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One-Two Punch

The Paris Couture Shows got under way with collections from Christian Dior and Giorgio Armani leading the charge.

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Every fashion season should start out like this: two strong, vastly different collections, each by a designer of rock-star status with a vision as clear and iron-clad as his resolve.  And each delivering a wealth of fashion.

On Monday, haute’s premier neophyte, Giorgio Armani, and its renegade laureate, Dior’s John Galliano, presented the kind of dichotomy that fashion lovers find divine. Armani worked the glorified-reality angle, and Galliano, the Warhol Factory-where-pregnant-girls-channel-the-Empress Josephine angle. Armani showed in a discreetly set loft; Galliano, in a send-up of one of the most notorious hangouts of the Mod era. And their efforts were powerful enough to stifle, at least for now, those boring musings about the haute genre’s viability.

Far from being an indulgent anachronism, the couture, despite its dwindling ranks, has found a new lease on life, one signed and sealed in Hollywood. Witness Valentino’s Carlos Souza boasting to a visitor during a couture preview, “Did you see the Golden Globes [a Val coup]?” And giving an honest response to the comment that the new gowns visible in the atelier had Oscars written all over them: “You got it, baby.”

In truth, awards dressing, the most obvious manifestation of the fashion-celebrity union, is a two-sided coin. On one hand, it pushes fashion beyond the soooo fabulous insider realm and onto a platform more understandable — and more interesting — to the mass public. Glam goddesses though they are, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones and the wives of Wisteria Lane radiate reality more genuinely than teenaged models paid to push perfection. On the down side (at least for those who like their fashion pure and provocative), like other real women the world over, actresses dress merely to look great, the latest, edgiest fashion trends be darned. And especially for big events, they dress to look thin. As a result, the bloom of pure fashion often gets ignored come awards time. When an actress does dare to try, the camera can be nasty. At the recent Golden Globes, on television Natalie Portman looked like an age-appropriate angel in her floaty chiffon Chloé; but, in those paparazzi photos, loose looked less heavenly.

In a preview last week, Giorgio Armani boasted that his latest venture, Armani Privé, is for those women with couture needs and less-than-perfect bodies. He promised a lineup of event dresses that can be “transformed into sizes that fit normal women.”

But normal is relative. So do not for a minute think that Armani’s haute ideal is the richest matron in Peoria. This most sales-conscious of designers built his empire by capitalizing on the de facto celebrity endorsement before it became an L.A. cottage industry. His Privé intendeds walk the red carpet almost as regularly as they walk the dog. The debut collection Armani showed on Monday should knock ’em dead, while giving him the guns to wage a mighty battle to defend his place of prominence in that red-carpet limelight.  

Armani did not even pretend to do a traditional day-through-evening couture collection. Tailleurs? Perish the thought! That’s what ready-to-wear is for, and Armani’s retail numbers are white-hot. Privé provides for only the grandest of occasions, mostly in sweeping, stately gowns cut with mermaid curves and a train or two, all a-twinkle with embroideries. Those curves, in fact, are Exhibit A in the argument that this is a celebrity-targeted collection. While, on his Milan runway, Armani often expresses a boho bent for evening, here one found not a single rich hippie skirt that might photograph, shall we say, a little hippy. Rather he stayed alluringly lean in sultry Harlow satin, grand duchess, gloriously tiered lace, dazzling crystal mesh. And while he relied heavily on black or the sometimes too-jaunty-by-night combo of black and white, he also showed gowns in flattering shades of lavender and ice blue, making for diva dressing of the highest order. 

Yet for all the Hollywood aura, Armani must be taken at his word that he wants his couture to reach a broader audience. And he won’t beckon the mountain toward Mohammed. Armani finished his program notes with a statement of procedure: “After the Paris showing, the collection will be flown to Los Angeles, New York and Hong Kong for private clients’ presentations.” As he said last week, “After all, it’s business.”

Conversely, Galliano takes a more Napoleonic approach to fashion: Ride a dazzling campaign to the heights of pure fashion and let the business follow, or go down in a blaze of glory. Happily, Waterloo can wait, because the Dior collection Galliano showed for spring was spectacular. Difficult, mais oui, in that Galliano-at-his-best kind of way, so much so that it left one editor to ponder, “So beautiful, but for where?” For anywhere, really, including the biggest of big evenings, minus, of course, the faux-pregnancy poufs.

Galliano started with a Warhol fantasy realized in both obvious (the tinfoil Factory set and fab Edie Sedgwick-worthy day clothes) and “I-don’t-get-it” references (courtly red frock coats, highly decorated yet worn in tatters). But really you do get it, once you learn of the Bob Dylan quote, “Andy [Warhol] is Napoleon in rags,” and John brought in a live rock band to make the point.

Still, neither Andy nor Boney would have mattered if the clothes hadn’t dazzled. Which brings us to that beguiling lady of the night, Josephine. She wore an amazing array of embroidered white Empire dresses, some under equally elaborate coats and jackets. And more often than not, she wore them in the family way. Which is not necessarily the easiest way to convince Jane Q. Movie Star that, gee, maybe I’ll look thin in that dress on TV.

But Galliano is fearless. He knows how to do hourglass; he did it last season, and last weekend, for the Trump wedding. He wants to move on, whether the haute-wearing elite are ready or not, and his pregnant posers just pushed the point.

This morning, Galliano will find an unintentional ally in Karl Lagerfeld, who will work a French garden motif — and an Empire or two, sans tummy pillow — with the faintest whiff of Sixties, to quite different effect. But opening day alone offered a feast of diversity and great clothes. Vive la couture! Vive les couturiers!

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