PARIS — It was a story of eco-evolution wrapped around an Atlantis theme, combining Hollywood film effects with the latest in digital technology. And it was the coolest spectacle to hit the Paris runway in a long time.
At the end of a month-long, multiple-city runway season showcasing the spring 2010 collections, Alexander McQueen -- a man whose imagination knows no bounds -- fully embraced his role as fashion's reigning provocateur. He webcast his sci-fi fantasy live through a collaboration with director Nick Knight and Showstudio.com, turning it into an unmediated international event, instant content for blogs and the Twittersphere and a powerful advertisement.
At the same time he touched on issues now charting the future of fashion, including the implications of the public's instant Internet access to runway images and a growing social consciousness about the environmental impact of consumption.
"When Charles Darwin wrote 'The Origin of Species,' no one could have known that the ice cap would melt, that the waters would rise and that life on Earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more or perish," McQueen wrote in his show notes, setting the scene for a film, projected on an LCD screen behind the runway, which depicted a woman mutating into an underwater being.
The creatures that came out onto the runway were otherworldly nymphs with hair like cobra hoods, in staggering platform shoes with armor-like shells. One look morphed into the next, with dresses wrapping, twisting and folding in on each other. Moth, praying mantis and manta ray prints evocative of Damien Hirst's nature-themed works were engineered specifically for each garment, and embroideries brought to mind underwater wreckage. Dresses also were covered in a print taken from an aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef, and when the evolutionary process was complete, a new being emerged in the final model, dressed in sequins and opalescent beads that conjured underwater bioluminescence.
Was it wearable? Of course not. (In Paris, real women can look to the terrific pants and jackets on the runways at Stella McCartney and Dries Van Noten for that.) But people should know by now that only about 20% of what's shown on the runways actually ends up being produced. (The bulk of what stores buy is from the more commercial pre-collections back in the designers' showrooms.) Now more than ever, the runway is the place for brand statements, and McQueen's voice came across loud and clear.
Two other strong points of view about the direction for spring came from Christophe Decarnin and Nicolas Ghesquiere, whose collections represent opposing schools of thought in French fashion right now -- the hyper-new vs. the hyped-up old. At Balmain, Decarnin appealed to a new generation of flashy fashion addicts with brash, 1980s-era sexiness -- extreme shoulder-padded military jackets, shredded T-shirts, bullet-studded belts and barely there, burnished sequin and mesh minidresses.
Meanwhile, Ghesquiere's motocross-inspired hoodies and multimedia, color-blocked and racing-striped collage dresses forecast a new urban sportiness for the future, echoed in the Gucci collection in Milan and the Alexander Wang collection in New York.
Another guiding trend of the Paris season was romance, played to the hilt at Chanel. Like McQueen's, this was a show tailor-made for the fashiontainment era -- with an elaborate, Hollywood-worthy set, celebrity guests (Prince!) and a surprise musical performance by Lily Allen that sent camera phones and tweets into overdrive.
What an unbelievable sight, under the glass ceiling of the historic Grand Palais, to see a barn with a hayloft, and Chanel's interlocking CC logo on a wood post out front. Karl Lagerfeld's back-to-the-farm story, like McQueen's underwater evolutionary tale, was a small nod to the greening of fashion that will inevitably gain momentum so long as October temperatures continue to top 70 degrees in Paris.
The rustic, romantic romp was a rip-roaring blast even before a platform popped out of the runway with Allen and her band singing and stomping their feet.
In neutral shades of cream, oatmeal, black and white, the clothes had a homespun feel, with lots of lacy layers, crochets and eyelets. The classic Chanel jacket was reworked in a number of ways -- in cream boucle with short puffed sleeves fluttering with downy white feathers, or white ribbed knit with gold button trim. Skirts were A-line, above the knee and slit up either side, or softly bell-shaped in checked tweeds or crochet knits with flower details.
For evening, spring's sheer trend took a girlish turn, with short dresses wrapped in layers of tulle, embroidered with raffia designs or confetti-like sparkles. Other dresses draped in streamers of red, white and blue flowers-and-stripes print chiffon were as charming as homemade decorations at a small-town Fourth of July parade.
Chanel clogs, flower hair ornaments, raffia messenger bags and straw baskets rounded things out. But the real must-have spring accessory on the Chanel runway was a smile; the models were having so much fun it was infectious. And isn't that what fashion is really all about?