23-Nov, 06:51

12:48, January 26 293 0

2017-01-26 12:48:10
Critic's Notebook: Wonderful Runway Shows From Two American Designers in Paris

PARIS — They make an odd couple, Thom Browne and Rick Owens, with apparently little to link them beyond nationality. Yet as Americans showing in Paris, the two designers are united in joining a long line of their countrymen who have chosen to present groundbreaking work in a city that opens its arms to select immigrants, if not exactly to all.

“Thom started showing here because he knew there was space in Paris for what he was doing,” Miki Higasa, a New York-based brand strategist who has been with Mr. Browne from the start, said before his men’s wear show last Sunday, held in an event center on the city’s desolate perimeter.

Far from the historic heart of Paris, this section of the 19th Arrondissement often has the look of a metropolis unraveling. Syrian refugees panhandle by the roadsides near the Avenue de la Porte de la Villette, while encampments of homeless African men warm themselves over fires on a highway median. The choice of location for the Browne show sharpened a viewer’s sense of untenable contrasts: on one hand, a masterly demonstration of audacious skills by a designer obsessed with control and order, and on the other, a feeling that, just outside the Paris Event Center, the center barely holds.

Against a set composed of 30 thick felt pattern pieces arranged in piles, like off-cuts from a Robert Morris sculpture, and lighted by 30 suspended fluorescent workroom lamps, Mr. Browne’s presentation was an extended essay on the deconstruction of his signature suit of gray herringbone wool.

First, models in face-concealing helmets, wearing wool bodysuits studded with woolen “buttons,” shirts with cuffs flowing to the floor and boots that rendered their feet unpliable as hooves, crept around the perimeter, barely able to see or move. They were followed by men dressed in a series of sculptural pieces that blasted apart the suit and pieced it back together in two dimensions, like constructivist Colorforms. The result was an abstract, westernized version of battle dress worn by samurai.

If you looked hard enough, it was possible to detect commercial elements in what was mostly a performance art piece (one perhaps in need of a dramaturge). Yet increasingly it is evident that Mr. Browne’s collections are pitched toward his posterity — the inevitable museum retrospective — and equally that his sculptural clothing is armor to protect the wearer from a hostile world.

Mr. Owens, too, approaches fashion with a sculptor’s eye to build collections often mischaracterized as reflecting a dystopian vision. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like Mr. Browne, Mr. Owens is a designer fixated on fitness and anatomical control. Yet in his work, by contrast, the messy psyche concealed behind a perfected bodybuilder exterior has a way of erupting — exuberant, unruly, insistently alive.

As always in a Rick Owens show, there was plenty to please retailers — here, a bunch of purposely mauled jackets and coats of patchwork leather and linen horizontally striped and worn over trousers of slipcover proportions and shoes with clodhopper soles and a protruding shelf at the heel. But that stuff was just a pretext for Mr. Owens to play with volumes, primarily in a series of draped and knotted down-filled garments extruded and bulging, torqued and billowing, battling or succumbing to gravity in ways that evoked Nancy Rubins sculptures, by way of Charles James.

Unlikely pairings were threaded through the shows here, pinging off one another delightfully. There was Olivier Rousteing’s wacko collection for Balmain of rags so madly bejeweled and studded that they looked like something dreamed up by an amphetamine-addled pro wrestler on an Etsy binge. And there was the compendious and enjoyable coed collection presented by Carol Lim and Humberto Leon for Kenzo, inspired, the designers noted, by arctic surfers, a subculture few knew existed before Sunday night.

There were the finely balanced collections presented by Haider Ackermann, making his debut at Berluti, and by Véronique Nichanian, a seasoned designer at Hermès. Each was deceptively easy, and each featured wardrobe elements for members of another subculture almost as exotic as that of the wet-suited kooks riding the frigid breaks off Iceland’s Troll Peninsula: the ultrarich.

Who, one wonders, are the guys for whom Ms. Nichanian creates? The answer continues to stump this critic, and yet what remains clear is that lucky is the man who can afford her handsome shearling blouson jackets, high-waist trousers cut both wide and narrow, slouchy belted trenches and pullovers of sheepskin sheared to look like cable knit.

Similarly blessed by karma is the Berluti customer who can indulge in one of the double-breasted suits with high-cuffed trousers that Mr. Ackerman sent onto a plywood runway in his first outing since taking over from Alessandro Sartori as creative director of a label that is the pet project of Antoine Arnault, son of Bernard Arnault, reportedly the richest man in France.

Briefly, a delusion took hold of me during the Hermès show on Sunday as the Austrian model Serge Rigvava sauntered onto the runway clad in an immaculately cut six-button double-breasted suit of verdigris velvet. For a span of some seconds, I indulged the fantasy of taking up citizenship in this world of costly luxury consumer goods. Then I remembered my Verizon bill was past due, and the dream abruptly ended: visa revoked.