Likely motivated by equal parts love and admiration and morbid curiosity, fashion insiders descended Sunday on a tony Paris townhouse to see what could very well be the last ever collection by John Galliano, the brilliant British designer whose undoing last week has shocked and horrified the industry.
Galliano's longtime employer, luxury supernova Dior, fired him last Tuesday amid allegations he made anti-Semitic insults and after a video showing a drunk Galliano saying "I love Hitler" went viral on the Internet.
The saga, which has riveted the fashion world for the past ten days and cast a palpable pall over Paris' ready-to-wear displays, also threw the future of the designer's signature label into doubt. The John Galliano brand is owned by Dior parent company LVMH Moet Hennessy.
For several days after Galliano's surprise sacking, it wasn't clear whether his label's fall-winter 2011-12 ready-to-wear collection would be shown to the press and buyers at all. But finally company executives settled on holding a low-key presentation instead of the big-budget blockbuster runway shows that have become a trademark of the house.
Galliano, who is rumored to be in rehab in Arizona, wasn't present at Sunday's display. But for those who love his work, it was a moving moment, and one to savor.
There were only 19 looks, but they all fairly oozed Galliano's unmistakable style. The models' makeup, too, and their languid walk and exaggerated poses were exactly as the designer would have done it himself.
Asked whether Sunday's presentation would help turn the page on the Galliano scandal, Style.com senior editor Tim Blanks said: "It's going to take a while. This is like an open wound for the industry and it's going to take a long time to fully heal over."
Though Galliano is all anyone seems to talk about these days, Sunday also included shows by other heavy-hitters, including Celine, Hermes, Kenzo and Givenchy — which was the object of intense scrutiny because the rumor mill has it that its young Italian designer, Riccardo Tisci, is a top contender to replace Galliano.
The line up on Monday, day seven of Paris' nine-day-long fashion week, is also a substantial one, with shows by Yves Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney, Chloe and Emanuel Ungaro.
The event showcased just 19 looks — fewer than half of what would typically be shown on the catwalk.
Models in full Galliano regalia traced lazy circles around Baroque, flower-covered centerpieces, pausing in front of the photographers' pits to strike exaggerated poses.
The clothing, bias cut gowns in sheer chiffon and oversized outerwear, was old school Galliano. Voluminous tweed jackets were paired with pencil skirts — some of them in pastel tinged latex — and flirty little pleated sundresses poked out from beneath fur-trimmed parkas. Marabou feathers undulated lazily from the hemline and sleeves of a long, lean gown in black silk that glinted with sequins.
At the Dior show on Friday — where the full 60-odd-look, Galliano-overseen collection was shown without the designer — the makeup was toned down. But the girls at Galliano were in their full splendor, their lips painted into dark, little bow shapes, their eyes heavy with liner and shadow and their cheeks shimmering with pinky blush.
Maybe it was the eyepopping makeup and garb, or the golden afternoon sun that streamed in through the windows, but the general mood at Sunday's presentation was lighter, less somber than at the almost funereal Dior show.
Dior CEO Sidney Toledano, who at Friday's show denounced Galliano's comments in a strongly worded statement, was also on-hand for Sunday's presentation, glad-handing industry insiders. Though what his presence there meant for the company's uncertain future was far from clear.
"It's the million-dollar question: What was Toledano doing there?" said Style.com's Tim Blanks.
Beyond the question of what will happen to the John Galliano label, the 50-year-old designer's own future, too, is in doubt. A Paris court has ordered he stand trial on charges of "public insults based on the origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity" against three people. The trial could take place between April and June and Galliano could face up to six months in prison and euro22,500 ($31,000) in fines, if convicted.
Does the man who served up sweatshirts emblazoned with roaring panthers and baseball caps with pointy cat ears have enough "jolie madame" in him to be able to fit in at Dior?
Industry insiders are betting the answer is yes.
Still, it was hard to see just how streetwear-heavy looks Tischi fielded Sunday could translate to a house still built on proper, nip-waisted skirtsuits pioneered in the 1940s.
Tischi's fall collection was the girl version of the snarling rottweiler-covered menswear collection he delivered in January, from the sweatshirts to the leather lettermen jackets, right down to the oversized fur-covered glasses, which appeared on both runways. Sleek black panthers, some wearing gold chains in guise of collars, replaced the frothy-mouthed rottweilers. They growled out from the hemlines of satin pencil skirts and luxe sweatshirts, which were also sprinkled, fleur de lis-style, with little purple orchids or embossed with flower wreaths.
Beyond the constant dialectic between streetwear and ladylike fineries — the sweatshirts and pencil skirts were worn together — the collection was also playing with opacity and transparency.
Ultra short, flippy skirts in fur or black satin were attached to what looked like sheer, knee-length, almost hobblingly tight pencil skirts. Abbreviated A-line skirts had similarly shaped but much longer translucent underskirts, through which the models' opaque thigh-high stockings showed.
