PARIS — The fight between Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent — or, more accurately, the clash of two new titanic designers — is the story of this fashion season.
On Friday, Raf Simons, 44, steps up for the second round at Dior, after a good start in the haute couture season. Now the Belgian designer has to make a strong thrust forward in ready-to-wear for summer 2013.
At Saint Laurent Paris (where Hedi Slimane, also 44, has removed “Yves” from the brand’s title), the designer is taking over a legendary house that will always be in the shadow of its founder, who died in 2008.
The fact that the two maisons are owned by rival luxury conglomerates — LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton for Dior and PPR for YSL — only adds to the sense that this in an epic contest.
The designers each take on a legendary heritage and a mature brand where they literally have to fill big shoes: The accessories, including footwear and handbags, have been the cash cows for the last decade, far more profitable than clothing.
Each house is a legend — yet financially lags behind another big brand within its group: Louis Vuitton at Dior and Gucci for Saint Laurent.
History also finds links that intertwine the two mighty Paris couture houses. Yves Saint Laurent started his career at Dior. He took over the house in 1957 at age 21 when Christian Dior died of a heart attack.
Mr. Slimane started at Saint Laurent. He was chosen by Pierre Bergé, Mr. Saint Laurent’s partner, to work on the men’s wear line in 1996, where he first developed the pencil-slim silhouette. It was made famous during his seven-year tenure at Dior Homme, and has dominated men’s wear in the new millennium.
The really significant thing about this season’s new arrivals and the clash of the champions is that both designers were formed in men’s wear. The Raf Simons look grew slowly from his own label’s beginnings in Antwerp in 1995 — drawing, like Mr. Slimane, from street culture and disaffected youth. It was only in 2005, when he was appointed to the Jil Sander label, that Mr. Simons first tackled women’s design, although his vision grew in strength until he left early this year.
Mr. Slimane has never officially designed for women, although his sleek male tailoring has dressed the famous of both sexes, including Nicole Kidman. Since he left Dior Homme five years ago to concentrate on his passion for photography, he has not been part of the fashion calendar.
Does the return of Jil Sander to her eponymous label this season and the hiring by the Ermenegildo Zegna men’s wear group of the former YSL designer Stefano Pilati suggest that androgyny is back in favor?
Not since the 1980s have there been leading designers so focused on tailoring. It would theoretically be possible, if unlikely, for either of the new protagonists at Dior and Saint Laurent to come up with a “girly” look. As both houses are guarding their doors with the secrecy usually reserved for a royal wedding dress, no hints have been given about what will seen on the runway this week at Dior or Monday at YSL.
Is this such a stand off after all, given that both designers are linked to men’s wear; both work as fashion purists, rather than decorators; and both are fascinated with youth culture and contemporary art?
Fashion has always thrived on the clash of titanic opposites. A famous sketch by Jean Cocteau in 1926 shows an elaborate outfit from Paul Poiret slinking off as the clean silhouette of Coco Chanel dominates the foreground.
Not much later, Mademoiselle Chanel was trading insults with Elsa Schiaparelli, whose whimsical and witty designs were the antithesis of the Coco graphic rigor.
The Christian Dior florid New Look, giving women back their curves and flounces after the war years, was pitted against the lofty sculptures of Balenciaga.
In more recent times, this ying and yang produced in the 1980s Azzedine Alaïa’s curvaceous vision of the sensual woman set against the flat-plane clothes of the Japanese school, led by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.
At the same time, in Italy, Giorgio Armani, a revolutionary men’s wear designer who developed a linear women’s look, went up against Gianni Versace. The two designers had such clearly defined images that it was clean, pale beige against vivid, chaotic color, straight line tailoring versus curvy clothes, and flat shoes facing off stilettoes.
In this new Paris season, which is seeing the revival of the Schiaparelli label as part of the Tod’s empire, will fashion history repeat itself?
It could be that the most dramatic standoff will not be between Dior and Saint Laurent, where both designers are graphic in spirit. The great protagonist might be Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, who has to prove what that label stands for in the face of fashion’s new wave of modernism.
Let the joy and the jousting begin!