Byline: Sarah Raper / With contributions from Katherine Weisman

At Balmain, Andrew Gn said he is calling his collection "Women" and he is dedicating it to the five women who taught him about style: Georgina Brandolini, who is now managing director of Balmain and a partner in the business; YSL's Loulou de la Falaise; Gloria Vanderbilt; Bianca Jagger, and the late Tina Chow.
"The idea of the season is to take something simple--like jeans, and make them in a great fabric like cashmere," said Gn. "Real luxury is taking a simple thing and reinterpreting it in luxury fabrics. We have denim looks but it's not denim. It's done with fil-a-fil weaving to create a raw denim effect in wool."
Lanvin's show on Thursday, with new designer Cristina Ortiz, is generating plenty of anticipation. Ortiz just broke away from Prada, after spending the past three years as Miuccia Prada's right hand, for the lure of an old Paris house founded by a woman. Her main goal this week is to create "a new attitude. I want to have the essence of Jeanne Lanvin, but not the details, not the past. Jeanne Lanvin for 1998."
Ortiz said it would take several seasons to complete the concept of her new Lanvin woman. "She's feminine; she likes to be comfortable." A little bit of froufrou? She grimaces. "No. I very much like pure lines and purity in the fabric, the cuts, the colors."
After designing a few prespring pieces, Narciso Rodriguez is presenting his first full collection for Loewe. "It's a more glamorous luxury than my own line," Rodriguez said. "Loewe lacked glamour. The quality was always there, certainly, but as far as styling and prestige, it was sleepy, and those were the things that drove me in creating this first collection." Look for dresses cut on the bias in velvets and silks as well as pieces in cashmere and alpaca.
Valentino is certainly not giving up on luxury and glamour, but he's been thinking about the way his customers' habits are changing. "Women are starting to know how to mix," he said. "Today they will put together an outfit that is a bit bohemian and very personal, and my show is to give them some samples of how this can be done," he added, citing the example of a pretty embroidered dress shown with a rustic felt jacket that isn't hemmed.
Val may have just cashed in by selling his company to HdP, GFT's parent, but some designers who have decided to go it alone are finding it tough to stay afloat. Claude Montana, who filed for protection from his creditors last fall, is still trying to negotiate an agreement with a buyer. Martine Sitbon's Korean backer ran into difficulties because of the Asian financial crisis, but the company recently found a partner.
Meanwhile, Ocimar Versolato, who ended his two-year stint at Lanvin in October, finally found backing from a Brazilian investment bank two weeks ago, but it wasn't easy. "In France I talked to dozens of banks, and none was willing to put enough money in to build a business. Otherwise, I was introduced to several wealthy investors who were interested only in dressing their wives."
Still, there's a wave of new designers hitting the runways and showrooms. The preshow buzz has been especially strong for Belgian Veronique Branquinho, who shows on Tuesday: Frenchman Olivier Theyskens, who shows on Wednesday, and Frenchman Jerome Dreyfuss and Franco-Argentinian Gaspard Yurkeivich, who will hold a joint show on Tuesday. Also, Tomas Maier, formerly part of Hermes's design team, is presenting by appointment his high-end swimwear line.
But what's selling now?
Alexander McQueen swears that at his own house in London retailers were grabbing so many of the most expensive pieces that his licensing partner, Gibo, agreed to put items into production that usually never get beyond press sample status.
Customers at Givenchy, McQueen said, are going for the top of the line. "The full-length snakeskin coats they love. What we're trying to do for winter is to move the color palette along. I've tried to replace black with petrol blue and there's a sort of embroidery with metal chains," said the designer, adding that he had in mind Sean Young in 'Blade Runner'-- "very graphic, very clean lines....Her image when she first enters. Stark as in stark and as in Philippe Starck."
There are pistachio green, scarlet, electric blue for fox coats, petrol blue shearling and lots of leather. And McQueen said he has a soft spot for the cashmere coat with a fox collar he's dubbed his "Anna coat," after Vogue's Wintour.
Other designers have picked up on the hankering for luxury, including some couture effects.
At Chloe, Stella McCartney's two key messages are delicate applique work and "Klimt-y" graphic prints. "The prints are all our own," said McCartney. "We made so many things exclusively for Chloe that we're bordering on couture."
Christian Lacroix also stressed the importance of exclusive fabrics "that have replaced the more artificial ornaments of the last decade."
For Martine Sitbon, the skirt's the thing. "It's big and has elastic, so it's comfortable, but it's draped, which is a sort of couture aspect," Sitbon explained.
Guy Laroche's Alber Elbaz is working the couture angle, too. His girl is a triple agent, and like any elegant spy, she's big on sports d'hiver, which explains why the show is in an ice-skating rink.
There's no poison pen, but she has plenty of little twists--hidden magnetic closures in her coat, cuff links on her jacket rather than her shirt, molded lapels that do not lie flat and for evening, a little black dress that's velvet in the back and sheer with ripped beading on the front. "Of course the beading's ripped--she's an action girl," Elbaz said.
At Cerruti, designer Peter Speliopoulos is telling a fabric story: "It's a very luxurious collection with warm textures and there's nothing too dry. There is a cashmere and mohair blend with Lycra; a stretch cashmere felt, which is stitched, leaving raw edges without seams, and double-faced cashmere."
In all, Paris offers 110 collections this season--not to mention nearly 100 unofficial presentations--and it's hard not to be swept up in the breadt of ideas, but the question remains: How many will convert the creativity into commerce?
That question doesn't trouble a veteran like Emanuel Ungaro. The designer pointed out that he's confounded by the pedestrian Rue de Rivoli these days: "All these megastores opening. The Zaras, the H&Ms, the C&As--all these names.
"But," he stressed, this is not Paris's strength. In Paris, there are fabulously interesting things happening, but they are not for the masses," he said. "We are very elitist and that's neither a fault nor a quality."

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