District. Some accounts thought that to be a bridal fashion house. He held that job—designing eveningwear—for two and half years. According to fashion lore, he met Dawn Mello who introduced him to Geoffrey Beene in 1989. But Mr Elbaz told Ms Thomas that it was his boyfriend who introduced him to the American couturier. He was offered a job as assistant after a ten-minute interview with Mr Beene, and he remained for seven-and-half years. Mr Elbaz always credited everything he had learned to Mr Beene, as well as everything about designing. In 2012, he said, “I was very much into design because I came from the house of Geoffrey Beene, which was all about design, and then we pushed it also to desire, to women, to reality, to be relevant.” In addition, what he admired there, remained with him forever: “the inside and the outside (of the clothes) were as beautiful—that the back and the front were as important.”

In 1996 (some reports state 1997), Mr Elbaz moved to Paris, where his first appointment was at the house of Guy Laroche, then looking unmistakably staid, unlike its heydays in the ’60s. The Observer declared in a 1998 headline that Mr Elbaz would be the “man who’ll put Guy Laroche back in your closet.” Suzy Menkes, then writing for The International Herald Tribune, enthused earlier that “(Mr. Elbaz) blew out the dust of the (Guy Laroche) couture house with a show that was spring clean.” But, as the designer himself said, “I didn’t forget that Guy Laroche’s customers can be, like, 75 years old and they like pink, bouclé and gold buttons.” But he would be at Guy Laroche for a mere two years. With Yves Saint Laurent, who also grew up in North Africa, retiring from prêt-à-porter, he was installed by Pierre Berger as YSL’s creative director in 1998. Many observers considered the appointment “a perfect fit”. This time, the tenure was similarly short. Just after three seasons, he was ousted when Gucci, then headed by Domenico de Sole, took over the brand and Tom Ford installed himself as the designer.

Alber Elbaz with is adorable sketches in his AZ Factory office. Photo: AZ Factory/Richemont

But it was at Lanvin where the world really saw and enjoyed his groove. Mr Elbaz joined what is considered the oldest operational French couture house in 2001. He brought to Lanvin a romance that was slipping the grip of fashion at that time. But Mr Elbaz preferred not to call it romance, saying to WWD in 2014, “I work mostly by intuition. Every time I think too much and try to rationalize every issue, it doesn’t work. I think that intuition is the essence of this métier.” The clothes—often draped—were designed for real occasions, during a time when the right clothes for those occasions still mattered. Memorable are the hyper-feminine details, such as ruffles and flounces, and the edgier, such as visible zips, and exposed and unfinished hems and seams, as well as costume jewellery set on or fastened with grosgrain ribbons. For menswear, which he oversaw the work of Lucas Ossendrijver, formerly Hedi Slimane’s assistant at Dior Homme, Mr Elbaz was one of the earliest adopters of athleisure and creators of luxury sneakers. So noted he was and so red-hot Lanvin was that in 2010, the French brand collaborated with H&M for a collection that sold out. Those who queued for a go at scoring a piece would remember.

When Mr Elbaz departed from Lanvin in November 2015, he left the fashion world quite in shock. His sudden parting was also mired in rumours of the breakdown of relationship with Lanvin owner, the Taiwanese media doyenne Wang Shaw Lan (王效蘭). He quit, it was initially reported and believed. But according to a New York Times editorial later, Mr Elbaz sat “at his home in Paris reading a letter from Lanvin telling him not to come into the office, because he had been fired.” Ms Wang had quite a reputation then as a formidable business woman. In August 2001, through her holding company Harmonie SA, she led a group of investors to acquire Lanvin from L’Oréal Group. Old-school and used to getting her way, she was described as “autocratic” and as China’s Jing Daily once wrote, “Even though the company has a clear executive structure, it was not surprising that she was willing to circumvent it.”

