How Bad Was Lindsay Lohan’s Ungaro Collection?

Why the clothes really provoked such a hostile reaction.

Lindsay Lohan in Paris

How bad was the collection Lindsay Lohan and Estrella Archs designed for Ungaro? The show—held in Paris last week—has been the talk of the town and the blogosphere. It was called a “hot mess,” “disastrous,” “cheesy and dated.” It featured fly-away jackets revealing heart-shaped pasties. But the fashion skeptic can be forgiven for thinking, Designers send weird things down the runway all the time! Was the collection really that horrible? Or was Lindsay Lohan just the victim of fashion snobbery?

Rest assured, fashion skeptic: The collection was truly, deeply horrible. While snobbery did play a role in the reviews, it was only a supporting role.

Before I explain the particulars, I should note that I worked briefly as a design consultant to Ungaro in 2005, when the house was under different ownership, and that I didn’t see the show. My comments are based on images and reviews in print and on the Web. But certain points are clear nonetheless.

There were several factors likely to irk fashion snobs, no matter the quality of design. For one, the show was held in the Carrousel du Louvre, a purpose-built venue under the museum that was opened by the French government and is adjacent to a shopping mall and food court. Although it’s conveniently located, it’s hardly the place for editors and retailers to strut their Manolos, and I can’t think of a single show there that’s ever been a blockbuster. Atmosphere is part of the fashion equation, demanding the tonier backdrop of, say, the Hôtel de Crillon * (where Balenciaga showed this season), the soaring glass dome of the Grand Palais (Chanel’s venue of choice), or the arty galleries of the Marais (Bernard Wilhem, Veronique Leroy).

Second, Lohan’s anticipated walk down the runway reportedly caused more than the usual chaos at the door, which surely put the crowd in a bad mood before the show even started. Door frenzy can excite a fashion crowd—we love to walk past a red velvet rope, after all—but it invites insult if the clothes are not well above par. Fashion people will be stepped on, but only for glorious designs, big ideas, and newness. (Cult designer Rick Owens caused chaos at his show this season by double-booking his front row seats, but such a move suits his aggressive brand, and the crowd loved the clothes once the chaos died down.)

The most important turn off for fashion purists was Lindsay Lohan herself. Sure, fashion loves a celebrity muse. And Ungaro President Mounir Moufarrige, a man once lauded for putting celebrity child Stella McCartney at the helm of Chloe, was understandably looking to pump juice into a label that has dried up. McCartney, to her credit, had at least studied design. But Lohan? She’s tabloid fodder, a perpetual victim, and hardly has remarkable style befitting a great French name. Wouldn’t Lady Gaga or even Pink have been more relevant?

Further raising hackles was Lohan’s unusual role in the collection. Had she been a behind-the-scenes stylist, that would have been another story. But she wasn’t signed to stay backstage. Her title was “artistic adviser.” Although it’s not clear what that job entailed, fashion people are ultimately protective of a designer’s role, no matter how bad the designer. Lohan’s presence undermined Archs, and that makes fashion people steam. What exactly did Lohan contribute? Pasties? It’s one thing to have Madonna or Gwyneth front a brand in advertising and quite another to give a star—and a dubious star at that—credit for building a collection and a bow at the end of the show.

While these factors no doubt made the crowd inhospitable, the real problem was the design. The collection was mediocre, without any new form or content, lacking in invention or development. It presented a High Street, tarted-up look that is out of step with the times. When the major trends are subdued, recession-friendly takes on classic chic (seen last week at Chanel, Givenchy, Celine) and a darker, opposing, deconstructed vision (Louis Vuitton, Viktor+Rolf), a tart is moronically off-trend.

Tartiness alone, however, was not the problem. Fashion people will readily tolerate what most would find misogynist. Bare titties are no big news. We might even go for pasties, but not in the absence of a larger frame or idea.

The worst offense, and where the collaboration of Archs and Lohan hopefully ends, is their total misreading of Emanuel Ungaro’s great legacy, which no one seems to have mentioned. The brand has been struggling for years now. Ever since Giambattista Valli, * Emanuel Ungaro’s protégé and successor, left in 2004, retailers and the press have been promised change after change. Designers come and go (Archs is the fourth since Valli), and change comes and comes, but it always seems to be for the worse. This collection, and those preceding it (including, it was said at the time, the one I worked on), was riddled with clichés of the Ungaro woman.

Emanuel Ungaro opened his house in 1965. In 1968 he moved his atelier and offices into an elegant building at the river end of the Avenue Montaigne, and it was from these rooms that he built one of the great, and one of the last privately held, couture houses in Paris. His father had been a tailor in Brindisi, and Ungaro’s story begins with a respect for the tailor’s shears, for the needle and thread, that had been taught to him when he was still a young boy. As a young man, he draped toiles (muslin patterns) for the great Balenciaga, which, in fashion terms, is like saying he chiseled into Michelangelo’s rock.

His peers in 1970s Paris—Karl Lagerfeld, who designed Chloe, and Yves Saint Laurent—presented distinct visions of the feminine mystique at a time when the Western world was reconsidering what it meant to be a woman.

Lagerfeld’s Chloe was almost sexless; his ideal woman seemed a perpetual virgin. He looked from Paris to London, where he found inspiration in flower children and house parties, frilly lace and nostalgic frock coats and vintage-y clothes. His designs concealed the body and highlighted the life of the mind.

YSL hit the sexual revolution head-on, exploring the unspoken sexual fantasies of the haute bourgeoisie. He dreamed of places far from the stuffy Right Bank-Imperial Peking, Czarist Russia, and especially the liberated St. Germain des Prés * on the Rive Gauche (the name of his prêt-à-porter brand). He put women in gypsy dresses, the famed le smoking, or trouser suit, and the sporty looks epitomized in Catherine Deneuve’s wardrobe for Belle du Jour. But his fantasies were like Belle’s: There was always an element of submission to a man’s desires running through every stitch.

Ungaro’s woman—his most famous muse was the fierce Anouk Aimée—had nothing to do with her counterparts. She was brazen, a sexual game-player, but always the one in control. Hot, bright fuchsia was his signature color for a reason. He may have given nods to the far away and long ago—the signature Grecian draping, harem-style turbans—but throughout his long career, he never let go of his dream of the haughty woman of the 16tharrondisement, a woman who knew what she wanted and was always in control.

Lindsay Lohan chez Ungaro? That beautiful dream has been lost to a tart.

Correction, Oct. 13, 2009: This article originally misspelled Giambattista Valli, Hôtel de Crillon, and St. Germain des Prés. (Return to the article.)