Dior and Saint Laurent: Twilight of the Gods?

PARIS — Far be it from me to analyze a designer’s psychological state, but it seemed to me that Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri and Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello were responding to a dark world in their latest collections. Think of them as coping strategies. This certainly added a different weight to the work.

Chiuri’s focus was 1950s Paris, not a Technicolor Audrey Hepburn appearing in a Left Bank boho jazz club in “Funny Face” as Hollywood wanted us to see, but the black-and-white city of the postwar 1950s. existentialists (or neo-realists, in Chiuri’s Italy). When she combed through the Dior archives, she saw how the New Look’s initial burst of optimism contrasted with the bold, dark monochrome, almost like the punk of her time. She found human co-relatives in beatnik singer Juliette Greco (a Dior client) and Edith Piaf, the iconic “Little Sparrow” whose fearlessness and unpredictability made her the French equivalent of Judy Garland. Rounding out Chiuri’s trio of inspirations was Christian Dior’s sister Catherine, a French Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor, who found help in her postwar success as a florist.

These resilient women struggled, suffered and survived, or they didn’t – just as millions of women are doing now – and Chiuri showed off a huge collection of clothes that reflected it all. There was a lot, but maybe that was the point. As the looks passed in constant procession, its dark beauty became a curious balm for the soul, and the details began to assert themselves: the way the back of a coat fluttered away from the body, the cut of a peacock , an oddly eye-catching embroidered leather harness, a shrunken mohair sweater with an argyle print, and a skirt in Chinese a la branche (the smudged, glittering floral effect that was once the province of silk weavers in 18th-century Lyon), the crowns of gilded straw and dried flowers worn by the models in the finale… and, above all, the crinkled fit and shine of the clothes woven with metallic threads, so the pieces kept a kind of memory. They looked worn but elegant, like old favorites cherished in times of trouble. And, because this is Dior, after all, the fabrics were fine reworkings of the moiré, duchesse satin, pied de poule that were the original stock of Christian’s trade.

Chiuri felt that she was the most French collection she has made since starting at Dior seven years ago, but also the most Italian in its precise construction. She also said that her artistic outreach this time, Joanna Vasconcelos de Portugal, came closer to her own process than any of her other collaborators, with a studio that was like a fashion atelier. The show took place in an enormous visceral cocoon, a kind of magical garden created by Vasconcelos using fabrics with floral prints from the Dior archives. It was his homage to Catherine Dior, whom flowers saved from hell. It was also further proof of the luxurious settings that Bernard Arnault’s deep pockets are capable of underwriting, hard times be damned. Piaf’s trembling tones rang out at the end of the show. “Moi, je nepeste rien.” In fact.

I could say the exact same thing about Saint Laurent. The first fashion show I saw in Paris was a YSL haute couture show in 1987 in the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel. (I’ll always remember this as the day I met Nan Kempner.) Walking into Saint Laurent’s usual haunt on Tuesday night, a pharaonic tent built just yards from the Eiffel Tower, I was overcome with déjà vu. The low walkway lit by a series of massive gilded chandeliers was the Intercontinental Redux. Saint Laurent’s resident conductor Anthony Vaccarello insisted he wanted something more intimate after last season’s epic reel around the fountain, but intimacy is clearly a moving feast when today’s billions of fashion moguls begin their luscious hustle.

And indeed, Saint Laurent’s spectacular mise-en-scène made a rather interesting point. Saint Laurent is no longer just a name or a look. It is also emblematic of a time, of a place, the Intercontinental salon in 1987, for example. It is history. Maria Grazia Chiuri acknowledged this when talking about the vintage map of Paris she used as a scarf print at Dior’s latest ready-to-wear show. She was delighted that Christian Dior’s haute couture salon on Avenue Montaigne was put on the map alongside the museums and monuments that have always defined the city in the eyes of the world.

If the collection that Vaccarello unveiled didn’t exactly make more history, it was a more tangible acknowledgment of the moment than he’s been showing lately. As usual, he crafted a message throughout the show, which can be summed up as a powerful outfit. He listed the components: minimal, classic, pure, basic, a reaction to last season’s monumentalism. “No tra-la-la, no style tricks.” The models’ hair was combed evenly, small heads. They all wore aviators, nullifying the individual. The jacket’s shoulders were remarkably wide and straight (they required a completely new construction), now in classic menswear fabrics, now in leather, over a simple silk tank top and a jupe suit, a tailored skirt or leggings. It was a tough look, unfermented by evening wear. Vaccarello thought this perhaps reflected the fact that he found the collection difficult to work with, due to time constraints. And perhaps that’s why he made a compensatory effort to inject a flowing, complementary softness into the transparency of the mousseline skirts, or the plaid-sized scarves that draped the torsos or floated like long trains.

If Chiuri adopted Juliette Greco and Edith Piaf in the 1950s as his arch-Parisians, Vaccarello opted for Saint Laurent’s standard-bearer, Catherine Deneuve, in the 1990s as his own. His filmography in that decade is cause for reflection. No specific look. Just shadows gathered around a time, a place.

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