Lanvin spring/summer 2016, Alber Elbaz’s last collection for the house. Screen grab: FF Channel/YouTube

Sudden firings in the ateliers of luxury fashion was not new that year. Eleven months earlier, Gucci’s Frida Giannini was asked to leave and was replaced by Alessandro Michele. But Mr Elbaz’s termination was thought by industry folks and Lanvin customers to be especially unjust and undue. That Mr Elbaz was well liked by the many who knew him made the very public corporate divorce uglier on the side of the hirer, rather than the hired. After the acrimonious exit of Mr Elbaz, Lanvin reported its first annual loss in a decade. No one was surprised. The brand would subsequently only see a series of creative directors who failed to bring back the glory days of the Lanvin. It was finally sold to Forsun Fashion, part of China’s Fosun Group, also owner of St John and Wolford; it was their first acquisition of a key luxury brand. Lanvin’s current creative director is Frenchman Bruno Sialelli, former head of menswear at Loewe and womenswear at Paco Rabanne.

Post-Lanvin, Mr Elbaz said he would like to take an extended hiatus and travel. But he did collaborate with others, including the French parfumeur Frederick Malle on a fragrance called—oddly (or, perhaps, cheekily)—Superstitious. There was also a project with Tods, as well as a one-off with the Japanese-owned American bag brand LeSportsac. While acknowledged as a true talent, it surprised many that Mr Elbaz was not snapped up by a major house. Or that he and his life partner of more than two decades, Alex Koo, who had worked with Mr Elbaz in Lanvin as merchandising director, did not start their own label. But in 2019, it was reported that he was conceptualising a new brand that would be called AZ Factory. Richemont, the conglomerate that has Cartier, Chloé, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Yoox Net-a-Porter Group in its stable of brands was to back it. In January, AZ Factory was launched during Paris Couture Week to warm response, with many expecting more from the new label. Unlike the luxury brands he was associated with before, AZ Factory would be modelled as see-now-buy-now, and would be available from size XXS to XXXXL, and in what was thought to be accessible price points, which seemed so distant from how exclusive and costly Lanvin was (and is). In 2009, he explained to The New Yorker why his designs for Lanvin were expensive. “It’s so much work,” he said. “Doing a collection for me is almost like creating a vaccine.” Was Alber Elbaz really being prescient?

Illustration: Just So

Mighty Fine

The women’s wear of Lanvin may be a series of missteps after Alber Elbaz departed, but for its men’s collection, still-going-strong Lucas Ossendrijver delivered one of his best seasons yet

 

Lanvin SS 2019 P1

Lanvin isn’t what it used to be. With the brand’s corporate troubles, it has not only lost its prestige, but also its standing in French fashion’s current pantheon of greats. Men in the know, however, consider this the distress of the women’s wear division, not the Lanvin they have been buying. And those particularly unswayed by the social-media savvy of trending star designers continue to support Lucas Ossendrijver’s vision of the unconventional yet solidly contemporary.

Mr Ossendrijver remains true to what he and Alber Elbaz co-created following the former’s appointment at the house in 2006: never too classic, nor too casual, just the right dash of the nonchalant. In fact, it can be said that Lanvin was one of the first brandsif not the firstto propose the boundary-blurring idea of teaming athletic wear with tailoring, way before sweatpants are so scarily common. The whole relaxed approach to men’s wear truly found its proponent in Lanvin, culminating in the hugely successful collaboration with H&M in 2011.

Lanvin SS 2019 G1

Lanvin SS 2019 G2

No matter how informal the styles he’s been showing, Mr Ossendrijver, who cut his teeth at Kenzo, then Kostas Murkudis, and then Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme, has always made construction and proportion the crux of the Lanvin identity. His latest collection continued to underscore these crucial components while enhancing its visual complexity. The observant may think that much of these have in common with Japanese labels such as Undercover, but Mr Ossendrijver has definitely put his own stamp on them.

On the surface many pieces may look like hybrid garments, but it is essentially the styling that gives the impression of hybridisation. Outdoor wear, often worn askew (also seen last season), was teamed with conventional shirting, for example, but brought together in such a way as not to give the impression of composites of disparates. These are no doubt the work of a sophisticated mind and discerning hands. It is true when Mr Ossendrijver told the media that guys are attracted to Lanvin because of its “elaborate workmanship”.

