The Magic Christian
December 3, 2009

So I’m sitting here this morning with a bit of delicious melancholy from Glee last night, which closed with a heartrending version of Smile (“though your heart is breaking…”) that seems to go hand in hand with the news that, for all intents and purposes, the House Of Christian Lacroix is over. Promised salvation to the bankrupt designer in the form of Ajman sheikh failed to materialize and so French Courts approved a plan to allow the owners, the Florida-based Falic Group of duty-free renown, to covert Lacroix to a licensing operation with only a skeletal 11 employees.

Lacroix made a heroic last stand at his ultimately final couture show in July with a somber but elegantly minimal (for him) collection pieced together with donated (mostly black) fabrics and the labor of volunteer workers – and provoked a lot of “why didn’t he do this before?” comments afterwards from fashion critics but I don’t think his heart was really in it. Lacroix was always a provocateur as well as a technician, starting with his audaciously outsize “pouf” dresses of the ’80s that made his name, and through the intervening years with an improbable arsenal of his own – a jumble of lush roses, polka-dots, improbable colors and mad prints. Somehow the forced juxtaposition of black and midnight blue couldn’t hold a candle to that.

No, it’s the previous couture for Spring 2009 (seen in the larger pictures), that confirms that Lacroix’s design derring-do was just as astonishing, even after roughly 25 years. It’s not that he couldn’t do minimal, in his way – I treasure a letter I received from Mr. Lacroix complimenting me after I styled an actress in one of his gowns, a black strapless, gilded with a jeweled brooch and oversize acid-green velvet bow. That was his idea of minimalism. Now, the postmortems have already started, suggesting an unwillingness to change with the times, an unhealthy reliance on couture profits, the lack of a blockbuster fragrance. All valid points, I’m sure, but I think Lacroix also suffered from  lack of a “story” in this hyper-media age – he didn’t run around with movie stars like Armani, he didn’t maintain a string of fancy homes like Valentino and he didn’t make himself over each season to play a runway role like Galliano. Without an illuminating narrative, it’s pretty hard to see those magical Lacroix colors in the dark.

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Leather and Repeat
October 19, 2009

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“Six thousand dollars? And it’s not even leath-uh,” exclaims Joan Cusack’s bridge-and-tunnel Cyn to Melanie Griffith’s Tess in the ’80s classic Working Girl. Well, working girls as well as ladies who play all day will have a generous bonus of leather options come spring, since plush plongé and couture calfskin were all over the recent runway shows.

I’ve talked about the Celine collection from Phoebe Philo before but her luxe minimalism was a game-changer in fashion – in nearly every exit she worked leather into a series of stark shapes – effortless T-shirts, cropped pullover “shrugs” and gently shaped dresses like the one above. On this side of the Atlantic, Michael Kors’ tastes were decidedly more vanilla as he put a ’80s spin on a white leather shift.

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Donatella Versace reaches back one decade more for her ’70s-centric yet thoroughly modern spring coat, intricately worked with pretty pastel trim, in a standout collection that also included candy-colored leather minis, sweet even with their studded spirals.

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If you just want a little something-something to ward off an early spring chill, Londoner Giles Deacon offered a zipper vest in (with apologies to Tom Wolfe) kandy-kolored tangerine flake. Baby!

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You’d expect the house of Hermès to have the last word, and its “Tennis, Anyone?” collection did not disappoint. Leather master Jean Paul Gaultier’s ingenious pleated skirts of strips of leather and chiffon made for adorable little tennis dresses that will probably see plenty of action – just not on any court. Game, Set, Match!

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3 (Designing) Women
October 12, 2009

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Little-known today, Robert Altman’s 1977 meandering masterpiece 3 Women came up the other day at a shoot when I remarked that our model reminded me of the young Shelley Duvall (“That’s a name you don’t hear everyday,” the photographer said drily.) Based on an actual dream of Altman’s, the story traces the lives of the trio (played by Duvall, Janice Rule and Sissy Spacek) as their identities begin to shift and then merge with each other until the boundaries disappear and, as movie critic Roger Ebert says, “the dream is perhaps shared by all three women, each one imagining the other two, each one lacking what the others possess.”

Oddly, he could have been describing the Spring 2010 collections of three other women in Paris last week, who I’ll call “The Chloé Sisters” – because they all came to prominence at the fabled French house.  Stella McCartney, her former assistant Phoebe Philo and her former assistant Hannah MacGibbon were all on the Paris schedule, the first time all three have had individual shows in the same season.  And all three are British imports, educated at  Central St. Martin’s, and all in their late ’30s.

