The International Crossroads of Paris Fashion
Just as the Japanese became fashion's dominant force in the 1980s, so in this decade the Belgians have emerged as new leaders and the source of fresh inspiration. National characteristics include a tendency towards the sombre, a fondness for black and an inclination to take the whole business of fashion very seriously indeed; Belgian humour obviously does not translate into clothes.
The list of names emanating from Belgium - and specifically Antwerp - grows steadily longer each season and includes Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs, Veronique Branquinho - whose neoGothic take on fashion has been a big hit for the past year - and Olivier Theyskens. However, the most successful designer of all from this country is the one with the lowest personal profile. Martin Margiela does not give interviews, put in personal appearances or allow himself to be photographed for celebrity magazines. His approach to fashion is intensely cerebral and therefore not always entirely successful, although he never fails to be less than fascinating.
Last week, he offered two collections, one for his own house and the other for Hermes where he is now in his second season as designer.
The Margiela show, staged in a palatial but somewhat dilapidated Left Bank house in which guests had to stand against corridor walls to avoid careering into models, was a typically erratic affair in which theories were explored with varying results. Some items, such as pieces of fabric printed to look like woollen sweaters or slip dresses and then pinned onto the body, were ideas as unfinished as the materials themselves.
But then there were impeccably-worked mannish jackets and shirts in which the lapels and collars had been stitched onto the main surface and long grey jersey dresses with the front section of a pair of trousers tied around the waist.
Playing with degrees of finish on a garment does not appear to be a likely scenario at Hermes where Margiela offered what might be considered a reprise of his first collection. As one guest commented at the time, these are clothes for the baby boomer generation, albeit well-heeled representatives of that caste because ultra-fine suede, silk jersey and linen are not inexpensive. Low-key dressing is the style here, thanks to muted colours - taupe, putty and white - and comfortable, loose shapes such as a tunic sweater matched with baggy trousers and a collarless soft-shouldered jacket and mid-calf skirt. Relaxed, confident and beautiful, clothes like these tend to make all others look unnecessarily fussy.
After the Belgians, the latest contingent to sweep into Paris looking for attention is the Americans. The United States has always sought approbation from Europe for its fashion but with little success until now. More than 30 years ago, a group of American designers staged a show in Versailles to show just how good they were, but the long-term effect was negligible. However, circumstances have changed of late, thanks to the arrival of new names at old houses. Narciso Rodriguez now designs for Loewe, Michael Kors for Celine and, most significantly of all, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton.
Until last season, Vuitton was exclusively an accessories company specialising in luggage and leather goods. So Jacobs had a blank canvas and a free hand to come up with whatever image he wanted for the clothing line. In the end, he settled for what Americans invented and still do best: sportswear. This does not mean tracksuits and trainers but the kind of easy, versatile pieces which can be adapted to almost any moment of the day because they do not make attention-seeking statements.
Combine this approach with Vuitton luxury and the result is contemporary dressing at its finest.
Jacobs understands how a woman's wardrobe needs to work today.
He offers lots of trousers, because these are essential items, in bonded or brushed cotton, plus some jackets, skirts and shift dresses to the knee. What marks Vuitton apart is the attention to detail: fine top stitching on everything; tiny glass toggles with the LV motif on the end of drawstrings; and silk lining even inside the cap sleeves of a shirt. Then there is the sybaritic indulgence of a meltingly soft suede T-shirt in pale yellow or a double-folded cashmere/silk mix sweater draping low at the front, the irresistible allure of a triple layer skirt in organza, old gold lurex and fine net, the quality of finish on a translucent poncho in rubberised silk.
Nor have the essential Louis Vuitton accessories been forgotten.
This season, new bags in stamped patent leather come in a range of zingy, sugared almond colours and helpful new sizes, each named after one of Jacobs's favourite New York streets. So there are cigarette lighter and CD cases as well as the more familiar handbags and even a Louis Vuitton motorbike helmet. That's American fashion at its best; in tune with a customer's requirements.
Nobody offers theatricality in fashion like the English. Whimsical, eccentric, perverse, the country's best-known designers are frequently the least successful. After all, John Galliano was admired - but impoverished - for a decade before he finally achieved the security of a position at Dior and it is only in the past few years that Vivienne Westwood has enjoyed something approaching financial security. Perhaps in reaction to so much pragmatism and earnest sobriety elsewhere, lately the English have become particularly popular in Paris, so talents like Alexander McQueen do not have to wait until middle age beckons before being taken up, as he was, by houses like Givenchy. On the other hand, McQueen's restrained and intensely commercial collection this season for the French label suggests he is obliged to keep an eye on the realities of the present market. So too did his compatriot Stella McCartney but the show she presented at Chloe suggests it is possible to be sensible and fun-loving at the same time. Given the predominance of black at many shows, along with materials such as leather and felted wool, it became hard to conceive the clothes on view were intended for spring/summer. Not so at Chloe, where McCartney's designs had the freshness of Proust's jeunes filles en fleur.
Although still in her mid-20s and only on her third collection for the house, the designer has managed to establish a clear identity and signature for her work. She loves to trim her dresses and slip tops in satin and silk crepe with lace or edge the piece with ruffles. Bias-cut evening wear possesses a distinctly 1930s quality and would not have looked out of place on Gertrude Lawrence or Marlene Dietrich. McCartney was one of the very few designers this season to introduce prints; a delicate peacock feather design in shades of purple and blue for georgette shirts and slip dresses and a palm-trees-and-birds-against-the-sunset for stretch T-shirts and skirts.
Suiting is her other strength, rather mannish in its tight tailoring but then softened by decidedly feminine colouring of baby blue and pale grey. Double-breasted waiter's waistcoats and matching flared pants were another option or, if this still seemed too tough-looking, there were bolero-style cotton-knit cardigans embroidered with flowers. Above all there was an unmistakable impression of joie de vivre.
In Paris this season, with so much talk about recession and collapsing business in Asia and so many just as gloomy collections on show, any designer who set out to lift collective spirits deserved applause - and extra orders.
Ten trends from Paris for next spring/summer
Baggy, low-slung trousers. Ponchos. Hot pants (only for the very brave and the Very young). Hip-length waisted jackets. Satin crepe. Black slip dresses (again). Shifts (also again). Voluminous long skirts. Lurex and metallic Threads.