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Paris Fashion Week: Street fashion, feminist influences hit runways

Paris Fashion Week: Street fashion, feminist influences hit runways
British model Cara Delevingne, right, speaks through a megaphone during a faux demonstration with other models during Chanel's show at the Grand Palais on Tuesday for Paris Fashion Week. (Patrick Kovarik / AFP/Getty Images)

It was a season of auspicious beginnings and poignant goodbyes at Paris Fashion Week as new designers entered to breathe fresh life into the Sonia Rykiel, Paco Rabanne and Loewe brands, and the original enfant terrible of French fashion, Jean Paul Gaultier, exited the ready-to-wear stage to focus on haute couture.

On the runways, the collections shown for next spring were a youth quake of swinging '60s and '70s style: flower power prints, army and navy uniforms, flared pants and babydoll dresses, folklore and fringe, eyelet and embroideries galore, seen at Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Dries Van Noten, Sacai, Chloe, Rykiel and more.

But there was a different kind of revolution happening too during the presentations, which ended Wednesday. Designers grappled with the meaning of fashion in the context of feminism, and whether it's even realistic to think that designers can still dictate to women, especially now that street style blogs, Instagram and YouTube stars are challenging the whole top-down system.

At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld erected a grand boulevard indoors at the Grand Palais and took fashion to the streets. For a finale, he staged a protest — models marching out, fists in the air, with picket signs that said, "Be Your Own Stylist," "Tweed is Better than Tweet" and "We can match the machos."

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It was a rallying cry for a lot of things, including individual style, and an acknowledgment that today fashion is not a consensus, but merely a suggestion, one that many women (and some designers) choose to ignore, resisting the idea that there could ever be a new or old look. Coco Chanel knew all of this. One of her most famous quotes remains true, "Fashion fades, only style remains the same."

Of course, a big house with a storied heritage has design codes that are written into the lexicon of style — Chanel's tweed jacket, for example, which is and always will be a classic.

So Lagerfeld began with that, showing tweed suits with full cut trousers and short-sleeve jackets with wide lapels that conveyed a '70s spirit.

Models came out in twos, chatting amicably as if they were on their way to work, portfolios in hand. They wore bold, watercolor-floral pleated skirts, top coats and flat boots covered in matching print; fatigue-green safari jackets and wide pants. Beatnik bags came covered in badges, patches and buttons and cross-body styles were tricked out like a tweedy Chanel jacket.

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Bouclé shifts were dressed up with concrete-colored tile sequins. There were marine stripes, pinstripes, lace doilies decorating the shoulders of jackets, frilly bow blouses, midiskirts, miniskirts, walking shorts, short sleeves, rolled-up sleeves and no sleeves. In other words, there was pretty much anything you'd ever want to wear.

It was, like the Internet, a flood of information and suggestions coming rapid-fire, which is one way to keep the copycats at bay. It's hard to copy a deluge.

But it also reflects the way most women shop today, which is by item, not by a whole look or brand.

Certainly, that's the way of blog style stars, who achieve fame for their individuality. Leandra Medine of the Man Repeller blog has nearly as much power as Lagerfeld, which is why swarms of photographers gathered outside every show to snap photos of what she was wearing. (At Chanel, it was a pair of eyelet, wide-legged pants — the same pants silhouette that was all over the runways and won't be in stores for six months hence, and yet she was already rocking them.)

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Street style is certainly giving runway fashion a run for its money, and designers are taking notice.

Rather than one cohesive look, Hedi Slimane's Saint Laurent show was an army of individuals dressed for a hot night out in feathers, fireworks embroideries and glitter platform heels.

Inspired by the late L.A. artist Robert Heinecken, an appropriator and image manipulator, Slimane's designs always seem to be teasing and toying with our ideas about ownership, newness and the definition of luxury. He's like a DJ sampling tracks.