McCartney, whose namesake line is part of Gucci Group, famously took the design reigns at Chloé in the mid-nineties, replacing none other than Karl Lagerfeld, survived the subsequent tempest in a toile, and revived the house with her blend of tailored jackets (owing partly to her time working on Saville Row) and floaty feminine pieces.

In 2001 she began her namesake collection and Philo was named head designer and took the line in a trendier direction with high-waisted trousers and baby-doll dresses 91ad4194b6d1eeb2and a series of iconic handbags, notably the padlocked Paddington, the pandemonium-causing “it ” bag of the decade. When she left in 2006, saying she wanted more time for her family in London, MacGibbon was next in line but surprisingly she opted out, also citing family as the reason. Chloé then bounced through two other designers, and it’s crazy-cool and counterfeiter-clamoring formula took a big hit.  Last year, MacGibbon was talked into coming back full-time to Chloé where she had been consulting, while Philo was named head designer at the also-shaky Celine across town.

Well, as they say, with no further ado – to the runways. Looks like it’s going to be a sexy and self-assured spring for Stella (friend Gwynie Paltrow must be drooling), her signature jackets sporting a rollicking ruffle, her man-trousers topped off with light and lacy no-frills halters and her party flounces slip-sliding away. All the way to the bank.

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Over at Celine, Philo “wears the pants” with a starkly luxurious leather T-shirt, befitting the investment pricetags and her own intention to clear the decks design-wise this season. So it’s all neutral nuances, the only softness coming from soft white cotton pieces paired with severe dark leather. And her night-time is the right time for a tall-drink-of -water slinky cooler.

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MacGibbon’s collection (her second) for Chloé puts her tomboy spin on these same design codes. Personally, if I never hear the term “boyfriend jacket” again, it will be too soon. But that’s her opening gambit, followed by L.L. Beanery: couture workshirts, hunting-worthy stirrup pants, foul-weather Macs and, in an Nottingwood Forest detour, wool capes.  For spring. It all seemed pretty dark and stormy until, at last, the sun broke blazingly through, in delicate white flounced dresses (that could easily go toe-to-toe with anything Karl ever did for Chloé). With kitten heels no less.

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Close Encounter with McQueen
October 9, 2009

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Ever since I watched the watershed Alexander McQueen show from this week on SHOWstudio.com (an experience I highly recommend!), I can’t get it out of my head.  There was spectacle – an pristine platform runway, robo-cameras moving on tracks, enormous enveloping projections – but it was in the details that I found myself entranced by McQueen’ strange and wonderful vocabulary of…pretty.

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Paree Prairie
October 6, 2009

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Seeing pics of the Chanel spring show Tuesday in Paris, I guess now they can change the lyric to, “How you gonna keep em off of the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” Even after penning my ode to the cool chic(k) the other day, little did I guess that Kountry Karl would take it to the hay-strewn limit, as the song says, one more time.

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But there is was – the cute floral frocks, delicate prairie palette and country-couture covetables like calico-flower bags and burlap wood-heeled clogs sporting the trademark Double C “brand”. Chanel tweeds even got the hayseed treatment and, at the end, Karl’s new favorite runway “rooster” Baptiste Giabiconi romped barefoot in the barnyard with the babes.

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Chanel’s take was masterful by all accounts but acres of ecru and bales of beige across all the runways might get a little played out in stores this spring, as Style.com noted in its review of Chloe’s more conventional collection, filled with workaday button-downs, roomy trousers and, yes, boyfriend jackets. Retailers are going to work hard “if their selling floors aren’t going to stretch like an executive dust bowl as far as the eye can see.” Sounds like some good ole’ country horse sense to us.

01050mSHORT TAKE: During New York Fashion Week, I first ran this photo and wrote about how panties were the top choice for the bottom of this season, running rampant on every runway. A week later, I was reading the New York Times, where Eric Wilson labeled the inner-wear initiative, “the Spanx trend”, accompanied by the same shot. The stylist in me wants to point out that the retro shapes being revived this season – granny panties and tighty whiteys – were around long before the advent of what is euphemistically termed “shapewear.” (And no disrespect intended, as come award season, loves me some Spanx!) But hey, or hay as you might rightly say, Couturealist was more than happy to get there first.

