If you could only see one show on Paris' packed nine-day-long fall-winter 2011-12 ready-to-wear calendar, it would have to be Yves Saint Laurent.
Not because it was the most amazing — though the collection was a strong one — but because it synthesized in several dozen looks the main trends that have swept Paris catwalks like wildfire over the past week.
Everything was there: the proper wool princess coats with oversized fur sleeves that were practically inescapable this season — except at animal lover Stella McCartney's fur- and leather-free label; the ultra-wide length trousers, high-waisted A-line skirts and pantsuits that all channeled an easy seventies elegance, similar to what Chloe fielded earlier in the day; and there was the cape, THE must-have outerwear piece for next winter.
The City of Light's collections move into their second-to-last day on Tuesday, but there are still blockbuster shows ahead, including Valentino, new Alexander McQueen designer Sarah Burton's second collection and the ever-jaw-dropping mega-production from Chanel, which draws literally thousands of women decked out in head-to-toe Chanel.
YVES SAINT LAURENT
YSL designer Stefano Pilati is a master tailor, and his take on all the season's hottest pieces were impeccably cut breathed an effortless Parisian chic.
It's a safe bet that there's not a fashionista out there who wouldn't trade just about anything for one of those white halter-top jumpsuits, cinched at the waist with oversized gold chains, or the coat in purple Prince of Wales checks that dissolved into a sprinkling of marabou feathers at the hemline, or the wide-legged pants paired with a mutton-chop sleeve, lavalier-neck blouse.
And who could blame her?
Bruno, a rising star who's among the new wave of young French designers to make a splash Stateside, continued to churn out the casual Parisian looks that have seduced legions of American fashionistas.
For autumn she looked to Russia, serving up flowing peasant dresses, nubby knitwear and oversized sweatercoats in neutral, unbleached tones. Little caps, like something a peasant woman working in a Soviet collective farm might have donned, topped off all the looks.
On paper, the collection sounds utterly unsexy, but Bruno's trick is enfusing pieces that at first glance seem to be geared more toward dowdy grandmas than hot young Parisiennes with a kind of offhand sensuality.
Stacy Smallwood, the owner of the high-end Hampden Clothing boutiques in South Carolina, was sure Monday's collection would drive her clients wild.
"Vanessa Bruno has a simple sophistication that looks fabulous on anyone and translates really well," said Smallwood, who's carried Bruno's line for about two years. "My clients are not going to buy the head-to-toe looks — that would be a bit much for South Carolina — but they're definitely going to fall in love with individual pieces."
For Smallwood, the key to Bruno's appeal was crystal-clear.
"Everyone wants a slice of Parisian chic," she said.
Just one year ago, the storied house of Ungaro was stone cold, with but the slightest trace of a pulse. After a last-ditch resuscitation last season brought it back from the brink and into the land of the living, Monday's sexed-up fall collection got the house's heart rate up and its temperature rising.
The label's savior is Giles Deacon, the British designer who breathed new life into Ungaro last season, in the wake of the label's near-fatal collaboration with starlet Lindsay Lohan. His sexy and sweet cocktail numbers in lace and chiffon were beautiful little concoctions, but perhaps a tad too saccharine for a high-end clothing market obsessed with edginess.
This season, Deacon delivered hard-edged looks that were all about bondage and lingerie, in leather and lace, with a touch of animal savagery.
A pair of oversized eagle claws embroidered in silver beads reached around the waist of a long black leather gown, grasping menacingly. Little silk cocktail dresses printed with hazy curls of pastel smoke — among the few looks not in all-black — had the dark decadence of a subterranean Paris club. The models wore thick leather cuffs round their necks that shone suggestively with gilded metalwork.
The critical reaction to last season's collection was positive, but buyers were less enthusiastic, put off perhaps by the frankly awful collections of the previous years.
The question now is whether they'll embrace the house of Ungaro again after two strong collections.
Hannah MacGibbon has hit her stride. After several shaky seasons, the Chloe designer found her footing with a self-assured fall collection that looked to have put the doubts of the past to bed.
MacGibbon's romantic, casual, sexy, bohemian, boyish and seventies-tinged style has never looked better.
Though she's stuck to a largely neutral palette in the past, sending out collections bathed in ecru, camel and mousy gray, this season she dared do bold colors, drenching the sweaterdresses, wide-legged leather trousers and high-waisted skirts in eyepopping shades. A single piece — the oversized patchwork poncho — was a walking rainbow all on its own.
Patchwork has emerged as a top trend on Paris' catwalks, but nowhere has it looked as good as at Chloe, where MacGibbon integrated patches of snakeskin into the romantic washed silk blouses and grafted snakeskin sleeves onto classic trench coats. Pantsuits, A-line skirts and sheath dresses were made entirely out of snakeskin patches, some of them dyed jade green.
Oversized volumes and slinky, body-conscious looks duked it out on McCartney's catwalk.
Volume took the first swing, with extra-wide-shouldered blazers that practically doubled the width of the narrow models, and chunky knit sweaterdresses that through some miracle of engineering held their maxi-shapes.
Slinkiness rallied with sexed-up second-skin dresses with hour glass-shaped paneling that gave the models impossibly nipped waists. A sheer stripe of polka-dotted tulle stretched up the leg of a black catsuit, giving it an extra dose of sexiness.
Though it seemed clear enough that the body-conscious looks won the fight — after all, who wants to look twice as wide as they actually are? — the dialectic was a fun one that kept things interesting on the catwalk.
Raised as a vegetarian, McCartney has long shunned materials derived from animals, using synthetic leather for her shoes and banning fur altogether.
Valli's catwalk Monday was on the other end of the spectrum: His fall collection was literally covered in fur: Glossy black astrakhan, shaggy white goat and what appeared to be rabbit, dyed tomato red and fluorescent green.
The Italian designer swapped the bold orange, black, ecru and leopard-print fabrics and the marabou and peacock feathers he's used to confect his hallmark colorblocked cocktail dresses in seasons past in favor of fur.
McCartney would have hated it, but the fur paneling actually worked pretty well, giving his dresses and wide-cut coats a luscious sensuousness.
Still, there was no explaining the abbreviated dress covered in what appeared to be a patchwork of skunk fur.
The house of Leonard, which has been churning out its eyepopping, flower-printed silk jersey dresses for decades, is really a summer thing: Joyful, blooming, colorful and light as a summer breeze.
Fall-winter collections tend to be hard for the label.
This season, designer Veronique Leroy pulled it off with brio, transposing the house's light spirit into heavier, weatherproof fabrics, dressing up thick woolen knits, ribbed turtlenecks and even shearling with the house's trademark prints.
Oversized chrysanthemums climbed up an ankle-length silk skirt and onto the trompe l'oeil turtleneck. Fuchsia, toffee and orange geometric designs with a vaguely Native American feeling dressed up one side of an extra-wide reversible shearling coat. Applique bands encircled an A-line shirt in wool so dense it felt like neoprene.
Some industry insiders dismiss Leonard as old lady-ish and complain it's the same every season. But that's actually the strength of the French house — its ability to draw on its immense archive to serve up looks that are instantly recognizable, with a novel touch each season.