PARIS, France -- For the second season in a row, Paris Fashion Week was the epicenter of a number of major transformations for some of the industry's top houses. Last season, Raf Simons debuted his ready-to-wear for the house of Dior, while Hedi Slimane took the creative reins at Saint Laurent, designing womenswear for the first time. This season, three more venerable French fashion houses -- Balenciaga, Sonia Rykiel and Emanuel Ungaro -- got an injection of new energy, with the arrival of three hot, up-and-coming designers.
Fashion wunderkind Alexander Wang's debut for Balenciaga was, of course, the most keenly anticipated. The unexpected departure of Nicolas Ghesquière in November of last year stunned the fashion world in a shock that was only surpassed by the news that Wang would take creative charge of the house.
His first collection for the brand, shown in the intimate setting of the Balenciaga salons, smartly paid homage to the founder of the house, bypassing references to the Ghesquière years and focusing solely on the iconic silhouettes that are forever linked to Balenciaga: the cocooning coats, bracelet sleeves and rounded shoulders. But Wang also injected his own street-savvy style into the marble inspired show, which contrasted dynamic designs with movement with those that were more static and monolithic, a mélange that worked unexpectedly well.
But Wang’s arrival at Balenciaga, as well as the arrivals of Simons at Dior, Slimane at Saint Laurent and others, poses a much bigger question. How much deference does a newly installed designer need to pay to the heritage of a house?
At Dior, Simons seemed to be pulled in two directions with his Autumn/Winter 2013 collection. His intention to incorporate the brand’s past into his modern aesthetic resulted in a show that communicated an unclear vision of who his Dior woman is supposed to be. Whereas at Saint Laurent the problem wasn’t so much a lack of deference to the work of Mr. Yves Saint Laurent -- Silmane made very little attempt to bring any of his codes into the show. Instead, he whole-heartedly put his own stamp on the collection. The trouble was his inspiration seems to always come from the same place and time (California Grunge according to the brief show notes) which makes his collections feel more like a luxe cliché rather than a future vision for Saint Laurent.
Perhaps the answer is to forget the past and just forge ahead boldly into the future. This tactic has worked exceedingly well for Riccardo Tisci. His gypsy-inspired Givenchy show was one of the highlights of Paris Fashion Week. When he first arrived at the house, he bypassed the work of Hubert de Givenchy almost from the get go and, despite rumbling criticism at the time for his lack of deference, transformed the brand into a modern day powerhouse.
The same could be said for Phoebe Philo. Her pure, minimal and modern style has total changed the Céline brand. Her show, filled with easy, slightly oversized pieces in practical, neutral hues (the cute “Tati” bag pieces not withstanding) was one of her strongest yet.
An argument can also be made that, although they still include the famous Valentino red in their collections, the designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have made the house of Valentino their own.
Their lovely and beautifully crafted show underscored the fact that they had spent years working at the knee of the maestro, but it hasn’t stopped them from bringing a freshness to the femininity of the house, as well as a more rock ‘n’ rock element.
At Sonia Rykiel, the new designer Geraldo da Conceicao was unfortunately unable to dovetail his style with the brand’s history as a knitwear house. It made for a disjointed collection lost in its attempt to be modern and retro at the same time.
As for Fausto Puglisi, he had a real opportunity to brake away from the past of the Emanuel Ungaro brand, as it has been almost a decade since the designer retired, and put his own unique mark on the house. He got half way there with his exaggerated silhouettes and gilded embellishments. But his determination to bring Mr. Ungaro’s love of polka dots to the mix felt like a miscalculation. Here’s to hoping that all of these young designers decide to rely on their own talents and not those of their predecessors for their next collections.
Besides the musical chairs at the big name brands, a number of smaller designers showed some real growth this season. At Sacai, designer Chitose Abe has slowly and methodically developed her brand through good word of mouth and even better clothing. Her latest collection played on contradiction to create a space where conceptual design could coexist with wearablity.
Pièce d'Anarchive is another under-the-radar brand that's starting to gain momentum. In existence for just four seasons, the brand, designed by sisters Priscilla and Déborah Royer, has already reached a certain maturity that bodes well for the label, which leveraged traditional French savoir faire to achieve a distinctly modern vision.
And although he is a bit of a better known quantity, because of his years on the haute couture calendar, Rabih Kayrouz is building up a serious fan base for his intricate knitwear designs that sculpt the body while flattering the figure.