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Fall 2009: Louis Vuitton, Gaultier explore black power on the runway

January 22, 2009 |  7:11 pm

Vuitton_look_43 It's hard to triangulate the big picture of any given fashion week after just a day of shows, but it would also have been hard to miss that two of today's big-name shows -- Louis Vuitton and Jean Paul Gaultier -- chose to focus on themes of race and power.

At Louis Vuitton, men's designer Paul Helbers said he was inspired by African royalty, explaining in the show notes that he began by envisioning "the traveling business wardrobe of an African king," which sounded like a recipe for cartoonish kufi and dapper dashikis. But thankfully, it was nothing of the sort.

The influence was subtle -- intricate patterns that looked like feathers, flowers and reptilian scales (a salamander was a recurring motif on tie clips, bracelets, and the adorable little fella even made an appearance on the show invitation), layers, softened, looser silhouettes, with the rounded collars of traditional African tunics shaping cardigan sweaters (more cardigans!).

And, as we reported earlier, Vuitton used the show to preview its collaboration with rapper Kanye West, who has designed a line of sneakers for the label that will debut in June.

Two shows later, Jean Paul Gaultier seemed to be inspired by a whole different kind of black power -- the militant kind -- kitting out his models in afro wigs, black berets and all manner of belted black

trench coats, leather jackets and strap-covered suits. The look was pure Black Panther Party circa 1968.
As at Vuitton, the concept sounds dicey and could have gone off the rails, but Gaultier is a masterGaultier_mcff09_0613_2 showman, and it took only a few minutes to realize that his models weren't just black, they were also white, Asian, male and female, from toddler to middle-age, with wigs in white, black and red.

It wasn't until they hit the catwalk for the finale, each one (excluding the tots) carrying a champagne glass, that it was clear that this was a party. We're all part of the fight for black power, Gaultier seemed to be saying, and it's time to lift a glass in celebration.

If you think I'm being too America-centric by suggesting our freshly sworn-in president may have been part of the inspiration for the collections, consider that as I ate dinner at Le Flores bistro around the corner from my hotel on Rue de Grenelle, an inebriated Frenchman banged his beer stein on the bar and chanted "Obama, Obama, Obama" to no one in particular. And waiting between shows I snapped this photo with my camera phone of a poster advertising an art exhibition called "Barack Obama, a United World" depicting Obama dressed as Superman.

Rage_obamaposter The U.S. president has been inspiring European designers as far back as last summer, when Donatella Versace dedicated her Spring 2009 men's collection to him, and Viktor & Rolf used his Hawaiian birthplace as the inspiration for a feel-good luau of luxury. And if namedropping BHO can inspire people to open their wallets for luxury goods and jump-start the economy, maybe he should just up and design a sneaker for Louis Vuitton.

Hey, maybe that's not such a bad idea.

-- Adam Tschorn

Photos from top: Louis Vuitton and Jean Paul Gaultier Fall 2009 menswear looks, by Jonas Gustavsson. Obama as Superman, Rue Saint Martin, Paris, by Adam Tschorn.