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Couture Spring 2005: The Reviews

<P><STRONG>JEAN PAUL GAULTIER:</STRONG> With apologies to Little Orphan Annie, couture, too, can be a hard-knock life. Certainly the recent announcement of a restructuring plan at Jean Paul Gaultier, which includes laying off 31 employees, must...

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JEAN PAUL GAULTIER: With apologies to Little Orphan Annie, couture, too, can be a hard-knock life. Certainly the recent announcement of a restructuring plan at Jean Paul Gaultier, which includes laying off 31 employees, must have impacted the designer as he readied his spring collection. According to a staff member, preparations for the couture show ran behind schedule, and, when Gaultier presented his collection on Wednesday, it lacked the intrigue with which he generally tackles the genre.

Gaultier revisited one of his favorite themes, tribal Africa, giving expression to boning, beadwork and even masks with his typical exquisite craftsmanship, but without bringing much new to the party. The clothes didn’t look rushed, exactly — Gaultier’s are far too intricate to rush — but their overall mood felt less than fresh. African themes peppered last season’s ready-to-wear, not to mention Gaultier’s couture last spring. This wouldn’t have mattered if he had managed to infuse the collection with the full, abundant force of his quite remarkable imagination. Or his playfulness. Instead, the mood felt oddly heavy within the context of this otherwise airy season, and produced one wince-provoking moment when a model sported an enormous bag decorated with a full tortoiseshell.

Still, one could only admire the ongoing chic of Gaultier’s tailoring. He went classic with ivory-on-brown pinstripes; classic-plus with a white pantsuit, its jacket inset with strands of ivory beads, and spectacularly nautical in a curvy pea jacket with a sweeping collar worn over pants. Evening was tougher, with a lovely silk floral amid too many statement dresses without clear messages. Gaultier did amaze with several that featured tribal masks worked into the body of the dress. Yet, though marvels of construction in mousseline jersey as well as organza, these should have been edited down to a one-time punctuation, and, in the end, could not masquerade as Gaultier’s best work.

CHANEL: In his “Garden of Earthly Delights,” Hieronymus Bosch depicted a world of debauched indulgence. But he forgot perhaps the most wonderful pleasure of all — clothes. Then again, Bosch’s doomed revelers couldn’t have known the joys of Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel, or they’d have ditched their public nakedness for gem-flecked tweeds faster than you can say hellfire and flat-brimmed hats.

Lagerfeld offered his own garden of earthly delights on Tuesday, with an haute couture collection that found its power in gentleness. Along the way, he worked an 18th-century French-garden motif. “Enough trips all around the world for fashion,” he said the day before his show. “Let’s go back to the days of enlightening. Europe is not so bad, no?”

Lagerfeld created for his set a pristine haven anchored by four blooming camellia topiaries, the perfect backdrop for his message of prettiness and propriety. (So what if more than a few of the ladies who strolled the original jardins lost their heads for their own indulgences? This is show time, not the History Channel.) He thus stayed local for his inspiration, looking to pink-cheeked Boucher romance, Mme. de Pompadour, Marie Antoinette in shepherdess mode and even into the mirror: “Powdered hair — not for the models, so I give them feathered wigs.”

But summon his audience for a costume fest? Hardly. Rather, he worked the myriad pinks of a rose garden into frothy tweeds, some embroidered ever so faintly with sequins. He took the dash of a courtier’s ruffled sleeves to decorate otherwise simple looks, and pilfered the lean, multiple-bow bodice of a Mme. de Pompadour portrait for a garden-party dress with a hint of the Sixties.

Throughout, Lagerfeld put the emphasis on the hips with long torsos and full skirts. In fact, save for some figure-conforming jackets over such skirts, he avoided tight as if it were a hemlock in his garden, even for evening, proclaiming, “The day of the bimbo is over.”

But in his hands, the night of the goddess is ensured. Lagerfeld offered a spectacular array of looks — low-waisted and high-waisted; constructed and soft —most rendered with delicacy, and virtually every one a triumph. Among them: the blue-ribboned white gown under a translucent jeweled apron; the fluid black chiffon jeweled in back; the long, vibrantly appliquéd white coat. As for Karl’s coquettish pink-and-white shepherdess: If Marie Antoinette could play the part, why not the queens of Hollywood?

CHRISTIAN LACROIX: It’s official: Christian Lacroix has new owners, and on Tuesday, the designer gave them a dazzling welcome. The Florida-based brothers Simon, Jerome and Leon Falic of Falic Group sat front and center at Lacroix’s couture show, the day after completing their purchase of the house from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity,” Simon Falic, the company’s chairman, said. “Christian Lacroix is a tremendous designer, and I see tremendous opportunity for growing the business.” Though Lacroix was not part of the negotiations and is currently sans contract, Falic vowed “no radical changes” to the business. He voiced optimism about signing Lacroix, and noted that his firm intends to carry on with couture.