Cut and Pastie
October 5, 2009

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No it’s not the Paris Las Vegas casino you’re looking at but actual Paris, France, where newly-named “artistic director” Lindsay Lohan, along with heretofore-unknown-and-maybe-she-should-have-kept-it-that-way designer Estrella Archs, debuted their first collection Sunday for the formerly fabled but slowly expiring house of Emmanuel Ungaro. Leggings Linds, hired for her purported cool-girl factor (and, let’s face it, her ability to bring exploding cameras in her wake) made her big design statement by reviving the pastie, in heart-shaped glitter no less. Maybe she heard the show was at the Carrousel de Lido rather than its actual setting at the Carrousel de Louvre (which WWD dubbed “the geezer venue.”)

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In addition to the pasties, which, call me crazy, do sort of seem relevant 00020mgiven this underwear-as-daywear runway season, the designing duo also offered skirts so short that one apparently exposed the rump of one of the models, crayola-bright silk harem pants and Lego-heeled footwear, topped off here and there with white fur stoles slung over the shoulder. Classy. Fuchsia minis at the top of the show were about the only vague reference to Ungaro of old, although who could remember what that even looked like, given the revolving runway of four previous designers who have tried and failed to revive the house in recent years.

Mean-girl editors silently fled after the show but the press pile-on was brutal, with the New York Times noting that Lohan’s task was “something akin to a McDonald’s fry cook taking the reins of a three-star Michelin restaurant.” But Ungaro’s head, Mounir Moufarrage (once notorious in fashion but ultimately vindicated when he abruptly replaced Karl Lagerfeld at Chloe with then-untested Stella McCartney in 1997), stubbornly insisted that controversy, not couture, was the name of the glam game in the face of a recession.

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Depressingly, that’s only the half of it. Ungaro has lost so much ground at this point – when was the last time you saw a piece in the stores? – that it’s hard to remember, as former WWD publisher John Fairchild wrote in his cranky but tenderhearted ’80s memoir Chic Savages, “whatever purity there is, in look and concept, it is the creation of Yves St. Laurent, Giorgio Armani and Emanuel Ungaro.” From that dizzying height, the designer, who first apprenticed with Balenciaga and Courreges and went on to dress all the society boldface names through the ’90s, faded out, quietly giving up his couture collection in 2002 after he had designated Giambattista Valli as his successor. Valli was later ousted, as the company was sold and then resold and haplessly cycled through several designers.

The fashion landscape is littered with doomed attempts to replace a house’s original designer (Blass closed; Ferre and Valentino are teetering); somehow it’s especially challenging if the designer is of recent vintage – it seems to work better when the work is only a dim memory – so, say, the luxurious simplicity of a Lanvin can be embraced and updated or else the sumptuous dressmaking of a Balmain can be junked completely for an avant-garde new image as in the case of Paris’s towering men of the hour, Alber Ebaz and Christophe Decarnin, respectively.

harpers-bazaar-2008-dec-lindsay-lohanUpdating the clothes of yesterday’s maestros to appeal to today’s customers is a thankless task, unless you’re Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, effortlessly creating clothes both mothers and daughters would kill for. But the money men like Moufarrage keep thinking they can strike gold too, betting the bank on a celebrity and her pasties.  They’re not the only ones to hitch their star to the famous; magazines led the way. In the Times piece Harper’s Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey won’t comment on the collection, she’s “running for the door.” But she didn’t run so fast when it came to putting Linds on her cover.

Coco
September 15, 2009

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Doesn’t that picture make your heart stop a little? Last week brought a real treat – I was invited to a premiere screening of Coco Before Chanel, the story of her life before she found her fame and fortune as a designer (the still, above, is from the end of the film). From the opening sequence at a orphanage where she and her sister are abandoned – and where the nuns’ severe black habits and starchy white wimples foreshadow Chanel’s own eventual aesthetic – through her years at a dance hall and later as the scheming but ultimately irreplaceable guest of her country-squire patron, director Anne Fontaine provides one gorgeous scene after another. And if that’s not enough for fashion fans, Coco’s Parisian triumph at the end of the film is staged with rare pieces from the Chanel conservatory.

0002791f10drBut the movie is much more than a fever dream – Audrey Tatou perfectly embodies Coco’s rebellious nature and particularly French prickly personality but charms you all the while. Introducing the film, Fontaine said she would “be a little sad” if the audience didn’t like the film. No chance of that when the movie opens later this month.