The fall men’s shows were pretty good. Lanvin did a new version of the power suit in nubby wool (think of a baby’s chewed blanket). Everybody had a laugh at Thom Browne’s Jocks and Punks show, with mounds and mounds of shoulder padding that nearly ate the models’ heads.
Whenever you see a man in a fat suit, you (or I) think of Monty Python’s Mr Creosote grunting the warning, “I’m full.” Size is a familiar joke, as is punk’s menace. To be sure, steroid-using athletes seem tailor-made for Browne’s kind of runway gags. We also see superhuman proportions in new action-horror movies, so at least there’s a contemporary reference point for a collection like Lanvin, where a lot of the clothes, and not the models, looked pumped.
Such attempts to be relevant aren’t convincing, though. Nor are they new. Out of curiosity, I looked up Paris shows of the late 1990s. It was a random choice. In January 1997, Walter van Beirendonck offered oversize army trousers, with huge baseball caps. He called his collection Wild and Lethal Trash, and advised men to “be your own avatar.”
In a review in the New York Times, Amy Spindler praised the shows that season, calling them the best in years, and singled out Comme des Garcons, Jean Paul Gaultier and a newcomer named Raf Simons. Gaultier, she noted, deftly combined Savile Row-cut suits with punk references, like prints of graffiti on brick walls. For his latest collection, he again used a brick print — minus graffiti.
Young customers are no doubt grateful that fashion hits the rewind button occasionally. Still, there is an important difference between 1997 and today: Many houses are now owned by luxury-goods groups, while the rest of the industry is largely under their spell. Trading up became the message. And when you consider the escalating prices of designer clothing in recent years, you can perhaps understand why there is little genuine newness.
Mainly, you see nicely done collections with a tastefully controlled hint of sex or aggression, or youthful rawness, that will satisfy fashion insiders while tempting upscale consumers in any part of the world. That’s essentially globalization. But increasingly the thinking affects design. The goal is not to produce the same kinds of luxury products (that’s already happening), but rather to produce a standardized response to what is considered desirable.
A good example of this is the Yves Saint Laurent show, with its dark-hued tailoring trimmed in black leather and fur. Stefano Pilati added art-world references: a Twombly-style chalk painting as a backdrop, the motorcycle leather worn in a portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, a sweater with one of his razor-blade motifs. You can’t actually fault the taste level of the all-leather outfits. They’re not daring, but neither are they flashily nouveau riche.
Some designers shied away from a look of polished confidence. At Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci showed his signature sharp suits but also dipped into 1950s-style work wear and American flag motifs.
Generally, though, the message of the Paris shows was sleek tailoring (Hermes, Dior) with sporty elements, like belted field coats and parkas that flogged a lifestyle. Again, a lot of the brands are promoting the same rich urban lifestyle.
Lanvin was somewhat puzzling. It began with new-looking suits and coats in chalky wool, with lightly nipped waists and rather full trousers. It was a silhouette no one else had. And the blue, brown and clay tones were fresh as well. But designer Lucas Ossendrijver added sweaters and coats with those weirdly beefed-up shoulders and arms. Waistlines looked pulled as if by invisible string.