Bravo! Because, while Lacroix obviously had the impending sale on his mind this week, it did not distract him one bit from the essential creative task of the couturier. The collection he presented to his new owners and a wildly appreciative crowd was spectacular.

Lacroix’s mastery of couture is as renowned as his reputation for being an artiste—read maker of non-commercial clothes. But the pictures here speak for themselves: What’s not to love? What’s not to wear? Certainly not the tiered, flounced skirt in countless shades of pale, or the featherweight trench that floats over a party dress, or the understandably exotic sari-esque gown under a tiny jeweled jacket. And certainly not the overall aura of joie de decoration, fashion’s prevailing mood for several years now, but Lacroix’s prevailing mood for life. True, the designer still sent out some big-volume decendants of his famous Eighties’ poufs as well as a pair of major ballgowns, but with reason: Re-colored, they make for glorious brides. Over the years, Lacroix has evolved his aesthetic to keep up with the times and in fact, these days, plenty of runways feature more than a whiff of the themes on which he built his house.

Would that the red-carpet crowd would get over its hourglass fixation — Lacroix could dress every nominee and presenter without a trace of redundancy. But despite all the froth and flou, he’s not just an after-hours guy. His impeccable jackets and coats, such as the white stunner with a discreetly jeweled border, have the legs to carry them into the bright light of day with graceful distinction.

In an interview with WWD last March, Lacroix expressed frustration over what he considers a bad rap, one he felt existed in-house. “Mr. Arnault was sure I was against money and commercial success, ” Lacroix said. “I’m not. I’m 53. I have no time to waste.”

During a preview on Sunday, before confirmation of the sale, he expressed similar thoughts, and attributed his company’s current financial malaise to LVMH’s lack of investment. “I’ve always thought it’s the hen and the egg,” he explained. “Which comes first? Mr. Arnault is crazy about bags. I can do bags, too. But how can I succeed without the means? [Dior’s] Lady Di bag was nice, a wonderful bag. But maybe it would not have been so successful without the support.”

Lacroix said that what he viewed as an increasingly bureaucratic atmosphere within LVMH felt antithetical to the spirit of Lacroix. He acknowledged being “upset with the lack of elegance” LVMH displayed in negotiating the sale while keeping him essentially in the dark — “After 18 years you can’t treat a house in such a rude way” — and mused that Arnault may be tiring of fashion overall, preferring to focus on the spirits side of the business.

Although his own future chez Lacroix has yet to be finalized, like Falic, the designer expressed hope for a vibrant new relationship, one that will provide the opportunity to succeed on his own terms. “Our strength is our difference,” he said.

For now, however, Lacroix won’t wear his heart too openly on his sleeve. “I have to be very careful about my own feelings — like a bride in an arranged marriage,” he said. “I have to fold the veil back and see who these people are.” And no doubt the veil is fabulous.

VALENTINO: At some of the more outrageous circus-cum-couture shows, watching the crowd reaction is nearly as entertaining as taking in the show itself: What must those rarefied couture clients think? Would any of them dare to dress that way? And where would she go if she did? At Valentino, however, while his clothes are a testimony to the tradition and the craft that set hearts aflutter, imagining the transition from runway to reality is seamless — and, often, glorious. Val’s mission isn’t to stun, but to make his women stunning. And when his bank of dewy socialites rose to give the man a standing ovation after he showed his ultrapolished collection on Monday night, it was hardly a surprise.

In an ode to that transglobal clientele, this season Valentino presented 37 looks against projected images of 37 different cities. (Of course, that’s counting Oz, for those who believe in somewhere over the rainbow.) Valentino and Co. set off from Seville, Spain, showing in a simulated bullring a curvy black suit beaded elaborately enough to put a toreador to shame. Manhattan meant a pretty white lace suit made even prettier with embroidered black bows, shown as rip-roaring sirens blared on the soundtrack. But, hometown boy that he is, Valentino saved one of his loveliest looks for Rome — a petal-pink cashmere coat with rosette-bedecked pockets over a satin dress, belted with a bow and layered with sparkling lace ruffles.

Some of the designer’s choices were city-appropriate. There was no question, for instance, that his snowy feather bolero and long, fine sequined gown were Hollywood-worthy, even without the accompanying images of the paparazzi pack. Others stretched the city concept to its limit. What does Johannesburg have to do with a white goddess gown and its whimsical crystal butterflies? Not much, one imagines, beyond the locale’s famed diamonds. The link between Vienna and Valentino’s frilly, ruffle-traced pink lace gown — via Freud and his slips — was tenuous at best.

But then, the real point of Valentino’s worldwide tour is that his polished ladies look glamorous at any longitude or latitude. They move in the haute monde, no matter where their crystal-encrusted shoes take them. Val’s chic — and theirs — is a movable feast.

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