February 1, 2005

The Two Faces of Christian Dior

PARIS, February 1, 2005 - Sitting on one side of the Dior Homme runway on Monday night was Yoko Ono, and on the other, Emmanuelle Seigner, wife of American-in-exile film director Roman Polanski. Interestingly, Hedi Slimane, the iconoclast designer for the label, was born in 1968, well after John Lennon had skyrocketed to fame as a Beetle, and after Polanski's own brush with 60s notoriety. But there was Ono, sitting between Elton John and Karl Lagerfeld, clapping to the beat of the pounding soundtrack. "I do wear some of the pieces," she admitted. "Because the look is so sensual and sophisticated."

Further down on the right hand side of the front row, passed Kate Moss and the Arnaults, Pierre Bergé and Betty Catroux were installed like living testimony to the House of Yves Saint Laurent. (Saint Laurent, incidentally, designed the collections for Dior from the founder's death in 1957 until his dismissal in 1960). And judging from their animated comments, the two are bigger fans of Hedi than the thousands of young people that log onto Dior Homme Internet chat rooms each day.

Then there was Karl, all decked out in the Dior Homme Spring 2005 collection, and reaching to kiss Elton John on the cheek. Afterwards he was not short on words of praise. "I'm buying every piece of that knitwear," he said. "Because I love knits."

Elton John has long been a fan of Dior, and his boyfriend, David Furnish, buys one piece of everything shown on the runway. "If I were only thinner," the pop star admitted backstage after the show. "It would be me, not David, in Hedi's clothes." The image of the Elton John that is probably the most poignant is not the pop star in a white split tunic-skirt tapping his left foot to the show's soundtrack, but that moment when he consoled the late Princess Diana after the murder of Gianni Versace. Yet even that era is beginning to recede into the fog of passing time.

Despite all the icons sparkling on the front row, the real spirit of Dior Homme is not the past, but the future, as was witnessed by the young drummers that scaled scaffolding to begin a live performance before the show's finale. And that's the visionary genius of Hedi Slimane, who manages to tie together references from yesterday with a living presentation that strikes right at the heart of today's youth culture.

Now on the other side of Dior, John Galliano took a break from dressing up as Napoleon last week long enough to have drinks with Glenda Bailey, Editor-in-Chief of Harper's Bazaar, on Thursday evening at the bar of the Ritz. Eyewitnesses describe him as having washed the last stain of makeup from his pores, and having shampooed his hair, which was tied back in a ponytail. The conversation remains secret, but perhaps Glenda was delivering the message heard privately during Paris couture week, and written in print by some the world's most powerful fashion editors: despite your talent John, you're stuck in a rut, and you need to move on. It's almost ironic that Galliano chose to reinvent himself this season as Napoleon Bonaparte, as the history of emperors and empirical thinking normally does not end very well. The real Napoleon found that out when he marched on Moscow, sat down in a nice plush armchair, and waited for the Cossacks to send a surrender note. When that never happened, his army was annihilated, and he returned to France bewildered, though claiming victory. Eventually, of course, Elba awaited him, and now the French government officially disavows his name - even having re-christened the dessert that used to bear it a millefeuille.

The most recent Dior couture show went from one period of history to the next for inspiration, but managed only to connect feebly with the House's increasingly scarce couture clients. The Dior Homme show used living history to propel it forward like a laser beam that fell squarely on Generations X,Y, and I. And that irony was not lost on one Hermès official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "All you have to do is walk into the men's side of any Dior boutique," he said. "And then you'll see the real spirit of Christian Dior in contemporary disguise."

When the Sweet Bird of Youth Has Flown

PARIS, September 20 - While waiting at the hairdresser's last week, I happened to pick up the latest copy of a juicy French tabloid, the cover strewn with a montage of photos of the rich and famous caught by paparazzi along the beaches of Saint Tropez. And there it was, clear as a day, a photo of John Galliano taken the eighth of August 2004, hair extensions wetted down, a silver chain draped around his neck, the briefest of briefs clinging to his thighs. The caption underneath implied that Dior's star designer must not have had enough silk leftover from his latest couture collection to fashion a complete bathing suit. The look, dare one say it, probably did not conjure up the world of glamour and allure that Christian Dior Couture depends on, nor did it provide much in the way of inspiration for young gay men fixed on buffed abs and bulging bikinis. In brief, John would have done better to follow Coco Chanel's classic advice of keeping extremities covered, especially after the sweet bird of youth has long since flown the coop
But propping up aging institutions with injections of new blood is what a lot of fashion, especially Paris fashion with its plethora of venerable houses, is all about. Take Givenchy, whose days of glory probably climaxed when Audrey Hepburn wore her little black dress to Sing Sing on the set of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Never mind that Jackie Kennedy ordered a veiled version of the same model for her first husband's state funeral: the label was in decline long before its founder retired in 1995. John Galliano's short stint was followed by messy divorces from Alexander McQueen, and later Julien McDonald, who was a slow apprentice when it came to getting the Botox formula right. Which brings us to the present predicament - Givenchy has no designer. According to well-publicized press leaks, Alber Elbaz turned down the offer to become Artistic Director, preferring to stay at Lanvin, where at least the home his happy, albeit the finances precarious. If there was a short list for the Givenchy job, candidates two and three have yet to materialize.