Lanvin SS 2019 G3

Lanvin SS 2019 G4

They, too, would be attracted to an abbreviated polo-shirt-as-cape worn like a gilet or the cropped cousin slipped atop shirt sleeves, or boxy jumpers pulled over T-shirts the way much of the young do these days. Although there was much more layering than what is typical of the spring/summer season, Mr Ossendrijver was careful to keep the silhouette fairly lean, not ultra-skinny, adequately roomy, not unusually voluminous. In this regard, he did not appear to deliberately stay clear of extremes—the either-or approach of many showing in Paris.

At times, there seemed to be the sensibility of football blokes in the way the pieces were pulled together, as if in haste, or missing a mirror. These were all the more charming considering how the most popular shows of the season were careful compositions of precise tailoring and totally low-key—as counterpoint—in controlled harmony. You see, for some of us, the truly wicked is in the devil-may-care.

Photos: Indigital.tv

Lanvin’s Lost… Again

Lanvin SS 2018 P1

On a Saturday afternoon, about a week before the Lanvin show was going to be staged in Paris, we passed the eponymous boutique at the Hilton Shopping Gallery. It was terribly quiet inside. Not a soul was spotted, not even a salesperson. The clothes in their usual places looked untouched, unimpressive, unwanted. It’s premature to say if new guy Olivier Lapidus will be able to bring the customers back, but looking at what he showed, we’re afraid for the brand, once so desired for the romance that Alber Elbaz had infused it with.

Mr Lapidus—son of Ted, the French couturier who cut his teeth at Christian Dior and had introduced military styles to high fashion in the ’60s—probably had a tough time putting the collection together since, according to reports, he came on board only in August. Undoing the blah that former design director Bouchra Jarrar had left behind in a couple of months can’t be easy, let alone create a new, laudable aesthetic for the brand.

No one can bring back the whimsy and the joie de vivre that Alber Elbaz had introduced to Lanvin. And we may not want it back either. It’s been two years since Mr Elbaz left the house, the same the year Alessandro Michele joined Gucci, which has since dominated fashion conversations around the world. Mr Elbaz’s elegance now seems oddly old-fashioned, possibly too soigné for current tastes. What should the new Lanvin look like then?

We sense that Mr Lapidus wanted to do tarty clothes, but held himself back because it occurred to him that the Lanvin customer is more Natalie Portman than Kim Kardashian. Still, we can’t help but think that sexual provocation was on his mind, especially when there is more than a couple of short, hip-hugging dresses with an inverted-V of a front hemline, as well as those with plunging V necklines that threatened to meet the sibling below point to point. Some pieces just look, for a lack of better word, cheap.

Fashion has become so street-oriented that it is, for many women, lacking in good old sexy, body-clinging dresses. Mr Lapidus may be plugging this gap in the luxury market, but he too wanted to capture the hearts of the young, in particular those charmed by Supreme and the brand’s logo that other luxury labels want to associate themselves with. To strike a chord with these young people, he put out logo-ed dresses, only these look too much like those imitations that think they can pass themselves off as Chanel by repeating the moniker throughout the garments. Lanvin is not exactly known for its logo, except perhaps the mother and daughter symbol, created by the French illustrator Paul Iribe, so strikingly applied on the Arpège perfume bottle. Mr Lapidus’s logo overrun is sadly far removed from the refinement associated with Lanvin.

There is some seriousness though. A trio of solid-coloured coats has rounded shoulders and voluminous sleeves, perhaps hinting at Mr Lapidus’s couture lineage, but do they communicate a sense of surprise, a finger of freshness, or an intimation of ingenuity that was palpable when Morinaga Kunihiko showed similar styles for his label Anrealage? The answer is quite simply no. But Bouchra Jarrar had a second season, so will Olivier Lapidus. So, let’s see.

