From the Tuileries gardens to place Vendôme, the Left Bank to the Grand Palais, the winds of change are blowing through the stores, the ateliers and the seams on the dresses of Paris’s most revered fashion houses. Of course, fresh appointments and shifting sands are nothing new in the world of fashion, focused as it is on change season after season, but this autumn/winter, more than ever, the front rows will be on tenterhooks due to a major changing of the guard. New names are taking the reins at some of the capital’s best-loved labels. The French hold some of these – Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent – as symbols of national pride, so it’s no doubt with some trepidation that new designers prepare to steer them through 2012 and beyond.
One of the most talked about appointments was Bernard Arnault’s replacement for John Galliano at the house of Dior. Arnault, the chair of LVMH, which counts Dior among its portfolio of luxury brands, took his time, a full year, before handing the role to Raf Simons, former Jil Sander creative director and head of his own eponymous menswear label. Since the 1940s, Dior has become a byword for feminine romanticism. The collections of John Galliano, particularly in his work for the couture side of the house, underlined all that was ornate, gilded and lavish about the legacy of Dior, from Edwardian mistresses to models made to echo the style of Southern belle Blanche DuBois. How will the Belgian modernist Simons adapt to the house profile?
While Simons gained his early experience as a menswear designer, focusing on conceptual streetwear and urban cool, trends from his Jil Sander catwalk have appeared in every high-street store in Europe and he is arguably the most influential designer of the past few years. His farewell collection at Sander was perhaps his most feminine and sensitive yet, a love letter to mid-century glamour written in crisp, petal-pink gowns with neat gloves and veils – the perfect gateway, it might seem, to the dove-grey doors of Christian Dior.
In this game of fashion musical chairs, it’s interesting to note that Christian Dior himself announced his own successor before his untimely death 10 years after he set up the house. That successor was a painfully shy, whippet-thin young man named Yves Saint Laurent, who started with Dior as a lowly studio hand. At that revered and oh-so-sensual Paris house, the doors revolve once more to bid farewell to Stefano Pilati and welcome the cutting-edge Hedi Slimane, who previously headed the YSL menswear department.
Part of Yves Saint Laurent’s identity has always been a sense of feminine allure, of potent, sophisticated glamour and a love of exoticism – Saint Laurent was the man who put women in trouser suits and safari outfits, who plundered gypsy culture and the boho style of Morocco. He was fearless in his designs and he and Slimane share this trait. Slimane’s work at Dior Homme made headlines for shrinking the male silhouette into a rock-star look, ushering in the age of skinny, making men everywhere long for jutting hipbones and the sartorial dash of Mick Jagger. His YSL debut was immediately electric with controversy: all press were banned from the showing of his first resort collection, leaving even Anna Wintour, the most powerful woman in fashion, to rely on information from the select group of boutique buyers that were present.
There are also new nameplates on the doors of other renowned Paris labels. At Azzaro, Mathilde Castello Branco, who trained under Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, prepares for a second season, after her quiet debut which interpreted the high-octane 70s glamour of the house in her own unique way. Azzaro is known for its association with celebrities such as Marisa Berenson, Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch; Branco says she intends to bring a mixture of ‘sophistication and sensuality’ to the house that once dressed them. ‘For me, it’s about bringing that sensibility into the modern day, exploring new ways with the house’s identity. It really is a dream come true.’
Another iconic house that defined a decade, this time the 60s, is also set to reinvent itself on the Paris stage. Paco Rabanne, the sleeping beauty who brought the world plastic boots, go-go boots and 60s modernism – has signed up former Givenchy designer Lydia Maurer to embrace the 21st century. The stage is set for a winter fashion opera like no other, with a whole new cast of leading men and women.