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Nothing is simple

Innovation, nuance, meaningful minimalism. In Paris, it finally makes sense.

March 03, 2007|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

Paris — THE secret to the fall season revealed itself in the strangest of places on Thursday morning -- an Art Deco restaurant nowhere near a runway. It was there that a museum curator summoned his assistant to try on a replica of a velvet opera coat by the long-dead French designer Paul Poiret, the man famous for liberating women from their corsets with his relaxed silhouettes.

The woman slipped her arms into the slouchy sleeves, only to have the curator begin pulling the garment apart to demonstrate how it was constructed entirely from a single rectangle of fabric.

A single rectangle of fabric.

Harold Koda, the curator, was previewing the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute's spring show on Poiret. But more vividly, he was demonstrating the idea of economy of design, of doing more with less, the very idea that is driving fashion forward today.

We saw it in Milan in the clean lines, subtle details and focus on craftsmanship in the Jil Sander, Versace and Prada collections. And we're seeing it here too -- a new kind of minimalism for the 21st century motivated not by asceticism but a desire for meaningful content. It's the same shift toward conscientious consumerism that is fueling the green movement. People want more from their clothes.

Since we're talking about the Paris runways, that doesn't necessarily translate into corporate or environmental responsibility (we're not there yet), but it does mean nuance, not in-your-face ostentation. So, rather than a retro theme or travel narrative, the most interesting collections have put forth new ideas about construction, fabric innovation, or the most basic function of clothing, as seen at Hussein Chalayan.

Last season Chalayan proved himself to be the only true futurist when he subtly mocked fashion's obsession with the past by staging a technologically inspired show of dresses that morphed into different historical styles right before our eyes. This time he turned to the issue of climate change, building his runway around a roaring geyser of steam, and creating clothes that reacted to the seasonal cycles.

Chalayan sent out glowing hats and neckpieces emitting light to uplift the wearer in winter, an electronic hood that rose from the collar to protect from the rain, and a marvelous dress flickering LED images more beautiful than any designer could imagine, those of the arrival of spring. In between there were plenty of smart, down-to-earth styles too, including golden rose jacquard dresses, and red-and-black stripe, zip-front coats, which should finally mean good things commercially for this visionary. (See the podcast at

At Yves Saint Laurent, Stefano Pilati said in the program notes that he wanted to distance himself from "luxury in the most obvious form." That meant dispensing with the superfluous, working with a restrained black-and-gray palette and a single textural motif. As for the roominess of the silhouette, well, Poiret would have approved. No need for corsets here, just a little leg.

Pilati's starting point for the collection, his most focused and technically precise to date, was a rounded shape, which guided him all the way through from a beautifully tufted coat worn over leggings, to a gray tunic with a dropped collar, layered over a pencil skirt and sparkly knit sweater. He achieved soft volume, even on a man-tailored pearl gray jacket, which stood ever so slightly away from the body, and a black sack dress with a bow at the back of the neck.

Suggesting perhaps that luxury today is no longer about fine materials (you can buy cashmere at Target) but rather about fine craftsmanship, Pilati laser-cut a fur coat to look like crocodile scales, and repeated the effect as embroideries on a knit sweater. He even took it to the abstract on a midnight blue, hammered silk dress topped with a medieval-looking knit hood. (All the cool kids will be wearing them come fall.) As for le smoking, it doesn't get any better than Pilati's creamy white, fit-and-flair tuxedo jacket. He didn't even bother with the pants, just a pair of tights.

John Galliano was roundly criticized last season for caving into commercial pressures and giving his bosses at Dior a collection's worth of subtle riffs on the same, salable flesh-toned suit. But it looks like he was ahead of the minimalist curve. For fall he staged a 1940s Hollywood fantasy in Technicolor purple, fuchsia, chartreuse and electric blue that was impressive, if a bit tarted up for the here and now. Models descended a grand staircase, like at an old-fashioned maison de couture, which was appropriate because these clothes were as close to couture as ready-to-wear can get. And in that, there was genius.

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