The alchemy was off at the house of Mugler, where Lady Gaga's stylist, Nicola Formichetti, again failed to live up to his reputation as a sort of Generation Y Midas who turns everything he touches into gold.
Formichetti's second effort as Mugler creative director fizzled Wednesday, as the label fielded a less-than-convincing spring-summer 2012 ready-to-wear collection of willfully wacky sci-fi garb in neutral shades. It was as if the show, which garnered only a tepid round of applause before fashion insiders fled into the hot Paris night, had been tailor-made to drive home a crucial point: That buzz does not a fashion house make.
No one knows that better than Dries Van Noten, the modest and affable Belgian designer who, working quietly over the past quarter century, has built an empire on the quality of his clothes alone. Van Noten delivered another tour de force Wednesday, with a collection of sculptural skirts and jackets printed with cityscapes by night.
It looked as if Damir Doma were following in Van Noten's footsteps, not aesthetically _ the designers have radically different visions _ but by allowing his clothes to mature naturally and to speak for themselves.
Rochas' Marco Zanini held fast to his chaste vision of early 1960-era glamour with a slight patina of nerdiness, and big, bold retro-futuristic glamour was in the air at Brazilian wunderkind Pedro Lourenco's polished show.
Zippers to nowhere embellished the peppy sportswear numbers from Portugal's Felipe Oliveira Baptista, and models were encased in cages and plastic masks at the day's most disturbing display, by soft-spoken British bad boy Gareth Pugh.
Paris' nine-day-long ready-to-wear extravaganza moves into day three on Thursday with shows by California-born designer Rick Owens, coveted Paris label Balmain and Indian madcap Manish Arora.
DRIES VAN NOTEN
Romantic, boulder-strewn landscapes and anonymous cityscapes _ their neon lights shining in the dark _ were the dreamscapes of Van Noten's haunting spring-summer collection.
The Belgian critical darling projected these topos onto the ladylike shapes of 1950s-era couture, sending out classic bell-shaped shirts and ample cocoon coats illuminated by urban lights or covered in dramatic black and white etchings of mountains and waterfalls.
Suddenly, the mothball-laden retro air that clings to these shapes evaporated, replaced by a crisp, of-the-moment freshness.
These were the kind of clothes that you would never suspect you could want, but once you see them, you can think of nothing else.
Whether he dresses her in meat or swathes her in a gown made entirely out of stuffed animals, Formichetti can do no wrong when it comes to outfitting Lady Gaga. But at his day job as Mugler creative director, the stylist has yet to hit on the winning formula.
After his widely panned debut at Mugler last season with a collection that was all about plastic pants and other garments normally sold at sex shops, Formichetti was back Wednesday with a radically different _ but no more successful _ approach to spring-summer 2012.
Gone were the bustier dresses in transparent latex, replaced by what could only be described as the wardrobe of a sophisticated Trekkie with a penchant for demure neutral shades. Taupe catsuits were riddled with oblong cutouts, and futuristic pointy-shouldered jackets in camel were hung with a complicated web of useless bands.
A step up from last season? Undoubtedly.
But did it feel like Mugler? Sadly, no.
Relaunching a storied fashion house is no easy task, particularly with a label with as strong an identity as that of Mugler. But it increasingly feels like Formichetti and the brand's ready-to-wear designer, Sebastien Peigne, are grasping at straws, trying to come up with an outrageous new look that can become the brands new identity instead of finding a way to update its historical legacy.
The label continues to be oriented away from its past and its rich archive and focused nearly exclusively on its new muse, Lady Gaga, the trump card that Formichetti pulls out again and again.
Though not present in the flesh as she was last season _ when she walked the catwalk in a sheer black tip and painted-on pencil skirt _ the pop sensation was there in spirit on Wednesday night: The show opened with a video showing the singer, fitted out with two glow-in-the-dark buck teeth, praising Mugler.
But having a video of the world's biggest star is simply not the same thing as seeing strut her stuff on the catwalk, and the show fell flat even before it started.
