On Saturday, Chanel kicks off the spring season, inaugurating the Carrousel du Louvre -- the huge, slick and controversial new $100 million temple to fashion underneath the Tuileries gardens.
With its monumental entrance, mechanized runways and retractable seats, the place has already been nicknamed "The Zeppelin Hangar." But the prime mover behind the center, Chambre Syndicale president Jacques Mouclier, is really feeling his impresarial oats.
In a gesture that will shock those who pine for the days when couture was kept strictly under wraps, the Chambre will stage a big group preview in the Carrousel on Friday.
But the splashiest move of all bombed completely; Mouclier's $1 million pact with Event Media to beam the collections via high-definition television into auditoriums in
New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, has been canceled In the midst of all this, there are the clothes to consider -- clothes most designers complain they've had precious little time to prepare. This season is beginning a full nine days earlier than last year's, which has made this the schedule that stole Christmas for many houses.
"If they do this again, it will just be impossible. These people in charge of the Chambre Syndicale just want to ruin fashion," Karl Lagerfeld groused as he watched fabrics just arrived from their Italian makers being brought in Chanel's Rue Cambon door.
But his Chanel couture still promises to have plenty of news. Micro Karl has decided to send out short skirts, slung low on the hips and worn with cummerbunds and simple blouses with bows, but this season he'll pair them with long, fitted, unstructured jackets. "There's nothing in the jackets. They are more like dresses than suits," he explains.
Lagerfeld is also doing real men's-wear tailored trousers over short tweed spencer jackets, and lots of dresses. He plays with lengths in the form of tiered skirts, long lace vests over short dresses, and by attaching great swags of fabrics to the sleeves of brief, sexy black numbers.
Then there are Karl's hats, which cover not only the head but the whole face and suggest a visored motorcycle helmet made of black feathers."They are like cars with black windows. You can see the world, but the world can't see you," says Limousine Lagerfeld. "This way you don't need a beautiful face -- just a good silhouette. And a good body is easier to have than a good face, no?"
All this headgear may make it hard to see his work, but New York's Oribe will do the hair at Chanel this season, deposing Julien D'Ys.
"Julien is very talented, but also very difficult. He's had some problems with several of the top girls," confides Karl, whose only break from work over Christmas was to visit his dentist. Was he getting his teeth sharpened?
"No, just a lot of repair work. Besides, I think my tongue is sharp enough," he says.
At Christian Dior, Gianfranco Ferre is also planning to offer short skirts worn with long, fitted jackets. Some of those jackets have pagoda shoulders and others have softly extended rounded shoulders, but all have Ferre's trademark snappy tailoring.
Showing off a group of late 18th-century prints of Neapolitan maids and dandies, Ferre explains his inspiration: "This season I'm between Naples and Paris."
Ferre himself has been racing back and forth between Milan and Paris, juggling his own winter men's wear -- which was due on the Italian runways Tuesday -- with Dior couture that he'll show in Paris on Monday.
"We were up until four o'clock last night. And tonight, maybe we'll stay until five," said Ferre, as several assistants looked on with alarm.
But the only thing Ferre really seems to be concerned about is the fact that some top models have deserted couture. Helena Christiansen, Christy Turlington, Yasmeen Ghauri and Yasmin Le Bon are all no-shows, though other big girls -- like Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Amber Valletta, Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer -- do plan to hit the catwalks.
At Yves Saint Laurent, they've been worrying less about what girls they will use than about what they will wear. Couture has always been a cliffhanger on the Avenue Marceau in the YSL atelier, and never more than this season, where things got started later than usual because of Saint Laurent's recent bout of pneumonia.Loulou Klossowski, YSL's muse, says only that the collection will be "pure, with lots of white, very linear, detail-free."
"It's the essence of Yves Saint Laurent, our roots," she says. "There are a lot of pale colors and more embroidery than in the last few years."
One of the most eagerly awaited shows will be Michel Klein's debut for Guy Laroche.
"My goal is to change Laroche's clientele -- not their age, but their appreciation of elegance," claims Klein, who insisted on changing models in the middle of a press preview because the house's original choice has "legs like vine trunks."
Couture's new boy on the block will divide his 60-piece collection into two groups. The first: some "timeless" pieces that he hopes will become Laroche signatures, like a blue silk suit with pencil pants and a four-button jacket, topped by a pillbox hat.
