The Elegance of the Beauty

Ever since Tom Ford took over the designing of Yves Saint Laurent ready-to-wear, he has had to deal with snarky journalists who think he’s not faithful enough to the style he inherited or not talented enough to create an image for Saint Laurent that’s distinct from Gucci, the brand he forged out of bankrupt playboy shoe leather. And probably it seems to Mr. Ford that he can’t get a break.

But it’s his own comfort level with Saint Laurent that one keeps questioning — not his talent. One gets the feeling over and over again that Mr. Ford has the eye but not the heart for Saint Laurent. It’s as if he scans the opulent forest of Saint Laurent references and plucks what he likes without bothering to go deeper and examine the roots. So one season you have ”Carmen” gypsies and the next sexy safari nomads. And sometimes the results are dashingly effective. But what you still have is a kind of drive-through couture: burger, fries and a bow. The surface supersized.

With the fall collection he showed on Monday night at the Musée Rodin, Mr. Ford at least seemed to be revisiting a part of the Saint Laurent world that isn’t widely known or remembered: the clothes he did for Christian Dior in the late 1950’s. In his autumn 1959 collection, Mr. Saint Laurent showed a dress gathered up generously at the hem with a fat bow. And bows appeared throughout Mr. Ford’s show — as shoestring lacing down the fronts of tight black-lace blouses, as floppy trellises on the backs of snug velvet jackets and as thematic tie-ins at the knees of skintight velvet breeches.

It was bold of Mr. Ford to propose so much beribboned glamour for day, though dressiness was a theme of the fall 2002 collections (which ended today). More problematic were the many repetitions in this show and the one he presented for Gucci: the slick straight skirts, the tepid use of color (navy or deep red), the abundant velvet and ribbon-lashed tops. Some journalists thought they spied 18th-century references in Mr. Ford’s frilled Saint Laurent cuffs, others a note of Velásquez.

It hardly matters, though. Scrape away the references, and you get Gucci. Mr. Ford has to dig deeper.

”Elegance today has to do with brains and bones — it’s an attitude,” Karl Lagerfeld said. And he couldn’t have said it better with a right-on Chanel collection on Tuesday. For elegance to mean anything, it has to be connected to the way women think and move on the street, without cumbersome gestures.

That’s what Mr. Lagerfeld accomplished, with seemingly little effort, by pairing flaring leather minis with fitted jackets in murky tweeds that evoked waistcoats. Or, for night, a black silk chemise with a draped back and a wide hip belt of quilted leather.

Mr. Lagerfeld’s show played to a live rock band, as models trooped out in small-shouldered wool suits with sleeves that could be upzipped to get the arms through, yet could still achieve a tight, clean fit. These were shown with long, matching sleeveless coats — a practical nod to lighter layering. The collection brought sparkle into day clothes, but more impressive was its human range. Mr. Lagerfeld even offered what he lightly calls ”in-between clothes,” beaded lingerie for those in-between hours.

For more than a decade, Martin Margiela
‘s role in fashion has been that of a pesky outsider commenting on the inside, while subtly influencing it. To look at the oversize coats that Mr. Ford showed at Gucci and Saint Laurent is to see his ventilating influence. Yet two years ago, when Mr. Margiela first went jumbo, people thought he was riffing on fashion’s obsession with thinness; in fact, he was addressing something more fundamental: proportion.

Now he has dropped volume. On Tuesday night, at the Petit Palais, as models were led by uniformed attendants onto caged platforms and briefly bathed in hot light, Mr. Margiela cleverly lampooned the mania for must-have products that drives magazines like Lucky and reduces fashion to brands and marketing. At one point, he sent out a man in a white lab coat bearing a large plexiglass box containing a white purse. It was held out solemnly to the audience like a prized specimen. And, of course, to be considered a luxury player in fashion, you need a trophy bag.

A more subtle tribute to this reductive kind of thinking was a plain black wool dress tied at the neck and waist with a full-length gray silk panel that resembled a pin-tucked slip. It stood out in relief against the black, like those cutouts of garments you see in magazines under the headline ”20 Cool Looks!” Mr. Margiela also took a nice swipe at the vintage hullabaloo — stitching together two old coats, in cloth or fur, and leaving the two spare sleeves dangling eerily down the front and back of the blended coat.

Among the new designers showing for the first time in Paris was Istvan Francer, a 45-year-old native of Subotica, now in Serbia, near the border with Hungary, a region that figures in his romantic trimmings and full-skirted chic. At times Mr. Francer seemed too overpowered by old-fashioned sentiment, with costume looks like ballooning black jodhpurs. But then he eased up, offering the more playful cocktail-hour treat of slim black trousers worn with a taut black sweater, its sleeves of fine black lace. He finished off the outfit with a black taffeta sash.

