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By Shine Anthony-Dharan

PARIS, 17 MARCH 2008 — As talk of recession, global warming and terrorism buzzed around the front rows, the fashion pack were expecting more than usual from the designers this season. The celebrities were notably scarce, the parties notably "green", and the collections notably restrained. Anyone can sell a $5000 dress when the Dow Jones is soaring, but when Wall Street starts to buckle, Fifth Avenue feels its vibrations. And just as the worlds financial institutions turn to the emerging markets for some much needed support, so does fashion. China, Russia and India are fuelling the demand for luxurious and ostentatious fashion like never before. The poor designers thus found themselves in the tricky situation of having to simultaneously please two very different customers. An organic cotton t-shirt with fur trim anyone? Only in fashion do contradictions make such happy bedfellows.

There is an old wives tale that the luxury sector is not affected by recession. Well, even if that were true, most fashion houses make their money on the sales of accessories and cosmetics, not clothing. The billionaires club probably will hold up the very top segment of the market, but the middle-class woman who buys less perfume and lipstick than usual will hurt the industry. In order to satisfy nervous shareholders, the designers need to sell some clothes now. Ballgowns may make good copy, but they don't pay the bills.

CHANEL Autumn / Winter 2008
Photo courtesy of Chanel

True to form, Karl Lagerfeld picked up on all major global issues and literally spun them around on us. A giant rotating carousel decked in pearls and tweeds set the stage for the Chanel ready-to-wear show. Lagerfeld seemed to have taken inspiration from all the little girls of the Upper East Side who secretly dress up in their mothers Chanel. He replaced the plastic horses with oversize shoes, hats and tweed jackets- haute playtime indeed. As always, Lagerfeld discovered an ingenious new way to reinvent the house classics. This time the famous tweed suits were frayed at the elbows in an ode to Coco Chanel's propensity for injecting a little poverty into luxury. There was a greater emphasis on daywear than usual, a multitude of denim skirts, oversize tweeds and crochet dresses made up the bulk of the offering.

CHANEL Autumn / Winter 2008
Photo courtesy of Chanel

In stark contrast to the last few seasons, and probably as a response to fashions new mood, the accessories and embellishments were kept to an appropriate minimum. Lagerfeld's color palette was respectfully subdued with shades of grey and blush intercepting what was otherwise a largely black and white collection. Chanel presented the season's most convincing argument for bringing hemlines down for winter. As well as the expected longer lengths, Lagerfeld whipped up the cooler idea of long coats over short skirts. Despite the something-for-everyone feel of the collection, there was something reassuringly classic about it. As the Dow Jones nosedives, smart shoppers will be looking for clothes that will not seem dated in six months time.

CHANEL Autumn / Winter 2008
Photo courtesy of Chanel

Young Indian designer Manish Arora shifted his show from London to Paris for the first time this season. In contrast to Chanel's newly pared down aesthetic, Arora developed his signature blazing colors and heavily embellishment to deliver his best collection to date. With skirts that seemed to depict epic stories within their embroidered folds, Disney characters peeking out of armored jackets and pop art inspired mini-dresses, there was a lot going on here. Fortunately, there were enough common themes to keep things cohesive, and more importantly, sellable. Paris is famously supportive of upcoming talent and it would be interesting to see if any of the big houses take a chance on Arora by signing him up- the potential is certainly there.

Manish Arora : Autumn / Winter
(Paris) Photography by Yannis Vlamos

One of the great mysteries of Paris fashion is why the heart wrenchingly beauty of Christian Lacroix's haute couture rarely infuses his ready-to-wear collections. Although all couturiers dilute their ideas for ready-to-wear, Lacroix seems to lose his sparkle when faced with a budget. In keeping with fashions reflective mood, this was a relatively restrained collection that focused on separates. Simply gathered double duchesse skirts paired with sharply tailored jackets and feathered blouses stood out amongst an unfortunate spattering of brocade and gold leather. The most successful pieces were the stunning, one shimmering black sheath dress was decorated with nothing but a slight gathering at the hip- and that's all it needed.