On the runway, there was the model in denim cutoffs (sure to cost a fortune) and a slim-line blazer that could have been mistaken for an original YSL design from the 1970s swiped from mummy's closet. Then there was the model with a skinny red scarf at the neck and a green flat top hat atop her head, wearing studded leather capri pants like something out of "Grease" with a leather bomber that could easily be mistaken for the world's greatest Goodwill find as fashion made in a Paris atelier.

Then again, what's new, what's old, what's original and what's appropriated, what's a bargain and what's a fortune, what's fashion and what's not? Maybe it doesn't matter. It sure doesn't to many women as they get dressed.

But there are those who do want help because they don't have that innate sense of style that attracts flashbulbs like moths to a flame. We can't all go to a store and zero in on the perfect jacket for a big meeting or dress for a big to-do, whether that store is Saint Laurent or Zara.

In the vast wilderness of stuff, there is a need for direction, a map, even just a sign. And for that, there is a dynamic trio of female designers who showed in Paris — Céline designer Phoebe Philo, Chloe designer Claire Waight Keller and Stella McCartney — who always seem to be thinking about how feminine meets functional.

Their answer for spring was clothing that was intimate and personal.

There was a homespun sweetness and nostalgia to the Céline collection. The game-changing silhouette involved wide-leg trousers, slightly cropped, worn with a belted jacket and the next fashionably ugly shoe, a sensible ballet pump with no-nonsense wood-block heels. (The biggest evidence that fashion has yielded to feminism may be the comfort shoe revolution that's taken over the streets.)

Philo also showed fringed knitwear looks, including a craftsy-but-cool black knit midiskirt, slit in front, with a wide panel of fuzzy fringe at the bottom, paired with a crisp navy short-sleeve blouse; a white knit tank dress with a fringy yarn skirt, and a fuchsia-purple mélange sweater and skirt with subtle fringe trim.

There were geometric cutouts over the shoulders on a sweater, worn over navy flares, and side portholes cut into a sleeveless tank worn over wide-legged white pants. Floral dresses were feminine and easy, one in bohemian-looking blooms, with fluttery sleeves and a ruffled skirt, and another made from a patchwork of floral fabrics like something you would sew at home.

Philo created something that was clean, simple and modern but also warm. And that may take a woman's touch. The clothes felt honest and down-to-earth, which would seem unthinkable for a French fashion brand owned by one of the largest luxury conglomerates in the world (LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Inc.). But that is Philo's genius.

The inspiration at Chloe was modern folklore and "fabrics that tell stories," according to show notes. "Authenticity of spirit, soulful, honest and individual."

That translated as a cream, patched lace minidress meant, perhaps, to look like it was made from your grandmother's lace, a blue sweatshirt lovingly sun-faded, maybe after years of summer fun, worn with a denim maxiskirt; and a cream maxidress covered in fraying folkloric embroidery that could just as well have been a treasured souvenir from an exotic adventure.

In between, there were airy gauze gowns with delicate lace insets; ring-pierced lace tops and mini dresses; utilitarian-looking shorts, jackets and tops, along with wedge-sole gladiator sandals to keep things grounded.

McCartney pushed an oversized but fluid silhouette, with wide sailor trousers and culottes in vanilla hues, and billowy silk crepe maxidresses, flight suits, trench coats, oversize shirts and drawstring shorts in ice cream pastels, some in a washed check print.

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The ribbed knit fisherman sweater, that L.L. Bean preppy winter staple, was given a new lease on life for summertime, morphing into sexy asymmetrical knit dresses made of organic yarn, knotted and twisted to show off the back and shoulders.

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Statement denim, Stella style, had a '70s look — a jumper dress with buckle hardware and asymmetrical thread work on the front, for example.

And for evening, there were truly gorgeous sundresses in delicate floral organza sewn into a jigsaw of suspended embroideries.

The big take-away was how effectively McCartney was able to achieve lightness and movement, with swishy ‎asymmetrical hems, open backs and parachute silks.

The clothes looked comfortable and cool, which really should be the essence of what fashion has to offer.

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