Small talk among fashion people generally begins with flattery and the complimentary acknowledgment of some wardrobe element or another.
But discussing l'été indien was the main conversational gambit during the unseasonably warm start of Paris Fashion Week.
Heat can be democratic; with temperatures hitting 29 degrees, editors and buyers could do little to avoid a dewy glow, both within gilded salons and in gritty alternative venues that had impact but no airflow.
The maison privé that played backdrop to the Nina Ricci show was so lacking in circulation that Anna Wintour removed her signature optical armour until the first model appeared. Thankfully, paper fans were provided for the Lanvin show. All that flapping in a blacked-out tent had the effect of a wall of butterflies.
And no one was complaining per se. It was more a question of "What do I wear?"
This is where things got a bit confusing – and amusing – because everyone had descended on Paris to see what we'll be wearing come spring, when the weather heats up as it should.
Except that it was hard to look at many of the clothes – a photo-printed day dress from Dries van Noten, a Rick Owens columnar skirt, a yellow ochre leather jacket at Carven – and not want to wear them immediately.
The notion of seasonless dressing has been percolating for some time. I recall Barbara Atkin, vice-president of fashion direction at Holt Renfrew, telling me in 2006 that the seasons were beginning to blur – that gauzy chiffon dresses were just as likely to appear in winter collections as leather leggings were in summer ones.
With the exception of the obvious elements – massive snow boots or swimsuits, for example – designers seem to be shrugging their shoulders at the calendar. And why shouldn't they? The fashion retail delivery cycle is so out of whack, what with spring clothes hitting stores in February and fall arriving in early July, that the creative minds behind our favourite labels are constantly playing catch-up even if they're working seasons ahead.
Still, designers in Paris seem unphased by the topsy-turvy timelines.
On the one hand, you have brooding Brit Gareth Pugh, who presents a vision of the future before we've reached it. He began his show with a series of black and white cages that stiffly curved around the body and closed with teardrop-shaped helmets (perhaps de rigueur sun protection come 2025). In between, however, he presented a distinctly commercial collection of soft striped dresses with cowl-neck hoods and handkerchief hemlines.
There are the designers who have one eye on the past and the other on the near future. Balenciaga's brilliant frontman Nicolas Ghèsquiere is firmly in that camp. While the benches at his show cracked under pressure (forcing the company's vicepresident to request that everyone stand), he rose impressively to the occasion, building upon Cristobal Balenciaga's strong source material with weightless fabrications and innovative tailoring.
This is fashion not just for next season; it's for seasons to come.
Rare is a season when Dries Van Noten doesn't go deeper into his own idea repository. Using streamlined Balenciaga-influenced silhouettes, the Belgian designer applied a beachy photorealist landscapes and floral prints as one escape, and city panoramas at night as another.
Rochas, Nina Ricci and Carven represent venerable French fashion houses founded in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, respectively. Collectively, this triumvirate represents a major revival of the past. But the corresponding designers, Marco Zanini, Peter Copping and Guillaume Henry, are each painting different portraits of a lady, and each is retail-friendly, granted at different points along the price continuum (Nina Ricci at the high end; Carven at the moderately affordable).
I was transported by Copping's unapologetically feminine lingerie theme – bandeaus and bras worn with satin stretch jackets and flouncy skirts, or gauzy dresses revealing knickers – which were fit for a honeymoon trousseau. When I suggested this to fashion plate Anna Dello Russo after the show, she agreed and replied, "Now we just have to find the men!"
At Christian Dior, Bill Gaytten continued as interim designer until a successor to John Galliano is named. Unlike his couture show in June – a jumble of mixed messages – Gaytten's prêt-a-porter statement expressed an appropriate transition into Dior's next chapter. Elegant, classic suiting, soigné dresses in red, orange and soft prints and high society gowns recalibrated the line back to a familiar – albeit not game-changing – place.
"It was a palate cleanser," Imran Amed noted after the show. The London-based Canadian's website, The Business of Fashion, is among the many outlets closely following the changing of the couturier guard.
As fashion month draws to a close, the personalities of each city come across as diverse as (but far better dressed than) a manufactured girl group. New York is a riot of sporty colour, London a hotbed of young talent and Milan oozes luxe wearability (with a dash of Italian quirk). But Paris is still the dream. It's still the most romantic.
Even when it's interpreted with more toughness, as Alber Elbaz did for Lanvin's spring collection. Gone were the signature bows, replaced by moulded shoulders and tuxedo blazers- turned-little black dresses. The python motif (the snake, not the skin) may suggest venom, but Elbaz strikes me as a softie. Otherwise, "Let's stay together" would not have been the song selected to close the show.
No one feels sexy seated in a veritable sweatbox waiting for a show to begin. But magically, everything changes in the excitement of watching a collection come to life.