And moving on to Yves Saint Laurent, which is undergoing its own metamorphosis in the wake of Tom Ford's unhappy departure. Saint Laurent and longtime partner Pierre Bergé have long since disavowed anything going on with the label, and to the contrary, have voiced steady criticism. According to the maître, Gucci Group, which has owned the Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Ready-to-Wear division since 1999, has yet to capture the elegance that his name implies, nor has it managed to rise above tarnished 90s sexpot glitz that originally resuscitated Gucci. This season, Stephano Pilati, little-known sous chef to Tom Ford, will take his turn in the limelight.

Then there is Pierre Balmain, which has plummeted from A-list couture to bankruptcy court in two short years' time. With the departure of Oscar de la Renta, who had designed the couture line until 2002, hopes were pinned on a series of succeeding designers. Laurent Mercier, whose one and only couture collection was seemingly inspired from his drag queen student days, and then Christophe Lebourg, both failed to prop up falling sales.

Elsewhere, the story is brighter - Christian Dior, Nina Ricci, Jeanne Lanvin, Chanel. But the problem with trying to market a famous name is as old as the hills - what goes up, must inevitably come down. And if there is little to linger after the bird has flown the coop, then you, and your investors, are likely to be left with nothing more than a handful of dust. .

May 20, 2004

Couture's Crumbling Columns:

To hear Didier Grumbach, president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, tell the story, Paris haute couture is flourishing. His relentlessly upbeat comments, delivered from an impeccably smiling façade, are about as reassuring (and accurate) as the Pentagon's daily press briefing.

What is true is that Givenchy, Versace and Ungaro have pulled out of the upcoming Paris couture shows for Fall / Winter 2004-05, scheduled from July 6-9, amid strong indications that Valentino may do the same. It is also a well-known fact that both Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier are under mounting financial pressure - in the latter case, necessitating draconian budget cuts across the board. Meanwhile, John Galliano continues to produce show-stopping pieces for Christian Dior - requiring a second rendering by couture directress Catherine Rivière before they can be fitted to the House's dwindling list of clients - while Karl Lagerfeld turns out classic pieces for Chanel destined for such youthful matrons as Bernadette Chirac. The failure of any of those remaining columns would inevitably lead to the complete structural collapse of the Federation.

And just as the debate about the future of couture was resurrected last week, Pierre Bergé was the first to jump into the latest fray with his comments to WWD. "I've always said that couture would die with Yves Saint Laurent," he insisted. "Now it's the domino effect."

While it's true that Bergé has long been a nemesis of Grumbach, who he once accused of "running the North America division of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche into the ground", and that his penchant for brusque repartee (accusing Anna Wintour of lying down for cash) might be controversial, he's also demonstrated reliable insight into fashion and its future. After all, he first became a gauche caviar millionaire by recognizing Yves' burgeoning talent, then co-founding the House of Saint Laurent in 1961.

So have times completely changed? That was a question put to me recently at the bar of the Hôtel de Crillon by Alber Elbaz. "When I was in New York just after September 11," the designer recalled. "The one good thing I thought might come of the disaster was a change in people's behavior. I remember going out to buy some bagels, and the deli guy said 'here just take them for free'. But it seems like that sort of kindness was short lived. And in Tel Aviv everybody has gone crazy, having sex and doing drugs like there is no tomorrow. But for fashion, everything has completely changed since the 90s. That was all about sex, and at the end sadomasochism, which isn't sex, it's domination. Now it's about women being smart. And part of that is living with chronic uncertainty."

Alber Elbaz, it might be recalled, was Bergé's handpicked successor for Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, and along with Dior Homme's Hedi Slimane, bears the official YSL stamp of approval.