Photos: (top) Lanvin/Youtube and (catwalk) Indigital. tv

Lanvin Lame, Dior Dismal

lanvin-vs-diorSimilar silhouettes at Lanvin (left) and Dior (right). What gives?

Fashion these days is fashion with a capital F. But sometimes, it’s boring with a capital B. Paris Fashion Week is increasingly the embodiment of such extremes. The F is, of course, sometimes B, with the B more and more because of E, the capital initial of excess.

Despite all the high-drama, high-octane, here’s-all-the-sex-you-need-in-a-dress ubiquity, inclement weather et al, some brands are traipsing the now frequently trodden path of the excruciatingly dull. Fashion watchers and armchair analysts attribute it to the need (order from above?) to sell. But on the catwalk, where many of us look to for inspiration and direction, do we need to see clothes conceived to bear the weight of commerce?

In the not-so-distant past, we looked to French houses for leadership and for ideas to lift our wardrobes above the humdrum. With the offerings of fast fashion now legit style currency, labels with history steep in couture need to go above the fray, or, to borrow from business parlance, build higher barriers to entry. Just this morning, a design student was overheard saying, “Nah, Dior has nothing for me to copy.” Fashion plagiarism is a problem and a practice that must be discouraged and frown upon, but if imitation is flattery, what does it mean when no one wants to copy you?

Two of the most storied of French names seem to be in a position that may amount to that dilemma: Lanvin  and Dior. Bouchra Jarrar and Maria Grazia Chiuri, the respective design directors of both houses, have taken the position of not challenging the status quo, our aesthetic sensibility, and their own selves. Instead, they have both adopted the I-am-a-woman-who-knows-what-women-want stance, churning out clothes that, quite frankly, made us yawn.

There is nothing special about these clothes. The thing is, you do not go to Lanvin or Dior for the mundane, or pieces to duplicate your wardrobe. Perhaps buying habits these days are different, but surely, within all those fine exemplars of wearability, some garments can stimulate our appetites with distinction, if not originality?

lanvin-aw-2017Lanvin autumn/winter 2017

Lanvin

The shoes of Alber Elbaz are, no doubt, hard to fill. So, perhaps, Bouchra Jarrar did not attempt to try. Why bother if they will never fit? Slip into those shoes, therefore, she did not. Instead, she took her own mincing steps to create a Lanvin that dares not dream… big.

A first outing for a major brand may be considered easing into the job. But a second season should give us an idea of what is definitively shaping up. So far, it is clear Ms Jarrar isn’t the equivalent of, say, Nicolas Ghesquiere when he took over from Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton. Still, we’re hoping to see something that’s a lot more concrete. Instead, we were served with loads of predictably feminine silk chiffon (what’s with the identical opening and closing dresses?), unsurprising satin-and-lace pairings, that sweetie-poo pink, the various necklines of what we call jiaobeijiu (交杯酒 or the lock of the forearms between lovers or newly-weds as they exchange a cup or glass of wine to drink) knot, unspectacular pants and more unspectacular pants, all in a mix that would surely entice hardcore Jamie Chuas.

Jeanne Lanvin was, of course, no Gabrielle Chanel or Elsa Schiaparelli; she had neither the youthful ease of one nor the witticism and humour of the other. Mme Lanvin had ultra-feminine tastes, best exemplified in her preference for the fitted bodice from under which long, full skirts sumptuously bloomed—the robes de style. Ms Jarrar seems to have a weakness for the same silhouette, only now her full skirts were sheer, and the shorts-like panties asked to be looked at. All this could be seen as a 2017 update. But how does one place or understand the lacklustre lace shirt styled with an insipid skinny black ribbon that Sasha Pivovarova wore? Mme Lanvin may have made a mark with understated elegance, but she sure did not design characterless clothes.

dior-aw-2017Dior autumn/winter 2017

Dior

A name such as Dior is always associated with something new, even when we’re not alluding to The New Look (the American description of Monsieur Dior’s debut, the Corolle). Sure, it can be argued that during Marc Bohan’s tenure (1960—1989), newness was not exactly the star of the shows, but it can be said that novelty and innovation were evident with successors such as Gianfranco Ferre, John Galliano, Raf Simons, as well as those for men’s wear, Hedi Slimane and Kris Van Assche, and for fine jewellery, Victoire de Castellane. Even Yves Saint Laurent, who succeeded Christian Dior in 1957 after the latter’s death, dared to be different with the Beat Look of 1960. So what’s new with Maria Grazia Chiuri?

