Valentino Channels Vermeer, Lemaire Brings Hermès to the Library

Valentino’s Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have the fashion world at their feet, and, judging from their sinuous, sensual, minimal Fall 2013 collection, this isn’t going to change any time soon.

Even in the enormous Espace Ephémère, the show tent pitched in the Jardins Tuileries, with seats running up the walls and two extra double rows in the middle, the show had the hushed quality of a piano recital. To enhance the almost chilling beauty of the clothes was a long repeat of Michael Nyman’s “The Sacrifice” from the soundtrack of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993).

The show notes cited magic realism, Flemish master paintings, and a “glorification of everyday life” as the inspiration behind the collection, but the clothes offered something more than that. Chiuri and Piccioli began by putting rococo white lace collars and cuffs on black dresses so very short, simple, and stand-away, they could have been coats.The effect was of the precious, starched Sunday best of well-bred little girls for time immemorial.

From the stark black and royal blue opener, Valentino segued into tapestry embroidery flowers across busts and down sleeves on black grounds, a new Valentino trademark in the Chiuri and Piccioli era. White collars served as the collection’s backbone, showing up in some way on almost every piece, but in so many different forms they were never repetitive. Looks were paired with t-straps in black and white with a white suede underlayer, mimicking a girl’s socquette. The curlicue grillwork on white-on-white and black-on-black, large, flat square satchels echoed Valentino’s Spring 2013 couture collection.

Monkish, minimal peaked cape coats followed suit, one worn with matching pants in ecru crepe, and then along traipsed an angora dress with inset lace skirt and collar, as soft as a baby’s blanket, and so seductively ladylike. The fireworks heated up with ermine tail fur; the collection’s most over the top concoction consisting of a split-front overskirt atop a white mini coat dress, topped by a black stiff mesh grillwork elbow length sleeve bodice covered with arabesques in white fur over a sheer chiffon basic man’s white shirt.

All the softness and embellishments led to stiff, matte motorcycle leather for capes and hooded duffel coats; followed by series of minimalist gowns that looked more painted than sewn. The best one, which glided out in Valentino red, had a plunging neckline extending to the far edges of the shoulders, held in check with barely visible white insets—a golden Dutch age vision of femininity, which could have walked out of a scene by Vermeer, or Gerard ter Borch’s The Gallant Conversation.

At this point, Valentino’s Fall collection was perfectly complete, but in Italy, and especially in Rome, enough is never enough. The designers went to Delft for royal blue, delicate china patterns embroidered on the white mesh skeleton of a simple scoop-neck, long, skinny-sleeve gowns.

The library at Paris’s Lycée Henri IV is a favorite style ground for intellectual designers, and so it was the ideal backdrop for Christophe Lemaire’s coming of age at Hermès.

After a little over two years designing the house’s womenswear, he’s already had his ups and downs. But this time, Lemaire found his voice, and it’s a beautiful, modern, minimalist tenor. “Hermès is special,” says Lemaire. “We’re both a bit off to the side in the fashion field. I think we’re deeper.” To underscore Hermès’ laid-back, family side, Lemaire filled the entire library (the complete space, a series of interlocking rooms, has never been used for a show previously) with a mix of mid-century chairs for each person who attended. After drinks served by white-coated waiters, Lemaire quietly brought out the collection. “It’s for a woman with a small chest and shoulders,” he explained. “It’s probably a bit less oversized than in the past. I wanted this to be classic in a cool way. I’ve mixed a lot of linens with different leathers and beautiful wools to show the density of the materials. I wanted the girls to look mysterious.”

Mission accomplished; Lemaire’s Hermès lady wears her hair long, almost like Veronica Lake or Lauren Bacall (styled by Odile Gilbert), in undulating waves dropping slightly over one eye. The collection played up texture and kept shapes rigorously linear. Skirts—a high-waisted, smooth calfskin sweeper, or a cigarette skirt in brown crocodile—are dramatic. Trousers are also high-waisted and some have a play of felt stripes down the sides. Jackets are naturally assertive: a black moiré calfskin blouson is paired with a matching shell over trousers, and another suit jacket without collar or lapels has a V-neck, which plunges to the waist and is quietly cinched over a wide, flowing skirt.