Fashion Gropes for A Future

4 minute read
Kate Betts/Paris

Toward the end of Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel show on Friday morning in Paris, several models appeared on the runway with pills of all shapes and sizes seemingly spilling down the fronts of their black chiffon minidresses. Pills were also strung along the gold chain handles of those famous quilted bags. It was just one small detail in a chic show, but somehow in this lackluster fashion season it resonated. Has fashion come to this: A medical emergency?

At the spring 2007 collections, questions seemed to plague the posse of journalists, buyers and hangers-on who follow the biannual fashion romp through New York City, London, Milan and Paris: Who is driving fashion forward? Who is providing an idea inspirational, catchy and new enough to get people excited about getting dressed? Where is fashion going to go?

Sure, there was a futuristic mood on many runways–including silver-streaked trapeze dresses at Fendi, plastic corsets at Dolce & Gabbana and even articulated gold-colored robot leggings at Balenciaga (right). There was a hint of the high-tech future in Hussein Chalayan’s remote-controlled dresses, as they shifted from long to short. (Disappearing hemlines are also a trend–most are upper-thigh high). And the ’80s notion that fashion will be about athletic wear in ever more technologically advanced fabrics still has plenty of currency.

But the general feeling is that fashion has become so globalized and merchandised that the idea of a designer with an emotional life and the ability to communicate it to others is passé. “Fashion is now about marketing and merchandising,” declares Pierre Berge, Yves Saint Laurent’s business partner and a key player on the Paris fashion scene for several decades. “It is not about designer fashion. It is about [mass-market retailers like] Zara.” The clothes are nice, the argument goes, but the real craft is in how you sell them.

Nevertheless, even a multibillion-dollar chain like Zara needs ideas. And a designer like Nicolas Ghesquière, who has been in fashion’s driving seat of late with his razor-sharp focus on silhouette and tailoring, can still turn the business on its head. His buglike silhouette of skinny black legs and poufy miniskirts, first shown last February, has resurfaced on countless other runways this season. Fashion insiders–the people who determine which trends will make it onto department-store shelves or fashion-magazine covers and, eventually, to Zara–need a bad boy to shock them into a new look. When everyone is comfortably buttoned up in their cocoon coats, they need someone to reconfigure the silhouette with a stovepipe pant.

Ghesquière has the capacity do that, given the time–he has to do at least two pioneering collections a year–and the freedom. “Creativity is the lifeblood of our company,” says Robert Polet, CEO of Gucci group. “My CFO doesn’t like it when I say this, but I am happier with the output of creativity of all our brands than I am with the bottom line.” The pressure to create something new, however, is intensified by the pressure to move the huge corporate machine. Even John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier, both radical creative catalysts, have had to conform to the corporate spirit of our times. In Galliano’s show for Dior, streamlined tweed suits and pared-down chiffon evening dresses in pale shades of gray and pink replaced his signature theatrics.

Gaultier showed an equally commercial collection of slouchy athletic-inspired dresses over neon-bright fishnet stockings. Like Galliano, Gaultier has never been at a loss for ideas. And he celebrated his 30th anniversary in fashion by marching every one of those bad-boy notions down his runway–from the prescient 1976 leather motorcycle-jacket look to Madonna’s cone-bra dress. Every look came off as current, which is why Gaultier is so good. He knows how to break the rules and keep his clothes classic. Fashion could do worse when looking for a new engine: create that which is at once shockingly new and completely familiar.

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