By and  on March 6, 2002

Feminists could argue that the fashion world still has a glass ceiling, since the collections of most major houses here are designed by men. But Paris does seem to be making strides with a fall fashion week that features three young women making their debuts at established French firms: Lizzy Disney at Jacques Fath, Ritu Beri at Scherrer and Laetitia Hecht at Guy Laroche.

Two of them, Disney and Beri, were recruited by Mounir Moufarrige, who hired Stella McCartney at Chloe and who is now at the helm of France Luxury Group, which owns Fath, Scherrer and Emmanuelle Khanh. "There aren't enough female designers around," Moufarrige said. "I don't know why, because I think they have a great sensitivity to clothes. They're designing for a shape of body they're living with day and night. They are wearing the brands themselves, which is a plus."

Here, profiles of these designing women:

Lizzy Disney for Jacques Fath:

Nibbling on a croissant, sipping coffee and smoking innumerable cigarettes at a dim Paris hotel bar at 10 a.m., Lizzy Disney warned, "I'm not a morning person."

In this sense, you might say she resembles Fath himself, whose glamorous social life and legendary parties helped inspire his curvy clothes. "I feel like there's a connection to him because he was such a social person," Disney said. "I'm very much a nighttime person, and when I go out, I'm very inspired. I love looking at people, and I have a habit of redressing them in my mind."

During her brief career, British-born Disney, 30, has already earned a reputation for melding retro sophistication with modern hip. It's a formula she'll continue with at Fath. "I'm doing Lizzy Disney-meets-Jacques Fath," she said of her debut collection. "There's an old-new thing going on. There's also a masculine-feminine thing. I do a modern cut with antique details -- perhaps that's the best way to describe it."

Disney said the collection plays with Fath proportions and details -- his intricate pleating, his emphasis on the waist and his signature dark sky blue color. But since the house hasn't produced ready-to-wear in five years, and most people know little about the brand, Disney said she doesn't expect many to notice the references.Fath, who was known for his hourglass shapes and plunging necklines, was the first to feature models with very short hair on his runway. He died in 1954.

Disney, a native of Sheffield in the North of England, said Fath's career first came to her attention when she studied fashion at Central Saint Martins fashion school, where her classmates included McCartney. She launched her own label in New York in 2000, but hasn't shown it on the runway for a year and is now concentrating on Fath.

Disney said she's spent some time searching through Fath's personal and professional archives and was struck by the photos of his friends taken at parties during the Forties and Fifties. "There's something very modern about them," she said. "It's amazing."

Ritu Beri For Scherrer:

When Ritu Beri came to Paris from New Delhi in 1999 to show a couture collection here, a woman in the audience came backstage afterwards to tell the designer how much she liked it. She didn't give her name, but mentioned that she worked in the couture atelier of Scherrer. "I remember, I said, 'It's a compliment to know you liked it,"' Beri recalled in an interview.

Three years later, Beri, 30, holds the ready-to-wear reins at the famous French house -- which, for her, is a dream come true. "I love the name. It's such a beautiful name," she said. "Scherrer for me stands for elegance. I'm a bit uncomfortable with the word, but it's elegance in a modern way, not old-fashioned."

Beri said that Scherrer's legacy was one of elegance and experimentation, a combination she wants to continue. "What's inspiring for me is he started when he was so young," she said. The house was founded in 1971 by designer Jean-Louis Scherrer, who remained at the helm of the company until 1992, when he was ousted by the house's owners at the time. The firm currently boasts retail sales of about $75 million worldwide from such licensed products as fragrance, men's wear and bridge sportswear.

Charged with building the underdeveloped rtw business, Beri said she plans to bring her own vision to the house, trusting her own instincts. Her debut collection springs from the idea of the corset, and it's "for a woman who knows how she wants to look." That image just about sums up Beri herself, who admitted that she is always her own first and last reference when designing. "I only do clothing that I can wear," she said. "When I do clothing that isn't for me, it often goes wrong."Stephane Rolland remains in charge of couture at Scherrer. Beri said the rtw will be faithful to the overall image of the house -- but interpreted via her sensibility. The collection, she said, "has bitter elements, which are tough and severe, but it also has sweetness, very feminine elements. The collection is all about shape, to bring out the shape of a woman's body. The inspiration came from a woman's body and that's what I want to accentuate."

For the past two years, Beri's signature line has been backed by Moufarrige, now chief executive of Scherrer's owner, France Luxury Group. While she'll skip this season to concentrate on Scherrer, Beri plans to continue with the Ritu Beri collection, which she described as younger and more sporty. It does about $4.5 million yearly at wholesale.

Laetitia Hecht For Guy Laroche:

Next to the sketches of her debut collection for Guy Laroche, designer Laetitia Hecht has pinned an image that inspires her: a Cecil Beaton portrait of Stephan Tennant. The English aesthete wears an opulent dressing gown over a shirt and tie. "I was attracted by the personality he exudes," said Hecht of Tennant. "I want to make Laroche a brand for women who have spirit."

Hecht, 33, has her work cut out for her. Since the 1998 departure of Alber Elbaz, Laroche has floundered and, in the process, gone through three designers -- Ronald van der Kemp, Sophie Sitbon and Mei Xaio Zhou. Hecht, who is relatively unknown outside of France, where she founded her own line six years ago, hopes to turn the tide. "We need to build on buzz," she said. "If you press someone to define the Laroche style today, you'll find they can't come up with an immediate answer."

On the plus side, however, "I'm really working with a blank slate. I don't have to preserve any certain style."

Guy Laroche founded his house in 1957. He was known for back-cowl drapes, suits and schoolgirl dresses, but today his name is most commonly associated with his successful men's fragrance Drakkar, which is licensed to L'Oreal. Laroche died in 1988.Hecht said that she has found more inspiration in his personality than in his designs. "He had a flamboyant lifestyle," she explained. "During the day, he was friends with top politicians, but at night he wore a different hat. He hung out with people like Alain Delon. He was a real night owl."

She based her collection on a dual personality like Laroche's. "I think women today want really practical, comfortable clothes for day. But, for night, they want to cut loose. They want over-the-top."

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