Following the departure of the whirlwind that is Jean Paul Gaultier, Hermes paused to catch its breath.
Gaultier exited the brand after last season's display, in October, and his successor, the young French designer Christophe Lemaire, sent out a soft, calm and restful collection for fall. His designs, roomy parkas in buttery leather and floor-length mohair capes, had an understated elegance that fit well with the stately old house, which got its start in the 19th century as a saddle-maker.
Still, both the collection and the plodding display lacked Gaultier's energy and flair.
Gaultier, the one-time enfant terrible of French fashion, can work a theme like nobody's business, latching on and beating it within an inch of its life. In recent seasons, Gaultier sent out tennis and equestrian-themed collections with blockbuster shows to match that included Wimbeldon-style grass on the runway and a dressage demonstration by Lipizzaner horses.
Sunday's display, held in Hermes' new Left Bank boutique, was an altogether lower-key affair. No tennis courts, no horses, just a young lady playing a Chinese harp as the models filed slowly by.
With Sunday's display, Lemaire, who came from French sportswear label Lacoste, proved he has the skills to succeed at Hermes. But many in the audience just hoped he'd learn to bring some Gaultier-style spice, too.
The perpetual question at Kenzo, a house that has turned wanderlust into its very raison d'etre, is where are we heading next?
The festive Day of the Dead skull-shaped invitations and the elaborate set of colored lights designed to look like "papel picado" banners put the fall collection on a southwesterly course, to Mexico and the American southwest.
Still, the references were subtle, reinterpreted through the aesthetic of the 41-year old house. There were no Juarez striped blankets. No oversized felt sombreros topped off the looks.
Instead, designer Antonio Marras sent out a ravishing collection of long flowing patchwork dresses and cropped jackets with dainty beadwork, floor-length flowered broom skirts and chunky knit sweaters and black lace suits that felt like they were channeling chic mariachi garb.
As songs by the Tucson, Arizona-based band Calexico blasted over the loudspeakers, models stomped the catwalk in cropped cowboy boots, some given extra attitude by a sprinkling of metal studs.
"I was looking at painters from this region, to Georgia O'Keefe, both her paintings and her personal style, and to Frida Khalo, and the collection is about them," Marras, an Italian, told journalists after the show. You could see the dramatic styles of both women in the flowing dresses and skirts, some in oversized flower-print fabrics, and the voluminous outerwear.
Phoebe Philo can do no wrong.
The Celine designer, who single-handedly launched the clean-lined minimalist look that's swept catwalks worldwide over the past few seasons, managed yet again to take her signature pared-down look forward for fall without compromising its essence. This season, it was minimalism de luxe, with a pinch of retro quirkiness.
Colorblocking and leather paneling added an retro-futuristic undercurrent to the sheath dresses, while fur elements gave a luxurious touch to the plain-front, lapel-less coats that were the stars of Sunday's ready-to-wear show.
Philo made a big name for herself at Celine's cross-town rival Chloe, but it's her work at Celine that has catapulted her to superstar status. She joined the house in 2009, after a yearslong hiatus from fashion, and has since churned out one blockbuster collection after another.
Sunday's looked sure to be another hit: The daywear — slim pants and tank tops with vertical leather panels — could move seamlessly from the office to the evening, and the razor-cut bustier tops, paired with skinny trousers, breathed effortless, devil-may-care high glamor.
And with the weather outside bone-chilling, you could almost see the fashion journalists, editors and stylists choosing next winter's coat from the parade of gorgeous outerwear whizzing by.
It was minimalism dressed up by a touch of futility.
Akris, the Swiss house that churns out chic, no-frills business separates as reliably as a Swiss timepiece, riddled its plain-front coats and clean-lined sheath dresses with zippers that served no apparent purpose beyond the purely decorative.
Like roads to nowhere, they wound around the minimalist gowns and snaked over the shoulder of the fetching wool tank dresses, ending abruptly at the small of the models' backs.
Zippers have come into their own in recent seasons, emerging from beneath concealing panels that use hide them to take a prominent place on the backs of cocktail dresses and long lean gowns, where they add a kinky touch, a hint of danger. This season, they've taken on an added importance, with labels like Maison Martin Margiela serving up coats sliced by short stretches of useless zippers, which hung lazily open.
Couturier Alexis Mabille's first foray into ready-to-wear last season got off to a rocky start, but the French designer found his footing the second time around.
For fall, Mabille delivered pretty A-line skirts and cardigans and paisley-print kaftans that breathed retro Paris chic with touches of what the French call "far West" — the American southwest — in the oversized silver belt buckles and leather scarves.
The show began with a theatrical touch as a model in a French maid costume opened the curtains and threw open the double-doors at the top of the runway. The models entered from the verdant courtyard beyond — as did icy gusts of freezing air.