The second group will consist of racier looks. And he's called in an eclectic crew of friends to help. Christian Louboutin is doing some shoes; Stephen Jones is supplying the hats, and British furniture designer Tom Dixon will design the jewelry.
"The idea is not to show off richness; it's to create a collection that responds to everyday life," says Klein, who plans to throw a dinner for 150 at the Ritz after his two shows there.
Klein is one of a substantial group -- which includes Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Hubert de Givenchy, Valentino and Gianni Versace -- who have elected to stay out of the new Carrousel.
Pierre Cardin is staying out too -- way out. As reported, he's even barred photographers and camera crews from his show, and says he'll only allow in real customers -- plus 10 hand-picked journalists.
"Couture has got to be protected," Cardin has been telling people -- although that credo hasn't stopped him from signing a second contract to retail his perfumes in a big French supermarket chain.
Fresh from the triumph of his huge antiques sale at Christies in Monte Carlo, Givenchy says he's determined to create a collection "that's not crazy and impossible to wear."Le Grand Hubert intends to send out classic flowered dresses and one-button trouser suits.
"It's an insult to the world, some of these crazy outfits one sees on the runway, especially with all these terrible things happening in the world, like Bosnia," he says.
Soft sex appeal will play a big part in this season, and nobody has more of it than Emanuel Ungaro.
"I'm taking pieces of fabric and throwing them onto the body," says Emanuel, showing off a liquid, draped dress with drop-dead decolletage. Even his suits are soft. Among the designer's favorite pieces are a group of tailored pantsuits, executed without any padding in the softest doubled chiffon.
Extending the exotic mood of his last couture collection, Ungaro is using lots of hand-dyed chiffons in Eastern-tinged mixes of green and brown, pink and cream and rusty orange and yellow. Once again, he has few prints.
Oscar de la Renta said his goal at Balmain is to "make beautiful clothes and not do any double T-shirts" for evening. Asked about who will be front row this year, de la Renta replied, "Oh! I'll just invite my friends, of course."
Christian Lacroix is full of beans and determined to ignore "la crise," the economic recession still hanging over a rain-sodden Paris.
"You have to be true to yourself. The crisis is not a reason to do non-mode, or anti-mode. We are trying to return to our sources, our Provencal roots. Couture is still our raison d'etre," he said.
Christian's big inspiration this season is the Directoire, the animated period in French history at the very end of the 18th century that followed the horrors of "the terror," and preceded Napoleon's takeover.
"I've been thinking a lot about the Directoire, when there were flowers, neo-antique looks, with the first forms that showed the body in fashion, of Mme. Recamier.
"I've also picked up on the images of the Liberation, when Parisian girls in bright lipstick embraced GIs on the street. It was all very erotic," explains Christian, showing off a flirty, flowered baby-doll dress trimmed with lace.Pointing to a sketch of a flared jacket with buttons marching down the sleeve, he says, "Rather Directoire, don't you think -- and yet it also reminds me of a Thirties pimp."
Lacroix's spring collection will consist of 51 outfits -- a number the designer considers lucky. He was born in 1951, and 51 is also the name of his favorite brand of pastis, the preferred drink of this Provencal.
"You see, I like to do things in threes," he says.
Gianni Versace is in a sunny mood despite the rain and gloom in Paris.
"The inspiration for the collection is a voyage through things that I love -- my mother's atelier, young people and French haute couture from past years," he says. Versace will show long lengths for evening and short topped with stockings for day. Silhouettes will be simple, soft and fluid, and pleated white T-shirts will be important, he says.
Valentino is concentrating on layers of lightweight, airy fabrics sewn together, with a color story that features lots of natural sand hues and dusty pastels.
"I will show soft and deconstructed suits that are only made with triple layers of silk georgette," says the Chic. "Skirts are mostly long, with the exception of some for cocktail parties. "Slits will be everywhere," he promises.
Couture may remain a money-losing venture at many houses, but it's still very much in business, especially at Chanel and Dior, where the designers say their difficulties in putting a spring collection together have been compounded by the fact that their seamstresses are still busy with winter orders.
According to the Chambre Syndicale, 1993 couture sales were flat -- a total of $49.1 million, 60 percent of it sold to U.S. clients. But that's not bad considering that the ready-to-wear sales of the all the Chambre's members fell two percent to $542 million last year.
--with contributions from HEIDI LENDER, Paris, and ALESSANDRA ILARI, Milan
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