A radical trend has hit France's fashion week – and it's three British designers are leading the charge.
It is 10 o’clock on a Monday morning, and in the beaux arts splendour of the Paris Opera, fashion week is in full swing. Everyone is here, and I mean everyone – Mozart and Rossini standing guard from their stone columns outside, Pegasus and Apollo gazing down from the soaring gilt ceiling, Paul McCartney and Carine Roitfeld in the front row. Stella – everyone just says Stella, darling; it’s like Oprah or Madonna – is about to show her new collection. At the breakfast stand, there is coffee and little tubs of fresh fruit. (Next to the tubs of fruit, there are also – as a concession to any greedy imposters – tubs of fresh fruit with dollops of yoghurt. No one touches those.)
And then a hush falls and the show starts with the beginning of a Ludacris track that mimics Tiger Woods’ infamous voicemail message: “I need you to do me a huge favour . . . um . . . can you please take my name . . . um . . . off your phone . . . my girl went through my cellphone and, er, she may be calling you . . .” It has no relevance to fashion, as far as anyone can tell, but it slices through the pomp of the setting like tailor’s scissors and makes everyone laugh. And then the first model appears, very lightly made-up, her hair neatly parted and combed back into a low ponytail. She is wearing a grey wool coat, immaculately cut at the shoulder and straight-edged to mid-thigh, entirely unornamented but for a simple notch in the lapel. She has a grey dress on underneath, just seen, and simple, beige pointy-toed kitten heels. No handbag. After the sugar-almond colours and lingerie ruffles that flooded Paris last season, it is as if someone walked in and sliced the icing off the top of a cupcake. The over-sugared Parisian femininity is gone, and in its place is fashion for grown-ups.
The style revolution happening in Paris right now is being led by three thirtysomething British women: Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo and Hannah MacGibbon. They are at the forefront of a new mood here, taking up where Helmut Lang left off and updating minimalism for a new generation. “Feminine minimalism” is the closest it has to a name, right now. The change of direction can be clearly seen in catwalk reports everywhere from Twitter to the Herald Tribune: in lavishing praise on collections, “precise” is the new “fabulous”; the best shows are no longer “dazzling”, but “clean” and “serene”. To picture the new look, start by visualising a simple coat, probably in camel but possibly in grey, black, navy or even (for the extroverts out there) a very dark bottle green. (The coats next season are going to be incredible. If you get through AW10/11 without buying two, you can consider yourself a beacon of restraint.) It will probably be collarless, but if it does have a collar it will be of a masculine shape. Add trousers – pencil slim, or wide with a knife-crease down the front – or a pencil skirt, a silk T-shirt, or a blouse.
Before we get back to the catwalk, a slight digression, because I think it’s interesting to note what McCartney, Philo and MacGibbon themselves wore to take their catwalk bows. (I don’t believe for one second that they don’t think every bit as carefully about what they wear as John Galliano, who appeared at the end of his equestrian-themed show in a ruffled white silk blouse, grey high-waisted suede jodhpurs and shiny black boots.) McCartney wore a V-neck sweater with flannel trousers and high heels, all grey, her hair in a looser version of her models’ low ponytails. Philo wore a black crew-neck sweater and black trousers, with her hair scraped back; MacGibbon wore a camel polo-neck and black trousers, with camel boots, hair back. Getting the picture yet?
Stella was many British fashion editors’ most shoppable collection this week, but it is Philo who can claim credit for starting the minimalism revolution last October, with her first collection for Céline. That show – all sharp lines and patch pockets, very little colour, no decoration, a narrow-but-boxy silhouette – seemed to shock the city into spring-cleaning mode. In ateliers all over Paris, spools of ribbon and boxes of crystal beads have been shoved into cupboards under the stairs. “Strong. Powerful. Reduced” was Philo’s message for her second season, which introduced new elements – navy blue, double-breasted jackets – while underscoring her determination to make Céline the home of this new minimalism.
Céline is not for the fainthearted (those very stark looks are not as easy to carry off as they look). Hannah MacGibbon’s Chloé gave a blowsier take on the new aesthetic, for those not yet confident of the wow-factor (off the catwalk) of such plain clothes. Bouncy, blown-out hair and a gorgeous range of beige shades from toffee through camel to Elastoplast pink made this the perfect entry-level collection: feminine minimalism for beginners, if you like. (Personally, the camel coat and trousers with denim shirt was probably my favourite look of the whole week.)
No fashion trend ever gets everyone singing the same tune – one of the best collections this week was Louis Vuitton, which was quite different, a paean to curvy 1950s and 1960s icons, from Brigitte Bardot to Grace Kelly – but there were echoes of the minimalist look bouncing off catwalks all over Paris, sometimes where it was least expected. Giambattista Valli, king of what I think of as the cupcake-cocktail-dress, opened his show with a simple camel coat. Cerrutti, where this season brought the first collection by London-based Australian designer Richard Nicoll, was strongest when it was simplest: patch pockets, tone-on-tone outfits (loved the teal-with-navy), collarless, sleeveless jackets. Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci gave the Lang-esque key pieces of next season – slim trousersuits, double-breasted tailored coats over polo-necks – his own signature gothic twist, with slashes of blood red at the throat and sheer, high-necked white blouses.
And then, just when we were thinking the new look was so simple and wearable, Stefano Pilati’s Yves Saint Laurent had everyone scratching their heads. There were habits, and capes, and calf-length black wool dresses belted with a long gold rope. So most of the audience thought, reasonably enough, it was something to do with nuns. But, oh no. Pilati categorically denied there was any allusion to religion whatsoever. If you’re not trying to look like a nun, is a habit a good look? Um, to be honest – not so much, having seen that show. What I loved, though, were the straight-cut satin dresses, the simple blouses, and the plain black trousers. Funny that.