CAR WRECK prints embroidered with glass shards, aerodynamic forms frozen in motion -- Hussein Chalayan's Spring collection, titled "Inertia," captured the chaos of a week when the global economic crisis was hurtling out of control and Washington was stalled trying to fix it. Cypriot designer Chalayan, the artistic conscience of Paris Fashion Week, was commenting on the accelerated pace of modern life in his show, which ended with a literal crash -- a shattering of wine glasses set up on a cocktail bar at the top of the runway.
The end of the party, as it were.
It's reality-check time for an industry whose currency is speed, and everyone is struggling to figure out the direction of things to come, now that most of us are being forced to slow down and do more with less. Against these new priorities, the shows that stood out stirred up feelings about globalism, the environment and the digital age.
As for the clothes, simple and functional are the watchwords. And a new geometry is emerging, with bold, graphic lines and grids that stand out against the chaos. Jackets are the season's key pieces, sharply tailored and oversized in soft shell pinks at Stella McCartney, micro-pleated and metallic at Balenciaga, or kimono-safari hybrids at Yves Saint Laurent.
At Chalayan, short dresses came in prints depicting tangled car parts and snippets of license plates, some embroidered with broken glass, others cinched with surgical-looking leather corsets holding the body together under strain. The runway was circular and rotating, a road to nowhere. For the finale, models came out in molded latex dresses hand-painted with images of crashed cars, sleek currents frozen around them, like monuments to a bygone era.
But it wasn't all so bleak. Chalayan balanced his concept with wearable pieces such as care-free draped blue, white and yellow striped dresses and jumpsuits that brought to mind traffic signs, plus molded jersey cocktail dresses that hugged every curve.
While Chalayan was meditating on the present, Nicolas Ghesquière was looking to the future. Watching the latest extraordinary chapter of his science-fiction fantasy at Balenciaga, I imagined Earth in the year 2058, after the ecological apocalypse. With no more natural dyes or fibers, women dress in pale or metallic shades, their clothes absorbing or reflecting the colored lights around them. Lycra restrains their arms and frames their beating hearts, and they walk on air pockets so as not to touch the too-hot ground.
There was a lot to dream about, but Ghesquière brought things back to the here and now with great-looking pants -- body-hugging motocross styles and slim trousers in pale, stiff cotton spliced with black, like shards of the night sky. They were worn with magnificent papery micro-pleated jackets that looked as if they could have been welded from variegated metal.
In the objects-of-desire category, wiry silver "fur" jackets and scaly "mermaid dresses" read high tech, but were actually made using traditional couture techniques, fusing ribbon with metallic film.
Op Art effects
MARC JACOBS gave us all a styling lesson in New York, and it was Dries van Noten's turn in Paris. For the last few seasons, Van Noten has been an advocate of piling it on, mixing prints with ethnic beading. But this season, he went in a more understated direction that was a breath of fresh air. Bold black-and-white grid prints were the dominant theme, distorted to create Op Art effects on soft silk sheaths, shorts and one standout shirtdress gathered at the hip.
The basic color palette was broken up with metallic flashes -- an immensely chic long, gold-knit skirt worn with a classic white button-down, and a dazzling coat with sequins embroidered in a diamond pattern. To complement the uncluttered mood, models wore graduated orbs strung on ribbons around the neck, their hair tucked into scarves.
The grid motif appeared again at Yves Saint Laurent on the season's coolest footwear, black patent cage booties and pumps with sturdy metal cage heels -- practical enough for city streets, and desirable too. Stefano Pilati's collection, fast becoming a standard bearer for wearable French chic, was rooted in its own kind of geometry, with Japanese-influenced kimono jackets in silk teardrop jacquards, wrap safari jackets with lacing on the peplums, and cocoon dresses with asymmetrical hems, the chicest in navy blue -- backless, except for three bows. Dropped-crotch pants may be a harder sell, though as shorts, they almost worked.
At Comme des Garçons, Rei Kawakubo played with glossy hexagonal surfaces that resembled deconstructed soccer balls, manipulating them into shoulder pieces, helmets and bodices. Kawakubo has always been interested in sculptural forms, but why soccer balls? Perhaps it was a comment on soccer as a cross-cultural icon, the everyman's sport. All the more interesting to ponder when juxtaposed on the runway with trappings of the aristocracy, powdery wigs and tailcoats. But by the time the show ended, with the reverse jackets we've seen from Kawakubo many times before, it wasn't clear that she broke a lot of new ground.
With all the red carpet attention he's been getting, Giambattista Valli's show was a hot ticket. For spring, he reverted back to the romance of the past, with an over-the-top, couture-like aesthetic that cast women more as dolls than functioning beings. Models had to walk with their arms stretched out, to accommodate the 1950s fit 'n' flare dresses, puffed up with crinolines and embroidered with sculptural blooms, all the while struggling to balance on stem-like stilettos. The workmanship was incredible -- an ivory tulle wedding dress that looked as if it were plucked from a hedgerow, bursting with tufted blossoms, will make some princess incredibly happy. But for the rest of us, it was all too precious.
Junya Watanabe's ode to nature was more gentle, with twittering birds on the soundtrack and bouquets of dried flowers balanced atop models' heads. There was something peaceful about the cross-pollination of cultures, the African cloth twisted into blouses and dresses, paired with the denim that is the uniform of America, sculpted into Edwardian fishtail skirts and jackets. The harmony of it made you feel that one day, all will again be right with the world.