By anybody's estimate, couture has run up against changing times, and in many ways the beginning of the end can be traced back to 9/11. On September 15, 2001, the New York Times published an op-ed by Frank Rich in which he observed, "this week's nightmare, it's now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decadelong dream, even as it dumps us into an uncertain future we had never bargained for."

Not four months later, Saint Laurent bowed out of couture, citing changing times and a beauty-less world. Now almost two and a half years down the road, the downturn in the fashion industry continues, effecting almost every ready-to-wear label, and more directly couture. Balmain filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this week after an Asian equity partner failed to honor an investment, putting future catwalk shows into jeopardy, while in the PPR consortium, overhauling debt-riddled Balenciaga and Stella McCartney are said to be top priority for new Gucci Group CEO, Robert Polet.

So, given the perennial gloom that enshrouds the fashion world, the fact that traditional couture is quickly dying should not come as any great shock. But what Alber has done with Lanvin Ready-to-Wear, of course, is to take a couture approach - his meticulous draping and the finesse of detail renders the resulting elegance indistinguishable from its noble roots. With Chloe Sevigny, Sheryl Crow, Kate Moss, Sarah Jessica Parker and Liv Tyler, and a dusting of stars on the red carpet of Cannes wearing Lanvin, Barney's record $700,000 order for Fall 2004 seems right on target.

While couture may be crumbling, there is certainly plenty of hope rising from the ruins.

March 28th, 2004 Update:

Politics, Fashion and Ethics

Official Washington continues spellbound by Richard Clarke's gripping testimony before the 9 /11 commission this past week. The former anti-terrorism Czar, speaking under oath, alleged that W. was AWOL in the 'War on Terrorism' in the months leading up to the 2001 attacks. But even before Mr. Clarke had completed his televised Capitol Hill appearance, the façade of harmony that had surrounded the proceedings crumbled, falling headfirst into partisan bickering. Republican Committee Members went on the defensive, while the White House launched a counter offensive aimed at obfuscating and discrediting his testimony, even as the chronically unavailable Condoleeza Rice suddenly became available to everyone - except the bipartisan commission (under oath).

Politics are by no means limited to the American side of the Atlantic, nor to those holding public office, and the longstanding and cozy relationship that has always existed between Paris fashion and select media has recently come under pressure. Traditionally, the Condé-Nast and Fairchild empires have spoken the final word on what passed on the runway, with a minority of dissent occasionally voiced by the New York Times and its subsidiary, the International Herald Tribune. And if one were to single out American Vogue, for sake of example, Anna Wintour has probably done more to promote the fashion industry (and subsequently benefited from more free fur and couture pieces), than anyone in living memory. The advertising dollars continue to flow into her coffer, thanks to the very same generous Houses that she promotes. Anna also makes a beautiful photo-op, sitting conspicuously on the front row, with nary a fault to be found in her impeccable presentation. She pales, however, when placed beside, say Lee Radziwell, whose buoyant elegance and noble pedigree far outshines the nearest competition. Lee does not actively promote fashion, refusing to be drawn into that debate, but does openly support Ralph Rucci, the sole American designer to show couture in Paris. The same cannot be said for the American Vogue's British-born Editor-in-Chief.

The appearance of quid pro quo certainly exists in the fashion world, and the only person who probably wouldn't see it is Justice Antonin Scalia, whose Louisiana duck hunt and bonding session with Vice President Dick Cheney drew quacks from the Sierra Club - as Halliburton is the object of judicial scrutiny, and since the Supreme Court handed Cheney his job in the first place.

But back to fashion. If an editor is to be opinionated, independent and willing to speak the truth, then the consequences can be incendiary. Take, for example, the brilliant writing of Suzy Menkes, whose critique of the Dior Fall 2001 Ready-to-Wear show earned her a three day suspension from all LVMH shows on direct orders from CEO Bernard Arnault. The text of that offending article read, in part: "Bernard Arnault, Galliano's big boss, said that he was hoping for something to "raise the morale" in an industry suffering from lack of traveling tourists and the American downturn (since 9/11). But the pugnacious, in-your-face urban attitude seemed out of synch with what has been happening in fashion... Isn't there enough aggression in the world without models snarling at the audience, clutching their gorgeous bias-cut gowns round their hips and stomping out with what looked like cartridge holders attached to their boots?" Christian Dior, of course, is the big breadwinner for the LVMH consortium, coming in just after Louis Vuitton, and so any negative criticism understandably touches a very sensitive and private nerve. So much for freedom of the press.

