PARIS, France — This was the fashion season of inclement weather and one highly awaited, blockbuster debut.
Snowstorm after snowstorm pounded New York before, during and after fashion week. Then, a windstorm in Europe diverted planes carrying a mini-army of models and editors — Anna Wintour included — en route to London Fashion Week to Newcastle and Dublin. But Nicolas Ghesquière’s much-anticipated debut at Louis Vuitton, scheduled for the last day of Paris Fashion Week was something to look forward to through all the weather hassles that disrupted what was, ultimately, a fairly ho-hum season.
There were high moments in each city, of course, but, more than anything, this season seemed to underscore Paris’ pre-eminent position in the fashion firmament. Indeed, this was Paris’ season to shine.
THE SHOWS MUST GO ON
In New York, Alexander Wang put on one of his biggest and best shows ever, amping up production values to new levels and delivering a collection with strong outerwear and the wow factor of heat-activated leather clothes that changed colours for an Instagram-friendly finale. This would have been a great result, had he not dragged the fashion flock to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and left them stuck in traffic (for over an hour, in some cases) trying to exit the venue in what turned into a logistical nightmare.
Marc Jacobs’ first show following his exit from Louis Vuitton was hailed by critics. But even more interesting was the slick, ninja-inspired show of tough urban girls staged by Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley for sister label Marc by Marc Jacobs, now known simply as MBMJ, but still placed firmly at a contemporary price point. Previously, the Marc by Marc Jacobs show was just a side-show to the main event. Now, this is the brand to watch as Mr Jacobs and LVMH (which owns a majority stake in the Marc Jacobs company) prepare for an IPO in the coming years, tapping into the continued momentum in the contemporary segment.
Over in London, in what was her strongest show ever, Mary Katrantzou elevated her visual signature with not a single digital print in sight. Instead, she used embroidery, jacquards and boy scout patches to achieve the same kind of graphic impact she had become known for with her signature digital prints. And, indeed, with the digital print trend on the wane, she was wise to move things on — and did so in a masterful way.
JW Anderson’s first show under the auspices of the recent investment from LVMH left some people scratching their heads. If the partnership was supposed to help clarify a commercial strategy for this fledgling brand, it was not yet clear on the runway, though Mr Anderson’s showrooms are said to be filled with desirable, more commercially-minded product.
Anderson’s talent is undeniable, but amongst London’s fertile bed of young designers, it was Simone Rocha who impressed the most this season. Her collection of voluminous, shapely black dresses, encrusted with gems and jewels to give them just the right edge, underscored Ms Rocha’s flair for confident, slightly off-kilter clothes.
FORTUNES FALLING IN MILAN AND RISING IN PARIS
In Milan, insiders whispered that there could be some major changes coming at Gucci, after the brand reported its slowest quarterly sales growth in four years with like-for-like sales up just 0.2 per cent in the last three months of 2013 compared with a year earlier. As the profit engine for Kering’s luxury empire, Gucci accounts for about fifty percent of the group’s market value. Kering net profits were down 95 percent overall, due to restructuring costs related to its retail businesses Redcats and FNAC.
But over in Paris, where Hedi Slimane’s ongoing reinvention of Saint Laurent gathered steam, the outlook was much, much better for Kering. Revenues at Saint Laurent surged a whopping 42 percent in the last quarter of 2013, versus the year prior, and Saint Laurent products continue to fly off the shelves in what is shaping up to be an unprecedentedly rapid turn of fortunes at a major fashion brand. And, based on the reaction to Mr Slimane’s strongest Saint Laurent show yet, this shows no sign of abating.
Prominent buyers raved about the collection as they exited Slimane’s new Carreau du Temple venue. Natalie Massenet and Alison Loehnis of Net-a-Porter exclaimed in unison, “We want everything!” And judging by the 151 Saint Laurent products available on the Net-a-Porter site at the time of writing, last season it seems they did buy everything.
Despite past controversy, it’s pretty clear that Mr Slimane is on a serious roll.
SUPERMARKET CULTURE AT CHANEL
Each season, when you walk into at the Grand Palais for Karl Lagerfeld’s over-the-top Chanel productions, you never know what you’re in for. One season, it was massive icebergs; another season saw a live concert by the Chromatics. Last time around, it was a grand Chanel art show.
These are always absolutely mammoth-scale shows, overseen by production guru Etienne Russo. But never had the fashion world experienced something like this year’s Chanel Shopping Centre, the most elaborate fashion show I have ever witnessed — and one that's sure to be long remembered for its ambitious scope and attention to detail, not to mention its self-aware commentary on our consumerist culture. It was said to have cost in excess of €6 million (about $8.3 million) to stage, but of course this was just chatter and could not be verified.
Walking the Chanel Shopping Centre's endless shelves of product, wittily named and linked to this most powerful of French fashion brands, one was reminded of how rich and varied the Chanel archive is, how many veins of creativity they have to draw from, and how the company continues to generate its own mythology and brand legends even today.
