How to Be a Woman sounds like a pitch for a best-selling teen manual, or possibly a gross-out movie. But it’s also a question designer are visibly struggling with. At least they should be. Yet years can go past, without anyone in the fashion industry challenging dated patterns. Witness the monster high heels that were found everywhere in magazine shoots and on catwalks of Paris Fashion Week and more, long after almost every woman you looked at on a bus, a tube or walking down a street was wearing trainers or flats of some kind. The clue, I suppose, was the walking. The only way to navigate a life in heels is if you can coast through it on wheels.
These days there’s a new belief running through collections. That doesn’t mean romance and femininity have been obliterating in favor of utilitarianism. You only must look at the flounces and frills rippling across hems and shoulders to know that. But femininity is multi-faceted. Designers have been pushing themselves to address life as it is really lived – with some qualifications. Catwalk fashion is not about reality, exactly, but about ideas and inspiration. It should at least feel relevant, however.
Top of any list of useful innovations must be the increasingly polished street-wear ideas that almost every designer is incorporating into their shows. Let’s start with the ruffled white trainers at Joie, amid priced Californian brand that abstains from catwalk shows, but still, presents in a showroom in Paris. When Joie signs up to a trend, you know it has touched a nerve.
That said, you probably didn’t know you needed ruffled trainers. Once you have a pair of souped-up sports shoes – and there’s a variation to suit all tastes, from Celine’s sleek minimalist ones and Loewe’s luxurious plimsolls to Valentino’s strange-but-can’t-stop-looking-at-them scuba bootees – you’ll wonder how you did without. Not least because they’re so comfortable yet more dressed-up than the average sneaker.
The same is true for the multiple variations on the suit. The trouser suit has been gaining prominence on the catwalks for seasons and in all honesty, it isn’t being worn much by most women, not as a matching set– except at night, usually in velvet or satin. That might change with next Spring’s pastel choices. A lilac or pale pink trouser suit feels much less bland and corporate than a black or navy one.
Finding different ways of expression, the purposeful intention of a suit has become a preoccupation. The stretch-knit tops and matching skirts from Stella McCartney (among others) are one appealing option. The shin or ankle length shirt, in heavy duty silk, worn either done up or unbuttoned over toning trousers is another elegant solution, especially at night, when it comes into its own as a modern update on the classic cocktail dress.
There are plenty of suit variations in denim, suede (like Hermes) and even some in sweat shirting. The latter might sound probable, but with skillful tailoring and up-town details, from buckles to shiny-tipped drawstring, puff sleeves and contrast trims, a good quality heavy weight jersey can look as sleek and smart as wool.
The range of talent in Paris – from eye-catching gimmicks (Balenciaga’s jackets that had a secondary jacket attached to them was one of a kind) and couture-level artistry ( Sarah Burton’s stunning taupe trench coats which spliced gabardine with brocade) to extremely small tweaks (the lush Walls’ ice cream colour mixes at Celine, flyweight dresses, but loose over the torso, but not stupidly over-sized) – make this a stand-out season without a doubt.
Best of all, there’s a pleasing push-back against old-fashioned rules that feels more sensible than perverse. Sequins for the day? Velvet for summer? Why not if it feels right.
Thomas Burberry would be proud. So, in the name of fair play, would Aquascutum, since both claim to have invented the trench coat. Whatever. Almost 170 years later it remains central to every fashionable wardrobe, and a good many unfashionable ones. The former will be updating the basic formula with versions so exquisitely and ingeniously reworked, it’s hard to believe they might also qualify as functional.
Sarah Burton’s melded lustrous, delicate looking brocades with gabardine to make a dress-coat hybrid you would want to wear everywhere, forever. (There was also a leather version, embroidered with birds and immensely beautiful, although you’d probably have to pawn your children).