Be it a bow or a sash, that seems to be fashion’s must-have garnish for fall.

Fashhion Review A Playful Romp for Chanel

As often as Karl Lagerfeld used to be chided by some of his peers for being a mercenary and not owning a house of his own — at least not one as successful as Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino — it’s interesting how well he understands Chanel.

More than understanding the iconography of Chanel, a house that first opened its doors at 31, rue Cambon in 1921, he knows what the name means in the history of Paris. Unlike many other houses that have disappeared behind corporate facades or disappeared altogether, Chanel still sits like a white-gloved lady on the Rue Cambon. And probably to a great many young tourists who come to take pictures of its famous entrance and the Cassandre-designed logo, the Rue Cambon is Chanel.

Today, after it was reported by Women’s Wear Daily that Alessandra Facchinetti would be replaced at Valentino after just one year (Stefano Sassi, company’s chief executive, has been vague about plans, but indicated that a change was likely and that a lack of confidence in Ms. Facchinetti’s approach was an issue), an executive associated with the Rome-based company said, sadly, “Valentino is like Alitalia to Italy.”

Well, Alitalia has its problems, but certainly Valentino is a name that resonates beyond a chic little suit scattered with seed pearls. Ms. Facchinetti presented a charming, well-received haute couture collection in July. Friday, her ready-to-wear show of casual tunic dresses and soft shorts combinations with gold braid struggled to say something new.

But Ms. Facchinetti’s brief career at Valentino, as much the company’s owners poor handling of it, is proof that you need more than deep pockets to preserve a great name. You also need to recognize what it means in the popular imagination, and then seize it.

Mr. Lagerfeld had the idea to recreate a full-size facade of 31, rue Cambon inside the Grand Palais — and not only the building but also the street, complete with curbs. The models left the maison and hit the street. There was even the suggestion that four models strolling out together in mini knit dresses and fancy net hats might be representing the hooker element. If you’ve lived in Paris, and around fashion, as long as Mr. Lagerfeld has, you wouldn’t judge women that harshly.

He seems to regularly ask himself the question “What is Chanel?” — as if he knows it’s a living thing. This season, tweeds are more graphic; there is the new proportion of a cropped jacket, over a ribbed knit or blouse, and a slim embroidered skirt, shown with two-tone black stockings that modify the actual length of the skirt.

There are plays on transparency and shine. And maybe only Mr. Lagerfeld can show, at one extreme, silvery platforms with pink powder puffs at the heels and, at the other, a gorgeously severe black evening dress with a shadow layer of tulle and a taut, sheer neckline.

“Our house, in the middle of our street,” went the corny, if upbeat soundtrack from the 1980s hit by Madness, and in the models’ hands was one of the most coveted symbols of luxury and pleasure: the Chanel shopping bag, now rendered as a leather sack. The street, one can argue, is Chanel’s real stage.

Stefano Pilati has done a lot to reignite Saint Laurent. His spring collection is a solid continuation of the graphic modernity of last season, with more of an Eastern influence. Wool crepe trousers have a dropped crotch (but are the most flattering of that trendy style). Jackets have a slight kimono look, though Mr. Pilati keeps the volumes from exploding. There are matching bras under sheer, almost iridescent blouses and new, somewhat conceptual versions of the safari jacket — now with a kind of stiff peplum laced to the body of the jacket.

Mr. Pilati offered a lot of appealing clothes — smart, wearable but somehow missing that real Saint Laurent sex appeal and mystery. Maybe he intellectualized the process too much, but you didn’t feel he grasped or took advantage of the big story that Saint Laurent is.

It takes a special woman to wear a Giambattista Valli dress, because in most respects the dress wears her and sometimes it makes her a victim. Mr. Valli has an attentive young clientele, and a press agent’s e-mail message in advance of the show announcing that Natalie Portman would be traveling to Paris to see the collection had the weird archaic import of a 1950s Pathé newsreel.

But then Mr. Valli’s clothes seemed stuck in the glamour of that period. Five decades of women being a good deal more than prized possessions have apparently escaped Mr. Valli’s consciousness, or so it would appear from his crinoline dresses, fussy necklines and tulle outfits with the wooliness of a poodle’s back. Their fingertips extended over their wide skirts, their high heels made more perilous with the addition of a recessed platform, the models seemed instructed to look elegant and unobtainable.

A more accurate word for this tranquilized mood — and the collection in general — would have been Valium.