NOT EVEN a global credit crisis can compromise the enduring value of French chic. That was the message from Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld, the reigning godfather of Paris fashion. With a stunning, life-size reproduction of the original Chanel Rue Cambon boutique behind the runway, and Madness' "Our House" on the soundtrack, Lagerfeld played up the brand's heritage for all it was worth, presenting one of the most strikingly beautiful collections of this challenging season.
Lagerfeld drew on all the weapons in his arsenal of classic Chanel design signatures. The tweed suit was updated in a pink geometric weave with an angled short-sleeve jacket, while a coat covered in a grid of white sequins cued into spring's graphic trend. The basic black shift was given new life with billowing white sleeves and a tie at the neck. Knitwear went sexy in the form of a ribbed black, off-the-shoulder sweater dress. The spectator shoe was redone in clear plastic, and the Rue Cambon shopping bag in leather.
All the romance of Paris was on the Chanel runway, the bohemians of Montparnasse captured in the metallic Lurex camellia-print peasant dress, the white poet's blouse with fan-pleated sleeves, belted with a grosgrain ribbon over a floor-sweeping black skirt and the quilted Chanel guitar case. The showgirls of Montmartre were there in the marabou feather hats and heels, and you could feel the bons vivants of the Grands Boulevards in empire-line tulle gowns strung with pearls.
Timeless French chic was a clear statement in a fashion season as confused as the world economic scene around it, where nobody could agree on whether women are more likely to buy special pieces or classics, pretty clothes or basics in a recession. If there's a take-away, it's that spring is looking grown-up and pared down, with graphic elements and tribal and fringe accessories. Jackets, jumpsuits and soft pants -- pajama, balloon and dhoti styles -- are all key pieces. And rather than going in radical new directions, most designers played it safe, sticking with what they do best.
At Lanvin, that meant subtle volumes, exuberant cuts, sculpted frills, boldly colored silks and satins and jeweled details -- all underscoring the pleasure of dressing up. It was impossible not to be seduced by Alber Elbaz's bright orange balloon-shaped dress in heavy duchesse satin, gathered into a ruffle at one shoulder, embellished only with an exposed zipper down the side (and the multicolored jeweled heels with satin ribbons that tied at the ankle). Or a cream skirt swept into a frill over the right hip, as if the wind had gotten hold of it, worn with a three-quarter-sleeve blouse and beaded necklace in subtle nude shades.
Elbaz's touch is so light, you would think he was working with frosting instead of fabric. Even the most deceptively simple pieces had thoughtful details, such as the soft ripples across the front of a mushroom satin skirt, or tucking that shaped the waist of a pair of black satin pants. It was all building toward a kaleidoscopic finale of extraordinary party dresses covered in animal spots and jeweled flowers that would be as good an investment as any in this market.
At Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs seemed to have Paris' stylishly seedy Goutte d'Or neighborhood in mind. Like his show in New York, this one was a highly styled visual feast, a bohemian mix of short marabou feather skirts, polka-dot silk pajama pants and snug disco fever jackets, worn with tribal-looking ankle-wrap sandals, geometric necklaces, oversized hoop earrings and metallic LV clutches dangling feathers and beads.
The models strutted down the runway like show ponies. Their hair was combed into ponytails with the ends teased, and the peekaboo hems on their flippy skirts revealed glimpses of polka-dot panties. But there were more sophisticated pieces too, namely the season's best pants, with exaggerated full legs, worn with sharply cut wrap jackets and obi belts.
ALL THE designers from whom we've come to expect high jinks were on their best behavior. There were no cross-dressers or film sets for John Galliano this season. Just achingly pretty, commercially viable clothes. His barely there sheer floral gowns and softly tailored silk jackets gathered at the waist would make any starlet proud. Only Stephen Jones' oversized admiral hats and pompadour wigs hinted at his wild past.
Despite the menagerie of taxidermy animals on the runway and the pseudo-environmentalist theme explained in his show notes, Alexander McQueen's show designs were surprisingly tame. To document how humans have corrupted nature, Op Art wood-grain prints progressed into steely industrial prints, all worked into his signature hourglass jackets, second-skin pants, sharp coats and sculpted mini-dresses. But the most beautiful piece was a pink dress with flowers trapped between sheer layers of tulle, as if they were an endangered species preserved for posterity.
A trio of female designers produced some of the week's most wearable looks. Stella McCartney's signature oversized blazers, done for spring with dropped lapels in soft shell pink or apricot, were the stars of her show, worn with pale sequined underpinnings. Graphic black-and-white shell-print silk dresses, mesh caftans with leaf and pineapple designs and chunky plastic heels added to the frivolous fun.
Newly in charge at Chloé, Hannah MacGibbon made her first runway effort an auspicious one. Scalloped edges were the dominant theme, running along the edges of effortless skirts, jackets and blouses with the rounded, oversized sleeves we first saw at Proenza Schouler in New York. Less wearable were bloomer shorts with paper-bag waists, and a pair of high-waist, copper foil balloon pants that may take the prize for worst runway look of the season.
Pleated skirts in thick, natural-colored burlap were Miuccia Prada's canvases at Miu Miu. They were hip-slung with pleated aprons, riddled with holes as if moths had gotten to them, or graffiti-stained, hinting at decay. Silk pleated column dresses and T-shirts came in prints with haunting faces, inspired by Roman mosaics, that morphed into abstract pixels on other pieces. It brought to mind the changing face of civilization, when juxtaposed with a wall of Warholian portraits of Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Drew Barrymore, all faces of Miu Miu ad campaigns past.
It was the last show of the season, and it was raw. And somehow, that seemed entirely appropriate.