If Yves Saint Laurent was widely hailed as a feminist for freeing women from pinching bustiers and nip-waisted dresses, what does that make Pugh, who sent models out in convict stripes, leather cages and head-englobing plastic tears?
Pugh's artistry is easy enough to appreciate: From a purely aesthetic point of view, his abbreviated sheath dresses made out of vertical strips of black or white leather were indisputably beautiful.
But as clothing, meant to be worn by women, there was something deeply disturbing about the cage garments _ particularly when fitted with matching cage muzzles, as they were at Wednesday's ready-to-wear show. Beyond the jarring antifeminist context, the clothes were simply too rigid to be anything more than statement pieces for women determined to make a big entrance.
Pugh's misogynistic message didn't end there, though. The show's finale saw models clad in layers of gleaming gray robes and jackets that looked as if they'd been fished out of an oil spill, their heads completely encased in elongated plastic masks.
If the caged girls were barely able to move, these poor models looked as if they were hard-pressed even to breathe.
"Mad Men" has been off the air for months, but Rochas' Zanini is betting on the enduring popularity of the ladylike retro styles the hit show helped to relaunch.
For spring-summer, Zanini delivered sober sheath dresses and demure V-necked gowns with full skirts and skinny belts in ivory, powder pink and seafoam green that felt like they'd been plucked straight out of the first two seasons of the AMC series.
With its modest lines, Wednesday's collection was more demure housewife than va-va-voom secretary, or in "Mad Men" terms, more Betty Draper than Joan Holloway. You could almost picture the sullen Ms. Draper skulking around her kitchen in one of the poof-skirted shirtdresses.
A certain frigidity infused the whole collection: Taupe pencil skirts were worn with plain-fronted blazers that stood stiffly out from the models' bodies, and knit sweaters and skirts shot with Lurex had a prudish bulkiness about them.
The models' hairdos _ towering beehives topped off with organza handkerchiefs _ did nothing to ramp up the sexiness factor, nor did the eyewear, pointy hornrim glasses.
Still, not all clothes have to ooze sex appeal, and Zanini's sober, almost nerdy, styles have plenty of other attributes to recommend them.
Like a stone tumbled and polished into a gleaming gem, Doma buffed his signature raw, hermetic aesthetic until it shone with understated sophistication.
For spring-summer, the Croatian-born, German-raised designer delivered Wednesday simple-lined dresses in supple washed silks, their raw edges embellished with flashes of hammered gold hardware.
The heavy raw fabrics and bulky shapes that Doma has built his name on were still there, but in more refined incarnations, as if he'd taken a buffer to his signature stone-hewn silhouettes.
And whereas his previous collections have felt earthy _ their nubby fabrics heavy and almost loamy _ Wednesday's collection was more connected to the air.
Whisper-light trench coats that billowed like capes were worn over shorts in gleaming gold lace, and square-cut pillowcase dresses were fitted out with panels like floating tails.
Doma also branched out from his usual palette of somber shades and neutral tones, delivering fetching pairings of navy and ocher that were themselves a breath of fresh air.
It was another strong showing from one of Paris' most unique new talents.
With a spring-summer collection that seemed drawn from the same well of retro-futuristic cool as the ne plus ultra of Paris labels, Balenciaga, Lourenco underscored his status as one to watch.
Lourenco, a Brazilian who was just 19 years old when he made his impressive Paris debut a year and a half ago, ratcheted it up a notch with Wednesday's collection of colorblocked dresses and low-slung skirts and cropped trousers that couldn't have been cooler if they'd tried.
A-line skirts hung with long leather fringe, like straw, were paired sheer tank tops and punctuated at the waist by oversized rectangular panels in shiny silver lurex. Sleeveless vests with sculptural collars were worn with oatmeal-colored pants that had just the right dose of slouch.
Though Lourenco's collection felt fresh, the sweet spot he hit between a kind of hokey but appealing retro look and something sleek and futuristic was not uncharted territory: Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquiere has been mining it for seasons.
Still, there are worse things than winning comparisons with Paris' hottest label.
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