By  on March 7, 2005

PARIS — It didn’t quite sizzle, but Paris delivered salable collections of romantic and subtly elegant clothes, retailers said Sunday as the international marathon of designer shows drew to a close.

Though more “sedate” than in recent seasons, Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York, said the city lived up to its reputation as the most exciting fashion capital.

“We were given choices, not just a singular note,” she said. “What stood out were the well-designed collections that pushed the norm — Balenciaga, Rochas and Lanvin.”

Gilhart also called Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe “superb.”

Chloé, Chanel, Viktor & Rolf and Dries Van Noten also topped many best-of lists, with coats, cocktail dresses, skinny pants, stack-heeled boots, velvet and evening dresses with trains considered among the leading trends and items.

However, with a strong euro boosting price tags this season, many retailers said selections would be careful.

Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, called Paris “exceptional,” especially coming on the heels of a lackluster and often somber Milan. He said Paris fashions that were “restrained, original and feminine” encapsulate Bergdorf’s fashion direction for fall.

Still, buyers accustomed to fireworks on the runways here noted a shift away from theatrics.

“Paris continues to be commercial and has moved away from art for art’s sake,” said Sue Patneaude, executive vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom. “The season is refined and glamorous with lace, embroideries and sequins used in subtle, couture-like ways. It’s very pretty.”

Patneaude cited “no predominant theme” for the season save for bell-shaped skirts at Stella McCartney, peplum and smocked jackets at Chloé and so-called “item” coats from Alexander McQueen, Celine and John Galliano.

“We also loved Balenciaga’s suits and coats with toggle hardware closures,” she added. “Chanel and Gaultier presented stellar collections.”

Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, summed up Paris with the slogan: Trash is out. Class is in. “What we saw in Paris were clothes to savor, not just clothes about a fad,” he said. “It was about innovative and lasting fashion.”As examples, Ruttenstein cited “subtle and alluring” collections like Rochas, Viktor & Rolf, Hermès and Lanvin. He also lauded an “incredible” Chanel and a “clever and exciting” Balenciaga.

“What I am liking is a very polished look, a return to a new youthful elegance that has its roots in vintage, smacks of the Fifties, Sixties and even up to the Eighties. But it somehow looks right,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “I am happy to say there are clothes for women once again.”

Standout collections included Rochas, Balenciaga, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, Kaner said, citing a “very strong” return to jackets, a “little black dress” trend and a plethora of coats “with a line that’s either fitted with a flair shape or easy, with a full swing or tented back.” Knitwear and fur trim are also important elements, she added.

Echoing a concern of many buyers, Kaner said prices are high due to a poor euro-to-dollar exchange.

“It won’t stop us from buying,” she said. “The customer will feel the same in emotional impact from the clothes that we do, if their value is perceived. Then the customer understands the high price.”

Mariko Suzuki, luxury goods buyer at Takashimaya in Tokyo, said higher prices means buying few “exclusive pieces for higher-end customers.” Among her favorite items were Chloé’s “distinctive dresses” in shades of pink and Dior’s vintage flower T-shirts, that she thinks will appeal to Japanese customers.

Gilhart lamented that some designers “played it too safe. Everything is expensive to our dollars, so everything has to be excellent or it doesn’t make sense to buy.”

Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of Jeffrey stores in New York and Atlanta, agreed.

“When people shop for something that costs $5,000 instead of $1,000 they’re going to try it on 20 times, so as a buyer you have to be all the more choosey,” he said.

Kalinsky said he would spend more in Paris, noting that seeing Karen Elson in Lanvin’s blue velvet pencil skirt with tulle shirt was “worth the plane ticket over.”“The challenge for retailers now is that search for little-known, niche collections, that are of higher quality and a lower price range,” said Evelyn Gorman, owner of Mix in Houston, citing as examples Sonia Speciale and Masons, an Italian sportswear brand. “That idea that anything goes — mixing high and low brands — is even more apparent than before.”

Many retailers cited shape as the main Paris message.

“The difference in Paris is the silhouettes,” said Anna Garner, head of fashion at Selfridges. “There’s a division between volume and linear. There were skinny pants at Balenciaga. There were a lot of pencil skirts with Sixties shirts seen at McQueen. Cropped pants are very important, too.”

Several buyers singled out the lean silhouette as the most forward-looking message.

“What looked newest here is long and lean, as we saw at Balenciaga,” said Michael Fink, senior fashion director at  Saks Fifth Avenue. “That silhouette has popped up throughout the week.”

Linda Dresner, who operates eponymous stores in New York and Birmingham, Mich., concurred. “It really seems very right,” she said of Nicolas Ghesquiére’s lean outerwear and long slim coats at Yohji Yamamoto.

“Generally, it’s all about coats and cocktail dresses,” Dresner continued, praising gentle dresses at Chloé, Comme des Garçons and Lanvin. “There’s a lot to buy.”

Burke said news came in elongated silhouettes, military influences, skirts with volume, short evening dresses and proportions “done in a subtle way and with a deft hand.”

Meital Grantz, owner of Talulah G stores in Las Vegas and California, said fashion’s focus has shifted from the waist to the legs and the neckline.

Fink described the look of the Paris season as “very quietly romantic. They’re beautiful clothes that whisper.” Collections by Lanvin, Comme des Garçons, Viktor & Rolf and Chloé exemplified the direction and Fink also praised Akris for its “new creative spirit” and the pants and print mixes at Dries Van Noten.

“The big news in Paris was shape,” added Ruttenstein. “Short skirts, from the micromini to the mini, were a major element, and there’s still the cocoon shape.” He said other fresh looks included “long and lean” jackets and jackets that “fly away in the back.”Though runways were awash with black, Burke said the store “wouldn’t be all about that.” He said important shades include white, camel, teal and purple.

Sarah Rutson, fashion director, Lane Crawford (Hong Kong) Limited, said she liked the mix of black with Prussian blue, which helps highlight a new focus on tailoring such as the standout Victorian jackets at Chloé.

There were a few detractors.

Cedric Charbit, general merchandise manager for women’s fashion at Printemps, the French department store chain, called Paris disappointing. “There wasn’t a clear direction or a major trend,” he lamented. “Collections were very commercial and careful, and that doesn’t leave me super excited.”

Nonetheless, Charbit praised Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Balenciaga, Kenzo and Dries Van Noten. “There are some very good items,” he said, citing ladylike, Fifties Hitchcock-like heroines as the archetype of the season and folkloric details as a second option.

Several buyers highlighted strong accessories collections.

Selfridges Garner called it a “huge boot season,” particularly with stacked heels, plus square- and rounded-toed pumps, and Barneys’ Gilhart highlighted the structured handbag.

Grantz from Talulah G said she would increase her spend on shoes and handbags rather than ready-to-wear, particularly at Balenciaga. “The bags are amazing and the sell-throughs are great.”

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