Want to Understand Paris Fashion? Here’s the Ideal History


Azzadine Alaïa

Azzadine Alaïa. Photo: Courtesy Musée des arts décoratifs

This is installment two of the “Ideal History” of modern Paris fashion by the Musée de mode et de textile. Part one covered the 1970s and 1980s and now we get the years between 1990 and 2000. These 150 examples feature some of the art’s great names and introduce the couture we know as “contemporary.”

Maison Martin Margiela

Maison Martin Margiela. Photo: Courtesy Musée des arts décoratifs

What’s on show is not just historic. Thanks to the hordes of art students the exhibition attracts, visitors are surrounded by up-to-the-minute Parisian styles. This provides a lively atmosphere, although most eyes remain glued to a show that takes you from the monochromatic “Belgian School” of Ann Demeleumeester, Martin Margiela and Véronique Branquinho through the Japanese-led revolution of Comme des garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake—all the way to glamorous Galliano.


Prada. Photo: Courtesy Musée des arts décoratifs

At the time, opposing currents were pulling at Paris fashion. When Tom Ford took over Gucci and Miuccia Prada started work, both intended to make luxury fashion bigger business. Yet, at the same time, Hussein Chalayan and Nicolas Ghesquière were following in the oldest of traditions, each perfecting a rarefied, personal universe. Attitudes were divided among other couturiers. But they’re all here: Jean Paul Gaultier, Helmut Lang, Christian Lacroix, Alber Elbaz, Karl Lagerfeld and more.


Mise-en-scène. Photo: Courtesy Musée des arts décoratifs

Few things could be more delicious than studying elegant clothes. Plus, as one progresses from minimalism to wonderful tailoring, then to epic theatricality, this clever exposition creates its own narrative, aided by a witty and inventive mise-en-scène. Huge mirrors showcase the clothes in full 3-D plus, for each designer, entire collections unreel on film. You can spend 20 minutes at any one of these, enjoying a personal “private view” beside the catwalk.
The expo illuminates an era that revived Paris fashion, filling it with fresh provocations and publicity. Yet, so many years after Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet, it’s interesting to learn a central role was played by three different women. 

Fashion by Rei Kawakubo

Rei Kawakubo. Photo: Guy Picard/Courtesy Musée des arts décoratifs

First to challenge everyone on the scene was Rei Kawakubo. Working more as an artist than a “designer,” she did it by literally reshaping the body—padding, inflating and drastically sculpting. Around the same time, a deep love for textiles led Miuccia Prada to redefine the look of luxury (something she achieved with a discretion the French worship). Finally, there is la grande dame Vivienne Westwood. A lifelong Francophile, her obsessions (tartan, corsets, crinolines and combining punk with the 18th century) were passed on to heirs Gaultier, McQueen and John Galliano.
My verdict: unmissable, but allow plenty of time. Every single fan of Paris fashion makes a pilgrimage here. Plus you may find yourself staring at the films for hours.

John Galliano for Dior. Photo: Guy Picard/Courtesy Musée des arts décoratifs

Be sure to see:
• Issey Miyake’s trio of figures in sculptural black and silver (pleats created after fabrication), in witty hats made from domestic objects
• Azzedine Alaïa’s incredible V-neck, ice-blue siren dress
• The 30-minute film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? a 2004 collection choreographed by Michael Clark for Alexander McQueen
• The pair of John Galliano ensembles for Dior that boasts wide hats, English redingotes, wide ruffled skirts and platform shoes copied from Venetian courtesans; all covered in gold dust

Histoire idéale de la mode contemporaine, by Olivier Saillard

If you can’t bear to leave:
• Take home the book, Olivier Saillard’s 600-page Histoire idéale de la mode contemporaine, 45 euros. A must for all Paris fashion fans and available at the museum’s boutique, 107 Rivoli.
“The Ideal History of Contemporary Fashion, 1990–2000” (Histoire idéale de la mode contemporaine, 1990–2000), at the Musée de mode et de textile, runs until May 8, 2011. Hours and ticket information can be found here.

Related links:

Rei Kawakubo
Miuccia Prada
Vivienne Westwood
Michael Clark
107 Rivoli
Editor’s note: Fashionistas love these Paris hotels: Mama Shelter, Hôtel Murano and the new Hôtel Konfidentiel.