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Couture Week: Americans in Paris

Rachel Tashjian

Rachel Tashjian

As newly added "guest designers" to the show schedule, Proenza Schouler and Rodarte both proved that all they needed was a little bit of Parisian beauty to pull off a great collection.

In the weeks leading up to the Spring/Summer Couture shows, which began yesterday in Paris, the two new American guest designers Proenza Schouler and Rodarte were put on the defensive: were they up to the task of showing amidst the members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, whose ranks comprise the world's most technically and artistically advanced designers? (Proenza, for their part, told us they were more than game.)

But people often forget that Parisians have always been enamored of Americans'creative energy, from the Lost Generation and James Baldwin to Jackie Kennedy and Susan Sontag. The trick is to be as reverent as Thomas Jefferson and as epicurean as Julia Child. (Or the New York restaurant Dimes: a health-food mini-empire called Season has a monopoly over the Marais not unlike Dimes' hold over Chinatown.)

On Sunday, both Proenza and Rodarte rose to the occasion, showing collections that suggested that in Paris, creative and commercial cohesion go hand in hand. At Proenza, it was in the details. The designers had collaborated with ateliers across Paris, as they told us in June, overlaying old world craftsmanship with their classic New York silhouettes. Hook-and-bar closures were half undone, and appliques revealed expanses of abdomen as if a sample of the sequin pattern had been laid out on a table for closer inspection. There were a number of exquisite dresses that could easily appear on the red carpet, an element of the industry that has always eluded Proenza (save for Beyonce at the 2015 Grammys and a few others); cool is not enough for a movie star (or their stylists)—it has to be pretty, too.

There was also a smart emphasis on accessories, a crucial stepping stone for Proenza's success in scaling their brand. In between shows and at market appointments today, everyone has been talking about the Proenza shoes: big scalloping ruffled kitten heels, as well as two types of poulaines—one version tied with a bouquet of frayed ribbons, like the scraps on an atelier floor, and another covered in tube-shaped beads. The latter audibly jangled as the model walked down the catwalk—it's hard to make clothing look good, let alone sound good. Gone were any traces of the brand's signature P.S.1's, a prep school-ish it-bag that first made the brand a hit; instead, there appeared boxy clutches, many in white or black fur. As Meret Oppenheim's fur-covered cup and saucer proved, people will always like something better if they can treat it like a pet. Or maybe it's that sensuality doesn't have to be aggressive.

Rodarte certainly doesn't think it needs to be. The brand has faced criticism for its devotion to what many deem unwearable clothing: lots of pretty, dreamy dresses dragged down by studded or shredded leather, over-embellished tulle, or things that just felt too dressed up for your day-to-day wardrobe. But on Sunday, in an old abbey, their designs hummed with a sweet and sublime beauty. One after another walked movie star dresses (actual movie star and longtime Rodarte acolyte Kirsten Dunst was watching in the front row)—you could see her or any number of today's actresses accepting an Oscar next winter in a powder blue Chantilly lace dress embellished with patches of gold sequins, or the pink tulle dress scattered with embroidered baby's breath.

And there was none of the apocalyptic energy that often reverberated through their New York shows; the only hint of deconstruction were the wreaths of baby's breath that were laced with ribbons throughout the models' hair or worn as garlands and even headdresses, which wiggled delicately and sometimes fell to the floor. (In one particularly striking look, a model dragged a three-foot bundle of baby's breath behind her, which is a look worth walking down the aisle.) At the end, the models stood in the center of the cloister, their flower crowns peaking over the tall flowerbeds like some kind of pagan springtime ritual: the divine secrets of the Rodarte sisterhood. It was all just so lovely!

The New York fashion industry is often defined (fairly or not) by its emphasis on commerciality over creativity, which often encourages designers to be "interesting," to push cerebral notions rather than evolve their craft. What is it about New York that makes people try so hard? On Sunday, both Proenza and Rodarte asserted that being very beautiful was enough. Indeed, it probably is.