Byline: Sarah Raper

PARIS — The World Cup, the month-long Superbowl of Soccer, kicked off Wednesday in France — complete with opening night riots on the Champs- Elysees — and oddly enough, it’s a fashion house, not a football squad, that has the only guaranteed berth at the finals.
Yves Saint Laurent was invited to put on a fashion show on the field just before the final game on Sunday, July 12, and the house is spending $4 million for a 15-minute extravaganza that is expected to be seen by 1.7 billion viewers worldwide. It’s the most YSL has ever spent on a project.
“Let’s get it straight — this is not a fashion show; this is a fashion spectacular,” said YSL chief Pierre Berge in an interview this week at his office. Downstairs, 300 haute couture dresses from throughout Saint Laurent’s 40-year career were being ironed, pouffed and fitted on the 300 models who will sweep across the field in the pregame entertainment.
True, said Berge, some of the beading details are sure to be lost on the sports fans, but that’s not the point. “Of course, the 80,000 spectators in the stadium won’t see very well. Of course, they’re too far away — but this event is being staged for the 150 TV networks,” Berge said.
Berge and Saint Laurent are abandoning their traditional posts backstage and will be taking in the show from their corporate box in the new Stade de France. Berge has come down with a mild case of football fever — he’ll be attending several matches and has also been invited to sit in the Brazilian ambassador’s box for a key match. On the other hand, Berge said he thought the finals would be the designer’s first soccer match.
YSL’s participation in the World Cup goes back a year, when Michel Platini, the former soccer star who is president of the French World Cup organizing committee, came to see Berge about putting on the pregame entertainment. “I said ‘Yes’ immediately because I thought it was a perfect fit for us,” Berge said. “Yves Saint Laurent is the living Frenchman who is the most famous and important in his activity.
“After I had made up my mind, I went to talk to Yves. He thought it was very amusing. Yves is no football fan, but he loves a big show, especially when it catches people off guard. Remember when we did the fashion show for [the French Communist newspaper] L’Humanite.”
Berge said the more he looked, the more links he found between soccer and YSL’s brand of fashion. “A soccer team is a melting pot made up of people who come from all over, and so is the cabine at a fashion show,” he said. “Both fashion and sports are concerned with the body and physical appearances, and I love the idea that the world of the athletic, virile man meets the refined, elegant universe of women.”
In addition to the costs of the show, Saint Laurent is paying $1 million for 4,200 uniforms for football federation officials, the World Cup organizing committee and hostesses, as well as four gigantic gowns that were part of the World Cup opening celebration on Tuesday night.
While the main event will be short and sweet, the logistics are staggering. YSL began gearing up for the show before Christmas. Saint Laurent, accessories designer Loulou de la Falaise and some of the staff sifted through 4,000 couture dresses to pick the best. Most are stocked at the La Villette science museum and exhibition complex on the edge of Paris, where Berge, the designer and other private investors are pulling together a research center for YSL that is expected to open Jan. 1, 2000.
The outfits were chosen to be representative of the designer’s couture work — there are 44 smokings but also his first transparent dress from 1968-69, two Mondrian dresses from 1965-66, and his first safari jacket from 1967. But gowns were also chosen to form a colorful pageant around themes like Art, Orientalism and Africa.
There are plenty of problems — organizing a backstage with 300 models and some 600 hair and makeup specialists and assistants. In fact, the whole group will be in an adjacent stadium and will return there after the show to watch the game. Recruiting and fitting the 300 women has also been a chore. Big names like Alex Wek, Carla Bruni, Laetitia Casta and Kylie Bax are all signed up, but Claudia Schiffer can’t make it because she’s sitting in the L’Oreal box for the game, and Kate Moss, who will be featured in YSL’s fall ad campaign, was too busy. All the models are working at specially negotiated rates.
Each is due in for a fitting where they’ll practice “the walk” — a sporty stride rather than the usual hip-swiveling catwalk slink. Also, they’ll give their nationality so that TV crews from all the home countries will know which models are theirs. There’s a dress rehearsal on the eve of the show.
Then there are lots of little details — dresses that must be slit to allow the models to move, pads sewn into the armpits to protect winter gowns from what could be a sweltering day, and hundreds of pairs of wedge shoes designed so they won’t dig into the field.
And, for the worst-case scenario, YSL has stockpiled hundreds of specially produced transparent umbrellas. “We don’t know exactly what the media impact will be — but I know it will be big,” said Berge. “Of course, it could be a flop. Anything you do direct on TV can be a flop, and if it rains, it’s a wash.”

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