The autumn/winter 2017 collection was not Valentino 2.0, but it was a rather literal take on three qualities always associated with the house of Dior: “romanticism, feminism, and modernity”, also the three qualities she augmented at her previous house of employment. There will always be women for whom these characteristics are essential in their wardrobe, but, at some point—which, for us, is now—boredom would set in. Correct us if we’re wrong, but we sense that Ms Chiuri was communicating a rather political message: now that I am the first woman to design Dior, let me show you how a woman dresses.

So, she offered separates inspired by men’s work wear—denim dungarees and boiler suits! And shirts—very vanilla, slim fit tops—that went with both pants and skirts (pleated, gathered, and ruched for plain is the bane of fashion today). Between embroidered chiffon and velvet, a woman needs to show her tougher side. And when she needs to reveal gentleness, there are always corseted bodices and their see-through cousins, cold shoulders, and tiered skirts to rely on. And to be certain she’s not off the sportswear/hoodie-the-basis track, she is served a relaxed version of the bar suit with a hood! If Kanye West were to design Dior, that would be a touch of genius, but this was Ms We Should All Be Feminist!

To be fair, Ms Chiuri is a lot more surefooted with her second Dior show. The choice of black and darker shades of blue, as well as the pairing of navy and black hinted ever so gently at an attempt at a concept, albeit just chromatic, and, even when collectively, the colours are akin to what Japanese retailers such as Journal Standard have been employing in at least one part of their seasonal collections (let’s not talk about how those inky hues were made popular by the Japanese invaders of Paris in the early ’80s).

But beyond that, what can we say that won’t sound like we’re negative? One thing was glaring to us. Many of the silk chiffon and tulle skirts were worn with solid-colour underpants that look like shorts. Sounds familiar? Indeed, if you were to change Ms Chiuri’s colour palate with that of Ms Jarra’s, the design directors could easily trade positions. Dior for Lanvin, Lanvin for Dior. How about that? Soul sisters unite!

Photos: indigital.tv

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: Indigital.tv

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.

Rudderless: So This Is What It Looks Like When A Fashion House Has No Design Director

Dior AW 2016 finaleFinale at the Dior autumn/winter 2016 show. Photo: DiorTV

Whatever you feel about Saint Laurent’s latest collection, there’s no denying Hedi Slimane is focused. You take away a clear picture, knowing what he wanted to do, where he wanted to take you to. So much of the autumn/winter Paris collections is wearyingly obsessed with wearability—no doubt an approach first popularised by Mr Slimane, but was really there all along at Chanel—and multiplicity that it was all as confusing and forgettable as the “Front Row Only” Chanel show with its staggering 93 looks (90, if you discount the 3 men’s outfits).

So it is really not surprising, even if we risk sounding picayune, that the two, storied French houses left without a captain would steer their respective collections rather without a rudder. Sure, the design team took over, but you sense that different people were tasked with different parts of the collection, and no one was savvy enough to edit or ensure that there would be some unity in the line. There seems to be a belief that if you put out instantly wearable clothes with a certain mood that may be evocative of the past or a certain designer, such as the last one holding fort at the house, you’ll be good to go. After all, when a house is in transition (or disruption), people would understand.