The Internet, however, has begun to change the way business was always done, and in some ways, the playing field has been leveled, as independent publishers and editors are now empowered to report what was once reserved for a select few. The magical genie has been let out of the bottle, and that is the good part. But there is downside to that freedom, as cyberspace is awash with journalism that promotes spiked up hype and watered down fact. With content seemingly aimed at an exclusively 3rd grade readership, the lowest common denominator can easily plummet to the level of Nancy Drew on Valium. Even Jethro Bodine, who only graduated from the 6th grade, could do a better job of spelling and grammar than some editors who publish online. The review of Fendi's Fall 2004 women's collection that appeared on a notoriously shabby fashion website, fashionwindows.com, is a case in point. "Karl Lagerfeld should have felt like the king of the castle yesterday after the Fendi show," writes the editor. "Because in a season where designers here in Milan have almost all discovered the joy of fur, he and Fendi have become masters in its moulding." One is left to wonder if bacteria had taken hold of the mink, or if the samples had been purchased from a mildewing basement. Or the online editor who fabricated 23 out of 52 reviews of the recent Fall 2004 Paris Prêt-à-Porter shows, extracting and rewriting information obtained from alternate sources, or by looking a photographs - this because the vast majority of established Houses do not extend invitations to her. The delicate question of whether an editor should be physically present when writing a review was drawn into the harsh spotlight after the Jason Blair scandal forced The New York Times to adopt strict guidelines. Cathy Horyn, who has been banned from Helmut Lang's shows, no longer mentions his name, leaving The International Herald Tribune to cover the label. That is called ethics.

As columnist Frank Rich recently wrote in the New York Times "Real journalism may be reeling, but faux journalism rocksŠ When the president made a rare exception last month and took questions from an actual front-line journalist, NBC's Tim Russert, his performance was so maladroit that the experiment is unlikely to be repeated anytime too soon. There's no point in bothering with actual news people anyway, when you can make up your own story and make it stick, whatever the filter might have to say about it. No fake news story has become more embedded in our culture than the administration's account of its actions on 9/11. Š Mr. Bush's repeated claim that one of his "first acts" of that morning was to put the military on alert is false. So are the president's claims that he watched the first airplane hit the World Trade Center on TV that morning. (No such video yet existed.) Nor was Air Force One under threat as Mr. Bush flew around the country, delaying his return to Washington."

When it comes to politics and ethics, Paris, pride and politics are all broadcasting on the same wavelength.

March 23rd, 2004 Update:

ishing Upon Stars Little did Truman Capote know that he was brandishing a two-edged sword when he staged his famed Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1966 - an event designed to cement his reputation as a literary star. As the Beautiful People of high society fought for one of the 540 invitations, Capote leaked the guest roster, and the term "A-list" subsequently became part of working class vocabulary.

His faux pas was not verifying the RSVPs before making the names public. Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Kennedy, Vivian Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Tennessee Williams were all invited, but conspicuously absent. So perhaps the slight was actually on the host.

Be that as it may, it is no surprise that the concept has so flourished in fashion, as one-upmanship and snobbery are endemic to the milieu. Parisian Houses often compete for "A-list" guests, those that would make for impressive front row photo ops, while assigning less desirables to standing. The reverse side of the equation is also true, since A-list guests pick their invitations carefully. There are also A-list Houses, generally those that show Haute Couture as well as Ready-to-Wear - Dior, Versace, Valentino, Ungaro, Gaultier, Givenchy, Lacroix and Chanel. That leaves the PPR consortium, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Stella McCartney, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen, a little like the prom queen without a date, as their claim to fame is, well, B-list.

The big houses go after stars to shoot in front of the camera, and the little ones go after whomever they can find. Watching the upper echelon as they scramble either to bask in, or to avoid, the limelight is one of my favorite pastimes.

In July of 2003, Jack Nicholson showed up at the Dior couture show with his young daughter Lorraine. Somewhat unaccustomed to the environment, the actor looked stunned when I asked him about fashion, as he was apparently expecting to talk about his latest film. His gruff "huh?" when queried about John Galliano probably did more to clarify the issue than any obscure review.

This was not the case with Elton John, whose appearance at the January 2003 Dior Homme show livened up the backstage party. An eloquent connoisseur of couture, John's commentary delivered in impeccable Oxbridge English was enlightening. "It's only when you get up close that you can appreciate the beauty of these pieces," the singer confided. "I've not seen such passion for detail in anyone since Gianni (Versace)." With paparazzi and television cameras swarming around him, his one taut bodyguard looked a bit frazzled. Not the case with poor Karl Lagerfeld and Catherine Deneuve, who were relegated, in this rare instance, to standing relatively unnoticed in a slow-moving reception line.

