Paris: Fashionistas breathed a fatigued sigh of relief as the spring-summer 2011 ready-to-wear collections, which took them from New York to London to Milan and finally to Paris for nine days, wrapped up on Wednesday with an equestrian show at French heritage saddle-maker Hermes. It marked the end of designer Jean Paul Gaultier's seven-year tenure there.
As riders put their dressage horses through their paces in a chandelier-topped arena at the end of the catwalk, Gaultier paid homage to Hermes' long and illustrious history of leather-work with a collection of chic equestrian garb in buttery suede and calfskin.
The one-time enfant terrible of French fashion will continue to release his signature line, while a designer who cut his teeth at the crocodile-embossed sportswear line Lacoste takes over the reins at Hermes.
Aross-town rival Louis Vuitton, which began as a trunk-maker, sent out a cross-pollinated collection that combined glossy Chinese shapes with African safari motifs. The collection, Marc Jacobs' strongest for the brand for several seasons, shot the darkly sensual clothes with a stiff dose of self-mocking kitsch.
Miu Miu's collection was full of contradictions, mixing demure pleated skirts with oversized leather jackets that bore exploding star appliqués.
Red carpet-favorite Elie Saab toned down the glam factor with a relaxed 1970s-infused collection in peachy hues, while Russia's Valentin Yudashkin glammed it up with ultra-short bustier dresses for jet-setting party girls.
A 1970s spirit took catwalks in New York and Milan by storm, and though there was some retro hippy peace and love references in a few of the Paris collections, the most salient trends to emerge from the City of Light were transparency and clean white looks. From Yves Saint Laurent to Givenchy, designers cocooned opaque shorts, pants and little skirts with long skirts in sheer chiffon and tulle.
And while Milan was all about saturated jewel tones, there were few Paris collections that didn't open with an all-white look. Men's white button-down shirts, worn as dresses or morphed into capes or even little skirts, were also omnipresent here.
There's a six-month-long respite now before the next round of ready-to-wear collections, for fall-winter 2011-2012, which hits Paris in early March.
It was hard to know where to look - at the models in fetching equestrian garb of supple leather, or the breathtaking dressage horses strutting their stuff at the far end of the catwalk.
Models in jodhpurs and bustiers in caramel-coloured leather, with fringed suede ponchos thrown jauntily over their shoulders, tramped the catwalk, which was made like a riding arena, out of wood chips, in equestrian boots. Flat-topped felt Seville riding school hats topped off all the looks and riding crops competed with the brand's best-selling Kelly bags, served up for summer in leather and wicker, to be the season's top accessory.
There were touches of the kinky edge that designer Gaultier, who shot to global fame with Madonna's pointy-cone bra, has brought to the very classic and bourgeois label over the years, like the belts that wound around the models' torsos and fastened around their necks like, well, horse harnesses.
Despite the spectacular show, there was a whiff of sadness in the air over Gaultier's departure from Hermes.
"Jean Paul has brought so much to the house of Hermes, a light touch, new shapes even a bit of transgression," the label's CEO, Patrick Thomas, said in a post-show interview. "He will be very much missed.”
Gaultier called his work with Hermes a "love story”. But, he told a frantic scrum of reporters after the show, "like all love stories, it has an end”.
At first, it looked like just another Chinese-themed collection. But the set, stuffed lions on gleaming faux marble pedestals set the tone for something much more interesting, a cross-cultural hybrid that mixed high-gloss Shanghai with the big game of the Serengeti plain.
Cheongsam dresses were served up in sequin zebra stripes and giraffes emblazoned Mao-collared pyjama suits. Pencil skirts in jewel toned satin were paired with sweaters with sequined lions and wide, low-slung sequined belts that glimmered darkly like Chinese lacquer. Spaghetti-strapped gowns were hung with tassels or entirely covered in purple and fuchsia-beaded fringes.
With Wednesday's collection, the label's celebrity designer, Marc Jacobs, managed to inject the collection's darkly seductive glamour with a dose of humour and self-aware kitschiness: You could almost imagine the models as high-class gangster molls from a 1970s-era Chinese mob movie which had a cheesy plot, but sumptuous costumes.
It was Jacobs' strongest collection for the French luxury supernova in several seasons- much better than fall-winter 2010-2011's ladylike 1950s looks in thick tweed that made the curvy supermodels look frumpy.
That said, it would have been nice to see Jacobs stick with last season's bodacious models, with their generous womanly forms, instead of the usual cast of teenage waifs that took back Vuitton's catwalk on Wednesday.
The typical Miu Miu woman is never extreme.
At first glance, the label's spring-summer 2011 woman appears to be a demure bourgeois housewife in a chemisier dresse with a high neckline and skirt that hit beneath the knees. But on closer inspection, she really wasn't all that prim and proper.
The collection paired satin dresses and pleated A-line skirts with oversized leather jackets in silver and gold lame with star-shaped appliqués that looked like cartoon electric shocks.
"She's a good girl gone bad," said front-row guest Julia Restoin Roitfeld, the 30-year-old daughter of the editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris. "With all that leather and the stars, it's a real mix between rock and roll and the goody-goody girl. I love that."
Shown in a wooden-plank-floored tent, installed for the occasion in the gardens of Paris' Palais Royal, Wednesday's collection seemed like a radical departure from last season's ultra-short dresses, in wool, adorned with oversized flowers.
Both winter's girly-girl in her too-short skirts and spring-summer's rock 'n' roll bourgeois lady share the same ambiguous, Miu Miu spirit that embraces contradictions.
Life was just peachy at Elie Saab, with an easy, breezy collection in dusty shades of orange.
The Lebanese designer, whose sequin-soaked goddess gowns have made him the go-to man for the red carpet, toned down the bling, sending out softer silhouettes with less sparkle than usual. (Still, Saab's legions of Hollywood fans can breathe easy: There were more than enough high-wattage gowns to see them through the awards season.)
His palette of muted tangerine, salmon and nectarine hues was unique and a welcome change from the more vampy shades Saab normally favors. Though just how flattering these colours would actually look against the skin is up for debate.
Saab's shapes, too, were softer than usual, and it was clear that he'd come down with a case of 1970s fever that spread through New York and Milan. His silk jersey gowns, cinched below the bust with gold chains, looked like they would have appealed to Farrah Fawcett, as would a pair of pretty jumpsuits.
"These were the colors and shapes of my youth, so they have a lot of meaning for me," Saab said as a bevy of Lebanese clients clamored for a photo with the designer while strains of a medley of '70s hits sounded overhead.
The soundtrack had the audience grooving. Throughout almost the entire show, two ladies dressed in head-to-toe leopard print danced in pace to booming tunes.
It was an A-list fashion crowd that descended on the Russian couturier's show. Fashion powerhouses including Paris Vogue editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld took in Yudashkin's glamazon collection, which looked sure to seduce jet-set party girls in Russia and beyond. The abbreviated bustier dresses, with sculptural hips of draped jewel-tone chiffon, were set for the dance floor and the artful gowns were l red carpet-ready.
Yudashkin, a jaunty, bow-tie-wearing designer who's been showing in Paris for decades, said he drew inspiration from dolls that come from a region near Siberia, and the influence of Russian folk motifs was palpable: A sharp skirt suit in drab, with a tomato-red belt, was channeling a chic Soviet uniform, while the flirty skits with sculpted hips looked like the traditional garb of Russian peasants of centuries past.