Dior AW 2016 G1Dior autumn/winter 2016/17. Photos: Dior

At Dior, it was a Bill Gaytten moment: spring/summer 2012 season, just after John Galliano was unceremoniously dismissed. While, to be fair, the present interim collection has tried to stick to the house codes, it is undeniably safe and sane, posh and pretty. It couldn’t be other way, some sympathised. To be sure, these are not appetite-churning clothes, but they seem so disconnected with what’s happening in Paris, so different from the gentle rebellion led by brands such as Vetements and Jacquemus, so unable to redefine the Dior aesthetic beyond the Bar jacket and lady-like silhouette.

The design team proves that it’s hard to do Raf Simon’s Dior without Raf Simons. It’s even harder to duplicate Mr Simon’s sense of ethereal beauty with youthful edge. They’ve kept the pop of colour under dark suits, the floral fabrics shaped sensuously, the swing coats, but, strangely, they’ve omitted pants—those calf-length trousers that Cathy Horyn once said was not Mr Simons’s strength when he was at Jil Sander, but was beautifully refined by the pattern makers at Dior. It won’t be a surprise if the clothes sell, but it may not be those discerning women buy to keep.

Lanvin AW 2016 G1Lanvin autumn/winter 2016/17. Photos Lanvin

At Lanvin, as at Dior, it is very likely the design team tried hard, but here’s the predicament: it looks like they did try very hard. It’s not immediately obvious they intended to build on Alber Elbaz’s legacy—14 years, no less. Probably not, since the parting of designer and house was not, by many accounts, terribly amicable. Mr Elbaz had the knack for tempering overtly feminine flourishes with elements that are not encouraged in traditional dressmaking such as unfinished edges. However tai-tai his aesthetic got, it was usually balanced by the designer’s sense of humour and considerable wit.

Instead, these are clothes that trump propriety, good design sense and, what are believed to constitute French elegance and savoir faire: the silk satin dress and her lovely cousin in silk chiffon; the one-sleeve dress that is almost synonymous to Alber Elbaz; the flounces, ruffles and peplums that are, hitherto, crowd-pleasers. These are clothes that will look right in a rich woman’s wardrobe, save perhaps the calf-length coats with elongated contrasting lapels, a cumbersome-looking outer if there ever was one. Of the manifold variety of styles at Lanvin, quite a few will score with Chinese mistresses who must look womanly and kept.

Who’s Bugging You?

Season of Bugs

From left: Kenzo’s current campaign image, Alexander McQueen + Damien Hirst scarf, Lanvin silk top

Welcome to a season of bugs. Have designers abandoned their horticulturist for their favourite entomologist, given the swarm of insect-inspired clothing and communication designs? It’s not an unreasonable assumption when pest is preferred to petal.

Fashion’s appropriation of insects is not necessarily a reflection of consumers’ changing attitudes towards creepy-crawlies. For the longest time, flowers, rather than bugs, were used for print on fabrics or appliqué on garment. In fact, bugs have traditionally appeared as jewellery rather than as clothing. From ancient Egyptian scarab rings to 18th Century Swiss beetle timepieces to present-time Cartier bee pendants and Gucci ladybug purses, insects have been used as accent pieces rather than motifs to flock the body. Considered irksome in nature, but admired in fashion, especially when rendered in precious metals and stones, even unsightly bugs such as the cockroach and the wasp have found favour among those who like their accessories off-beat. However popular they may become, it is doubtful that women will embrace beetle-covered skirts with the same zeal as those festooned with flowers.

The beetle print of a Lanvin silk blouse

Unlike floral print, bug motifs do not convey a sense of economic supremacy even when both blooms and vermin are products of nature. A woman emblazoned with roses, for example, may suggest wealth or person in possession of private grounds in which rose bushes thrive or the possibility of adventure in exotic (and expensive) locales, usually of cooler clime where the flora can flourish. Insects, on the other hand, point to places of questionable hygiene—usually dark and dank—or, like in Harry Porter, a predilection for the dark arts. Flowers are associated with aromatherapy, while insects with potions and spells!

Insectival styles are here to stay for a while. Squeamish or not, let not some trends be the season’s bugbear.