Hedi Slimane has always been shy, uncomfortable in the glare of the flashbulb. He used to resemble a cornered animal looking for some means of escape, though recently appears more at ease. In the least, he has become media-savvy, and now gives interviews exclusively through email. In the old days, he looked almost pained to explain his work. Just last June he struggled, "There is no one point of inspiration for these collections. It's hard for me to explain it to you. Maybe it's more a kind of allure I have in mind. Do you understand what I mean?" His boss, Sydney Toledano, certainly understands, and never misses an opportunity to praise his star designer. As sales increase, and profits rise, he's wishing for more of the same.

LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault and his wife Hélène add sparkle to any event, and they appear 6 times a year at Dior shows, but occasionally also in the Avenue Montaigne boutique. On each occasion, Bernard is dressed in his standard blue suit, standing slightly aloof, and always doting on his elegant young wife. Hélène is easily one of the most beautiful women in Paris, but appears distant in public, dutifully accompanying her high-powered husband. At shows, they are surrounded by a flotilla of security guards, loath to let reporters too close, but on one occasion in October of 2003, she spoke with me. Attired in a leather jacket dusted with jet-black sequins, a lacquered crocodile skirt worn atop fishnet leggings, she broke into a radiant smile at the mention of music. "I do give concerts from time to time," she explained. "And I've even got a CD coming out in a couple of weeks." An accomplished pianist, her talent is ironically eclipsed by her prominent social standing.

In July 2003, the House of Versace elected to show its couture line at a champagne gala at the Ritz. Ivana Trump, who first feigned exhaustion, suddenly became talkative when she saw television cameras. "I loved Dior earlier today," she exclaimed. Then in the same breath added, "but that is really more costumes for a show, you know. Versace you can actually wear."

Another guest, André Leon Talley, American Vogue's Editor-at-Large, was reaching for a silver tray full of luscious canapés, trying to decide between snippets of shrimp floating on crème fraîche, or pieces of proscuitto atop horseradish. "Honey, my favorite was that beautiful dress that looks like Ostrich feathers," he said, while munching. "But then look up close and you'll see it's really constructed of mink slivers. That is just so cool, and you can wear it anywhere, anytime."

Last season, Versace returned to the poolroom of the Ritz. Just before show time, the lights dimmed, and Christina Aguilera made a stunning entrance. One would have imagined that a really big star had arrived, given the court of ladies and waiting, and the two enormous gorillas that formed a circle around the tiny little singer. Guests turned to one other in confusion. "Who was that? It's who?"

Well, at least Donatella had the pleasure of nestling at a corner table with Christina at the after-show party, held in a V.I.P room on the Champs Elysées, though only photographers were allowed close enough to get a quick shot. Those images probably did more to promote Clairol than fashion, given the contrasting duo of bottle blonde and shoe polish black that caught the spotlight. In fact, the sole quote of the evening came from Mr. Big of "Sex in the City", when he exited the stall in the unisex bathroom, only to be reprimanded by two British demoiselles for not washing his hands. His exact response is, lamentably, unprintable.

One is left to ponder how the production might have looked had Jennifer Anniston or Nicole Kidman turned up. Ms. Aguilera, however, was the best Paris couture week could do last season, and she was later recycled at Givenchy, and then Ungaro. Since the singer has been recently trying to kick-start her own sputtering career, perhaps she got the best deal in the end.

By far the most bizarre episode of Hollywood meets High Fashion played itself out at the Chanel Ready-to-Wear show last October. Kate Moss, incognito behind a pair of enormous black sunglasses, took one look at the paparazzi circling in front of her like hungry sharks, then mumbled "I'm changing seats." Turning to an accompanying bodyguard, she snapped "get me out of here!" This mercurial eruption was probably related, dare one suggest, to the fact that the starlet had been up half the night at the Vogue party tippling champagne. As she fled, a group of photographers got into a shoving match, one part claiming the other was tabloid press and not legitimate fashion press. A self appointed referee, a short little French security guard who likely imagined himself a candidate for the secret service, blew on his whistle for reinforcements. After a trip backstage, where Ms. Moss was informed during a tête-à-tête with Karl Lagerfeld that her seat would not be changed, she returned - and sat down. A-list or not, when you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.

Timothy Hagy is lookonline.com's new Paris correspondent. He is also a contributing editor to Fashionlines.com. You can contact him at hagy@noos.fr

DFR: Daily Fashion Report