YOU know you've got problems when Marc Jacobs sticks his tongue out at the front row during the Louis Vuitton show in Paris, where runways awash with peppy prints and happy colors couldn't disguise the fact that many designers were floundering.
The luxury industry may be booming, but this season, uncertainty hangs over some of the world's most influential fashion houses. John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen all recently had creative collaborators or muses die. Other designers are facing retirement, both voluntary and forced. Add to that an abysmal dollar to euro exchange rate, and it's no wonder the season was rocky.
What was missing was innovation, the sense that designers have picked up on what's happening in culture and turned it into something provocative. Galliano's collection for Dior, usually a creative bellwether, was a rehash of Marlene Dietrich men's wear suits and 1930s bias-cut gowns from seasons past. At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld chose this strange moment to pay tribute to America, just when sales are taking off everywhere else in the world. Nobody, not even Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga, advanced a wholly new silhouette. And in what was perhaps the lowest point of the week, Jacobs wagged his tongue at one of the world's most esteemed fashion critics.
Only Alber Elbaz found a way out of the malaise, with a show for Lanvin that was so spectacular, it reminded us that design can make a difference. It didn't hurt that it was a postcard perfect day -- 70 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, flowers blooming in the Tuileries, children sailing their toy boats on the fountains and a tent in the middle of it all, strung with white lights. Inside, bow-tied gents passed out ice cream pops, and Diana Ross ballads rang out over the sound system.
Elbaz hit many of the spring trends -- color, fluidity, sensuality -- but above all else, he connected with every woman in the room, showing her a way to dress for the fast pace of real life that was stunning in its simplicity.
Much of the collection was silk, which got everyone reminiscing about Go Silk, the 1980s brand of washable, mix 'n' match separates that could be poised for a revival. But Elbaz's creations were totally modern. First out was a knee-length, draped and belted cobalt blue silk shirt dress with a matching flyaway trench coat -- practical, but with a sense of romance. (The outfit also came in city-smart gray, khaki and black.) Next up, the most perfect blouse you have ever seen, soft and milky white with rolled-up sleeves, tucked into a navy silk miniskirt.
For evening, pleated silk dresses had trains that swelled like sails as the models walked, first yellow, then green, then orange. Tuxedo jackets had the ease of your favorite shirt, paired with skinny trousers. Short dresses came in Crayola brights with a single ruffle around the back, or a soupcon of ostrich feathers in front. Others were a patchwork of tonal fringe, feathers, sequins and beads with a tribal feel.
Every detail was perfectly measured -- not a single piece went too far. Though the models' hair was swept up, their ponytails weren't too perfect. Their lips were glossed red, but they didn't come across as glamazons. These women had places to go in their fabulous clothes, and no time to waste waiting for hair and makeup. And when Elbaz sent out a female doppelganger -- a model dressed as he was in a jacket, rolled-up pants and a bow tie -- the message was clear: This designer knows women, and the future for Lanvin is only going to get brighter.
Pretty but shallow
Elsewhere, the collections were more one-dimensional, which is to say that there were pretty clothes, but nothing that inspired the same emotion. Prints were a huge trend, and nobody did them better than Dries Van Noten. The Belgian designer created a tropical garden of delight, mixing floral and bamboo prints, halter tops and pajama pants. Some fabrics were comprised of multiple prints, so you had loose chemise dresses, sarong-style skirts and twist-front blouses with contrast borders or hems. Van Noten introduced semiprecious jewelry -- ropes of stones around the neck -- and embroidered a jacket all over in silver, making it look like jewelry.
Ghesquiere applied his Old World meets New World approach to prints at Balenciaga, fusing 1950s floral jacquards onto foam to create a stiff, high-tech material. He made Balenciaga's sculptural shapes even more formal, using lasers and ultrasound cutting techniques to minimize seams on turtle-back tops, short-sleeve jackets with built-out shoulders, and hourglass-shaped mini-dresses with pannier-like hips. Each piece was stitched together like a corset and paired with gladiator sandal boots. Technically impressive? Yes. But does it matter to women's lives? Probably not.