| Many designers seem to be running into difficulty over how to approach women this Fall, dividing their collections schizophrenically between sober-sided sellers and artistic gestures of the sort they hope magazine editors will put on their pages. Dries Van Noten has no such conflicts: He doesn’t have to cast about for a “realistic” attitude because that, and never made-for-editorial fireworks, is what his business is based on.
It’s given him the authority to respond to the times with a relaxed elegance that many women will identify with. It boils down to simple suggestions: an easy-fitting blazer to slip over a blouse and fluid pants; a draped day dress; a sweater to wear over a long skirt for evening. The show opened and closed with belted camel coats (an item that might turn out to be the sartorial symbol of this recession’s sudden shift in aesthetics), but the strange color combinations in between threw off any feeling of dullness. Van Noten had taken the shades of Francis Bacon’s paintings—shrimp pink, beige, ocher, orange, and mauve—and deployed them in a way that gave life to pieces that might have seemed boring in other hands.
While there was nothing overtly retro in it, the undercurrent was of the day-to-day glamour women in Europe and America mustered for themselves while facing the privations of World War II. It was there in the horn-rimmed sunglasses and the Eisenhower jackets, and the template of making the best of oneself in “good” simple clothes, with a slash of orange-red lipstick to keep up morale. All that was subtly reinforced by the long, streetlike runway, which was reflected in a two-story-high mirror that gave an angled overhead view, as if from an office-block window: an impression of a legion of city women pressing on with their lives, come what may.
There was no misunderstanding the opening, at least: the MGM signature tune and Lara Stone strutting petulantly in a leather trenchcoat, beehive, and giant pout—it was Bardot to a T! Jean Paul Gaultier always lets us know where we are at the outset, and for Fall, we were off on a movie buff’s coach tour of the gracious wardrobes of Hollywood heroines. Ostensibly. In fact, it proved a bit of an elastic theme that at times meandered off-script. It ranged so widely—from a Louise Brooks flapper dress and gilded fur coat to an ultrashort gold T-shirt under a black leather vest that looked like a possible choice for Lindsay Lohan—that it was sometimes hard to see where the designer was going. (Geometric-Deco meets sci-fi was a particularly odd patch.) Still, theme fashion shows are a dusty old concept in the first place. All that matters in haute couture is a strong voice, incredible workmanship, and whether a balance between timelessness and timeliness has been struck. Gaultier did all that by working in his stock characters and garments: the matelot, the androgynous lady in the pantsuit, the trenches, the smokings, the corsets. No one in Paris can top his tuxedo coat with velvet revers, the just-so cut of a pantsuit with a double collar, or the funny showgirl things he did here as an excuse to spotlight the kind of corseting he’s been doing since before Madonna was a star. As for the timeliness, he threw in a nod to sporty-casual chic (a notion that’s raising its head with persistence this week) via overalls in both amethyst velvet and gold paillettes. Goodness knows where they came from, but they seemed kind of right.