In Paris, Designers Compete With The Scenery, Some Successfully

Eric Wilson PFW Review
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Sunday evening, at a party for Givenchy held in a stately mansion that is the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris, I noticed the pop star Fergie looking for a place to take a load off. It was an odd party full of diversions, with a mini-golf course, a croquet set, a psychic, and a pool filled with rubber ducks. Fergie took a spot on a small velvet bench next to another woman, and did an almost comical double take when she realized it was Rooney Mara. Pedro Almodóvar was a few feet away at an ice cream stand.

Everywhere you look this Paris Fashion Week, designers are pulling out all the stops. To put on its best face and promote the city’s eternal glamour – undiminished by recent acts of terrorism – Paris has showcased its landmarks from the Eiffel Tower to the Champs-Elysées to the Palais de Justice as unexpected runway venues. With a few exceptions, the shows have been better organized, too, and the security guards downright pleasant. Sunday’s shows also happened to coincide with the city’s pollution-reducing experiment of allowing only taxicabs on the streets for one day each month, so there was not even traffic to complain about on a big day of fashion with major shows from Givenchy, Céline, Balenciaga, and Valentino.

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In Paris, the setting does make a difference in how clothes are perceived. A designer gets an automatic boost by the very nature of showing here, as Joseph Altuzarra demonstrated the night before, bringing his luxe boho evening dresses from their typical showplace of a New York gallery to the grand courtyard of a Paris high school. In effect, Altuzarra focused on his signatures, adding sequins, silver fringe, and streamers to the looks for a bit of Parisian flare, which helped his collection stand out in a fresh way amid a sea of young designers competing for attention.

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Valentino’s creative director, Pierpaolo Piccioli, designs in Rome but has been showing in Paris for decades, but this season relocated the Valentino show to an enormous gymnasium, also at a historic high school. The main difference was that you could see the collection all at once, rather than in pieces as the models passed through smaller rooms, and this simple act helped the audience see just how versatile Piccioli has become as a designer. We all know the power of his red carpet dresses, which have been worn by Hollywood’s greatest actresses, but they tend to follow a pattern of long, elaborate lace.

Not so in this collection – one of the best of Paris so far. Piccioli showed short dresses and cargo jackets, slim pants and sporty jackets that combined the look of technical outwear with the feel of luxury fabrics. One of the best looks was a simple brown velvet tank top over a ballooning parachute skirt in hot pink.

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Céline’s Phoebe Philo also approached some iconic sportswear looks with broad brushstrokes, enlarging an anorak, for example, on a grand, dress-sized scale. And her layered trench coats suddenly gave new appeal to garments we’ve seen about a thousand times elsewhere. This was a particularly clear and approachable collection from Philo, focused on practical needs as much as statement-making clothes.

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I would dare say that Balenciaga was more about straightforward clothes, too, or perhaps I’ve just grown accustomed to the Demna Gvasalia and the anti-fashion (but please don’t call it anti-fashion) movement. The main concept here was the combination of two items into one, meaning the front of one dress spliced to the back of another (or the front of a coat to the back of another), with all four sleeves still attached. Presumably, the pieces could be worn in multiple ways, like those created back in the day by Gvasalia’s spirit animal, Martin Margiela. Balenciaga also unveiled a new collaboration with CROCS, an array of foam platform heels that looked comfy.

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But the big news of the day was the debut collection of Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy, which also had a magnificent setting amid the marble halls of the Palais de Justice, with Mara, Lily Collins, and Cate Blanchett among those in attendance. Waight Keller made her name with the girly sweet spirit of Chloé, but here sought to establish a new identity for both herself and the house of Givenchy. It was this: A very dark array of street-smart urban-meets-urbane designs, like the perfect double-breasted coat and great skirts with inset pleated panels of soft lacy fabrics.

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The overall message became a bit muddled by the inclusion of a large men’s wear offering in the same show, and some of the denim looks felt a bit off in such a formal setting – would you wear a jeans skirt to a court date? Well, maybe if it were Givenchy. As Waight Keller told me at her party later, she’s only beginning to make her case.

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