Christian Lacroix

Still, the house is today doing better financially than it has in a long time. You may not see many Lacroix stores in London, Paris, or New York, but they are all over Saudi Arabia. Arab women have always appreciated Lacroix's over the top styling and he is now targeting his collection towards his best customers, and perhaps a gold leather jacket studded with multicolored gems looks more wearable peeking out from under a hijab. Thankfully, Thames and Hudson's wonderful new tome Christian Lacroix on Fashion reminds us of Lacroix's utter genius as a couturier. Written to coincide with the couturiers wildly successful exhibition at Paris's Musée des Arts Décoratifs , the book examines Lacroix's couture against the historical costumes that often inspired them. The books concept works so perfectly that more than a few copies were spotted stuffed into the Bottega Veneta totes that lined the front rows.

Christian Lacroix: Historicism

Speaking of Bottega Veneta, Tomas Maier's faultless collection for the house was Milan's best argument for a return to simplicity. Here, finally, were clothes for wealthy women who do not care to be covered in sequins or furs. Every woman in the audience would have ripped off what she was wearing in exchange for exit 15, exquisite grey cashmere trousers and a black pea coat so perfectly nonchalant that it drew audible gasps. Maier understands that when attempting to simplify, details become key. A stunning grey felted wool dress for example, was shaped solely by three horizontal seams crossing the midriff. Fold-over crocodile clutches and crushable totes in exotic skins finished off each effortlessly luxurious look. Small wonder that the brand is doing phenomenally well with the most exacting of customers- the Japanese. Quality like this made many of the other "luxury" houses look decidedly mass-market.


What many of the London shows may have lacked in couture like quality, they made up for in enthusiasm. For the last few years London Fashion Week has suffered a hemorrhaging of design talent as most of its biggest names defrocked to Paris and New York. Although this clears the path for new talent, the English are notoriously bad at promoting young designers. The few that made it to the catwalks had to resign themselves to the fact that most fashion editors no longer bother to attend the London shows. Still, there were some potential gems to be found in the city. The Basso and Brook presentation, although overly styled with silly hats, played an innovative game with form and structure. A savagely knitted fern green suit struck the right balance between chic and editorial, as did the first look, a long grey coat of shredded wool. What the show lacked was cohesiveness, the looks were so varied that there was no clear point of view.

Basso and Brook : Autumn / Fall 2008
Photography by Fernanda Calfat

Bora Asku's show on the other hand, was almost too cohesive. By sticking to a strict color palette of muted lilacs, browns and black, Asku missed out on the chance of having a showstopper. Although there was some great workmanship here, everything looked a little samey. The frilly dresses and blouses were also a little too close to Stefano Pilati's Spring 2005 Yves Saint Laurent collection for comfort. Although a great talent, Asku has the unfortunate tendency to channel other designers. His graduate collection at Central St. Martins was extraordinarily good but it did lend itself to John Galliano's aesthetic. As soon as Asku finds strength in his own voice, he can take his career to the next level.

Ashish: Autumn / Fall 2008
Photography by Ian Gillett

While most of London went for the grown up look, the relatively new designer Ashish followed Karl Lagerfeld's lead by treading a more girlish path. Great sweeping patchwork skirts, oversize grey sweatshirts covered in tassels, slouchy tailored jackets and teeny-weeny sequined dresses somehow came together to make a standout collection. Ashish, unlike many of his colleagues, managed to capture the young, carefree spirit of London. As fashion enters into a period of uncertainty, only those with a sure foot will survive. Faced with less disposable income, consumers will think much more carefully about what they purchase. The best way forward for today's designers is to forge a clear identity, address the needs of individual markets, and wait for the carousel to swing round to better times.

Christian Lacroix on Fashion
By Patrick Mauries, Olivier Saillard, Christian L
Hardcover: 240 pages
Thames & Hudson (April 2008)
ISBN-10: 0500513910
ISBN-13: 978-0500513910

Shine Anthony-Dharan is a British fashion writer and designer based in New York. He covers fashion, beauty and interior design for Mr. Anthony-Dharan last wrote on London Fashion Week.

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