At Celine, Pheobe Philo’s were looped up at the hems to create cape backs or cut slim and belted high (another coat-rests hybrid), or cut from leather and embellished with lacey frogging. Valentino’s were truncated, transparent and multi-pocketed. Regardless who invented, the trench belongs to all of us.
I took a survey of front-row shoes this morning, and while there was a mix of trainers and loafers, sandals, mules and boots, they had one thing in common: sparkle. Before 10am. On the catwalks too, there’s been a sprinkling of fairy dust, and sequins and mirrors, paillettes and sparkly latex now seem perfectly normal for daytime.
There they were, livening up a cream blazer at Sonia Rykiel, a black-and-red mini-dress at Dior and virtually every shirt at Yves Saint Laurent. At Moncler, sequins were paired with grey mark sportswear. But it was Celine that stood out with a full-length white polo-neck dress that would have Princess Leia groping for her credit card.
Velvet? For summer? Apparently so. This least seasonally appropriate fabric cropped up in mint green and purple on padded versions of bed jackets at Balenciaga, and on a men’s leopard-print navy suit at Givenchy. But it was Valentino who went to town with pink velvet evening shoes with bows on, and crimson and eau-de-nil velvet yolks worn under sparkly vests.
In between shows this week, editors could be found visiting the Dior exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Irving Penn at the Grand Palais, the newly opened Musee Yves Saint Laurent. On the catwalks, though, designers had looked rather further back for their artistic inspirations.
At Comme des Garçons, it was 16th century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose Vertumnus portrait of Roman emperor Rudolf II was printed onto sculptural trapeze dresses, and at Vivienne Westwood, sun-drenched idylls and Francois Boucher’s 18th century nymphs were panelled onto silk dresses – though non-conformist Westwood and her husband turned creative director Andreas Kronthaler, couldn’t resist defacing theirs a little.
While pearls will never be out of style, they have been out of fashion (which is a very different thing) for some seasons now. But if you’ve had yours tucked away, now is the time to polish them off – and perhaps add to your collection, as even the elegant, understated pearl has been subjected to the current call for maximalist.
At Sonia Rykiel, baroque pearls the size of cough lozenges made for modern necklaces. At Alexander McQueen, they were piled on – dripping from gunmetal collars and ear cuffs, or set, like mosquitoes in amber, into the transparent heels of buckled boots. If all that sounds a bit much, go back to basics – McQueen also paired them with cardigans.
Whether a nod to the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy or simply a reaction to the athleisure bodycon favored by young LA, there has been a definite shift towards the oversized in Paris this week.
At Sacai, a floral pinafore dress, swinging wide from shoulder straps, closed the show. Miu Miu’s loose suits skimmed, rather than sculpted, and Giambattista Valli showed lace trapeze dresses that fell to the ankle without even a hint of bosom or hip. And after a month on the fashion week circuit- eating out every night in New York, Milan and Paris, a looser silhouette certainly appealed to the fashion press sitting ringside.
While most fashion designers would never deign to admit following the minutiae of gossip columns, the influence of Madame Macron could be felt in abbreviated hemlines across the catwalks.
At Chloe, there were pelmets in black or duck-egg blue. Chanel had shimmering tweed versions. Valentino vied for the Macron vote with sleek LBDs while embellished mini-length shifts were the order of the day at Dior- coming to a wardrobe at the Elysee Palace soon?
For those of you searching for a one-sentence answer to the question, ‘what shall I wear next summer?’ Here it is a delicate dress and a pair of stompy boots or a sporty shoe – definitely not pretty but built for a purpose. This dreamily easy to achieve equation comes with plenty of room for interpretation.
Jonathan Anderson at Loewe offered the practical take with his ‘craft-savvy traveler’ lace-up suede desert boots and relaxed maxi dresses. For occasions demanding a jolt of attitude, Givenchy’s Clare-Waight Keller introduced the v-point boot as a counterpoint to diaphanous tiered dresses while Chloe’s embroidered cotton and ditsy florals were lent edge with chunky buckled bikers.
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