But it wasn’t until the super-sized show came to an end, and Karl Lagerfeld strolled the aisles with Cara Delevingne in a chaotic finale, that the real performance began. Show attendees, myself included, could not help but be drawn back into the Chanel Shopping Centre to scour the shelves. Were we allowed to take home a souvenir? At first, it was not clear if the products on display were available for plundering by the assembled fashion flock. But soon, desire overcame the crowd and a frenzy of looting erupted as showgoers — including several well-known front row names — aimed to get what was the most coveted item of all: a Chanel-branded doormat. In some parts of the Chanel supermarket, the shelves were stripped absolutely bare.
In the end, very few of those souvenirs made it out of the Grand Palais, stopped by security checks at the door. But Lagerfeld’s grand statement was undoubtedly the unexpected crescendo of the week, especially on social media where the Chanel show generated thousands upon thousands of individual images, shared ad nauseam, everywhere.
Did I manage to get my own souvenir? Oh, I’ll never tell.
It was the most awaited moment of the season. What would Nicholas Ghesquière do at Louis Vuitton?
His debut was well-judged. He chose a simple setting that kept the focus on the clothes. There were no distractions, so the only thing to evaluate was what was on the runway — and on the soundtrack.
A single percussive beat from the Skream song Copycat, featuring Kelis, brought attendees to sudden attention (the song went on to become the soundtrack of the season, something that Rick Owens soundtracks have often managed in the past). Then, steel venetian blinds on all sides of the venue opened, the light streamed in, and Freja Beha Erichsen stepped out onto the runway creating the first indelible image of the new Vuitton: a black leather jacket with a wide, orange 1970s collar, turtle neck dress and high black leather boots with a chunky heel.
But Louis Vuitton's revenue growth has been slowing in recent quarters, as the brand's broad retail footprint has reached saturation point. In response, Vuitton publicly indicated it was reducing store openings as well as lessening its focus on its signature monogram print, which had become overexposed. So perhaps the most surprising (and least discussed) turn of events at Ghesquière’s debut, was the return of the monogram on the Louis Vuitton runway. (The monogram appeared in Marc Jacob's final show, but this was more of a retrospective).
By my count — and with assistance from the helpful accessories roundup on Purseblog.com — there were 7 new handbag shapes on the runway and 31 different styles in total. Eight styles incorporated the monogram. Others linked back to the brand’s DNA by playing with new proportions on classic Vuitton shapes. Ms Beha Erichsen was carrying the Petite Malle, a mini LV trunk refashioned as a chic, little evening box clutch. There was a new version of the Alma bag, given fresh life in its new miniature shape. But perhaps my favourite was the one brand new shape: a modernist bi-colour handbag, which riffed on the classic details of Vuitton in tones of tangerine and blue, combined with the monogram. Several of the new styles were shown in rich-hued exotic skins.
Once the excitement settled, the message was clear. While the clothes were impressive, this remains an accessories business at its core and Louis Vuitton has a new trove of leather goods to take to the luxury masses. This was a step in a promising, new direction.
THE GENEROSITY OF DRIES VAN NOTEN
And finally, this overview of the season would not be complete without a tip of the hat to Mr Dries Van Noten.
A few days before the opening of a wide-ranging and exhaustive retrospective, dating right back to his years at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, an invaluable painting that has not left the Louvre since Louis XIV acquired it over 300 years ago went on a little subterranean journey: It was transported — three levels below ground through secret catacombs — from the gallery where it normally hangs to the Palais du Louvre's north wing, which used to house France's Finance Ministry and is now occupied by Les Arts Decoratifs, the country's national museum of applied arts. The painting, Bronzino's Portrait of a Man Holding a Statuette, was exhibited as part of "Inspirations," a major exhibition dedicated to the vast array of references — from art history, from other designers, from cultures around the world — that have inspired the incredible body of work of Dries Van Noten.
Working closely with highly-regarded curator Pamela Golbin, Van Noten trawled his archive of references for over a year. Works were brought in from museums around the world. And the results were excellent. What struck me the most was the very opening of the exhibition. On display were garments from Van Noten’s graduate collection from his time at the Academy in Antwerp, and already one could see the origins of the creative handwriting that would still resonate with Dries fans so many years later: pattern, print and colour, often with ethnic inspirations.
That he developed such a strong creative signature so early on, which he has since managed to build into a global fashion brand, is an incredible sign of how creativity can be nurtured — and protected — by atypical business models. Mr Van Noten has stayed fiercely independent all these years, while building a very respectable business, the largest of the famous Antwerp Six. Interestingly, Mr Van Noten does not do pre-collections, nor does he advertise.
So while it certainly was the season of power moves at big brands, Mr Van Noten’s exhibition showcased how creativity will continue to drive of our industry. From the budding young designers at the LVMH Prize to the breakout brands in London to major players jockeying for attention in Paris, this was season that underscored that creativity is the true engine of fashion.