Byline: Katherine Weisman

PARIS — It was the best season in a long time.
That’s how retailers described this past week in Paris, where femininity and embellishment ruled — and buyers responded.
“Paris has a renewed energy,” said Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. “All that prettiness, happiness — it’s all coming together.”
Fischelis noted that the mood came through even in makeup, which was fresh and clean at everyone from Helmut Lang to Guy Laroche.
“Our customers want us to buy them beautiful clothes. They will spend money for a ‘must-have,’ for something special,” said Joseph Boitano, executive vice president of Bergdorf Goodman. “This season, Paris designers did what they do best and what they understand. It was all very couture, and it’s exciting to find these looks here in such abundance.”
Christian Dior, Guy Laroche and Yohji Yamamoto were the hands-down favorites, applauded not only for their take on feminine silhouettes and fabrics, but also for the couture hand seen in the manufacture of the clothes, especially the draping, beading, trimmings and delicate treatments of knits.
As for the new blood in old houses, Stella McCartney’s Chloe drew mostly high praise: Some stores were even scrambling to launch the collection in their respective markets; others argued that McCartney still needs more of a design foundation to build on.
Joan Burstein, owner of Browns in London, noted Chloe “was very feminine and French.”
“We knew that with the right atelier, Stella would be fine and her clothes would get the finish that would be required,” Burstein said.
At Givenchy, some buyers were questioning who, exactly, is the customer Alexander McQueen is targeting. While most felt that Givenchy’s Vegas girl theme was over the top, Suzanne Patneaude, vice president for women’s designer apparel at Nordstrom — and others — took apart the collection and found “beautiful, wearable suits,” while Saks’ Fischelis liked the soft, bias-cut dresses with subtle cowl necks.
Words like “enchanting” or “romantic” were the common reaction to the Christian Dior collection. “I am feeling mesmerized by so much simultaneous talent emerging at one time,” exclaimed Patneaude. “This new femininity we are seeing doesn’t feel inhibited. I love that the hard edge is gone — it feels old.”
Many noted that designers were sticking to their own sense of styling.
“We are finally moving away from everyone doing the same thing,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. “There are the trends, but everyone had their own take on them, and each designer is making their own statement.”
Buyers stressed that a new soft sense of femininity came through on the runways, one that’s neither uptight nor baby doll.
And a particular nonchalance crept into even the most elaborate tailoring seen at Christian Lacroix or Emanuel Ungaro. Kaner cited Ungaro’s draped, floral print minidresses in jersey with little printed silk cardigans as “terrific throwaway chic.” Chanel embraced this ease in a collection that was far from cliched, buyers said. Bergdorf’s Boitano liked little details such as unfinished hems on lightweight suits. “Karl is trying to take Chanel up a new step, and he did,” noted Saks’ Fischelis. The show was a lot more subtle than seasons past, and there were plenty of elements that will lure the Chanel faithful, like cashmere and tweeds, “which are a pure luxury,” Fischelis said.
A new transparency, “and one without bare breasts,” also came down the runways, noted Galeries Lafayette fashion director Marie-Helene Robinet and designer buyer Claire Perrin, who liked the superimposing or manipulating of sheer fabrics for a light, transparent effect that women can actually wear out in the world. This technique was seen at Helmut Lang and Ann Demeulemeester, who both received a fair share of praise for going soft without discounting their trademark styling.
“Ann is continuing to grow and blossom,” remarked Bonnie Pressman, executive vice president and fashion director, Barneys New York. “She’s still doing her jackets and tailored looks, but it is much easier and softer. The layering and dresses give us a lot of options. Plus, her use of red and pink was a nice surprise.”
And the couture craft seen at John Galliano, Galliano for Dior, and Yamamoto met with raves.
“John Galliano continues with his drop-dead glamorous evening gowns,” observed Sue Whiteley, women’s buying director at Harvey Nichols. Her favorites included the fine ecru knit dress with the illusion panel and the cream silk jacquard dress with the illusion rose paired with the fitted boucle jacket.
“Yohji was one of my favorite collections, and he gave meaning to this trip. It was his strongest collection by far,” gushed Barneys’ Pressman. “His beading was so subtle, it was almost couture.”
An added plus to all the beauty of the collections was the designers’ sense of humor. “You know, the Chanel buttons are silver and the C-C logo is smaller. And the house printed its phone number on them!” remarked Fischelis.
“I loved the wit at Chloe, and there was even humor at Dior, where the presentation was practically a spoof,” laughed Nordstrom’s Patneaude.
Galliano’s show at the Chateau de Vincennes, where models chatted up the audience, was a crowd-pleaser. “I loved John Galliano. It was fun, he has a wonderful sense of humor and great style,” said Joan Weinstein, owner of Chicago-based Ultimo.
“Life is a bitch,” she noted, “and people deserve clothes that make them look beautiful.”

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