THE NEW JOIE DE VIVRE
THE CITY OF LIGHT IS QUITE LIGHTHEARTED. AS THE FRENCH READY-TO-WEAR COLLECTIONS GET ROLLING, DESIGNERS ARE ACCENTUATING THE POSITIVE. AND THEIR INSPIRATIONS RANGE FROM COCO CHANEL AT MONTE CARLO TO ARTIST FRIDA KAHLO, DOLLY PARTON AND CALAMITY JANE.

Byline: William Middleton

PARIS — Paris designers are practically bursting with optimism.
John Galliano feels positively joyful, Christian Lacroix is saluting the exuberance of the Eighties and Ann Demeulemeester talks about a newfound “positive energy and respect.”
Even those known to explore dark thoughts on their runways are seeing the light — literally: Both Martine Sitbon and Jean Colonna have sunshine on their minds. And at Givenchy, Alexander McQueen has given up bones for flesh, citing good old Dolly Parton as an inspiration. Not to be outdone, Karl Lagerfeld is celebrating perhaps the greatest fashion life of all — Coco Chanel. “It’s her spiritual heritage,” says Karl Lagerfeld of the Chanel collection he’ll show Friday at the Carrousel du Louvre. “It’s the total look of life. It’s explaining what Chanel did in her life, but seeing what came out of it for today.”
From “Coco avant Chanel” through “Coco romantique et Monte Carlo” to “Chanel now and next,” the collection will look at the designer’s life in six sections, each covering roughly a decade. “We go discreetly over the Forties, because she was not around,” Karl says wryly.
His ideas include a spin on Coco’s beige and black dresses; oversized fluid jackets; long, open skirts; tweed suits embroidered by Lesage, and designs Karl calls “romantic, gypsy dresses.” There also will be plenty of flourishes Chanel never dreamed of, like exposed shoulder pads, boxer shorts and tango shoes. “It’s not about references, not a flea market, not a costume show,” Lagerfeld stresses.
Any talk of references brings to mind John Galliano. For the Christian Dior collection he’ll show Tuesday at the Carrousel, he is referencing, well, himself. “People have been screaming for a continuation of the last haute couture,” Galliano explains. “I strongly believe that couture should be a laboratory of ideas for a house. All that time, energy and investment can be distilled for a commercial world. That’s where I get high.”
Galliano’s inspirations include Twenties and Thirties boudoir art, African and Indian influences and the end of the 19th century. “There’s an overall feeling of the Belle Epoque with the colors, fabrics and silhouettes,” he points out. “But it’s interpreting Belle Epoque for today. There’s not one corset — it’s freedom!
“We’re nearing the end of our own Belle Epoque, and history repeats itself,” he adds. “In London, people are really dressing up again. There is a mood in the air of supreme decadence, of hedonism, of joy. I think that’s why people got so excited about the fall couture.”
And the designer, who has found many an offbeat location for his shows, is at the Carrousel this season — in a very ambitious way. Dior has taken over two adjoining halls, and the stage set, with boudoir illustrations projected on the walls, has been under construction since Saturday.
For his signature collection, called “Haute Bohemia,” Galliano is headed in a new direction. “It’s a much more chilled-out way of dressing,” he explains. “It’s up, fun, modern, running, alive!” The show, Thursday in the Chateau de Vincennes, is inspired by Dorothy Dandridge, the African-American actress of the Forties and Fifties. Naomi Campbell gave Galliano Dandridge’s biography six months ago.
As at any Galliano extravaganza, there will plenty of exotic touches, including Guatamalan prints and Asian ikat weaves. But he says the real news is new bias-cut dresses that move away from the body — “Think of Ginger Rogers gliding across the screen” — and his signature tailored jackets reworked in knit, “as comfortable as your favorite cardigan.”
Like Galliano at Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier is taking a cue from his July couture collection for his show Friday at the Musee des Arts d’Afrique. His knit-and-tulle evening dresses, which were photographed by fashion magazines around the world, will be reworked as sweaters or T-shirts with taffeta. “In couture, there were 100 meters of tulle,” Gaultier explains. “In ready-to-wear, there are 16 meters of taffeta.”
For the most part, however, Gaultier has been inspired not by the Russian themes of the couture, but by the images of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. “I have a photo of her where she is wearing a black man’s suit, a simple white shirt and had her hair hanging down,” he explains. “I thought she looked strangely like Marilyn Manson. It’s really Frida Kahlo meets Marilyn Manson.”
Gaultier’s collection will feature oversized masculine silhouettes, including baggy pantsuits paired with small shirts, and long skirts or pants, all in dark tones or bright South American colors such as orange and blood red.
At Givenchy, Alexander McQueen has just received a vote of confidence from Bernard Arnault and is negotiating a contract extension. Looking to the future, and his Wednesday show at the Stade Francais, he’s determined to go still further in redefining the house’s direction. “Winter was a good starting point, but we want to make Givenchy more accessible to a younger clientele,” he says. “This season is hipper, with more oomph!” McQueen, who art-directed the provocative, futuristic cover photo of Bjork’s latest album, clearly knows a thing or two about the cutting edge. “But I haven’t tried to make this collection revolutionary,” he explains. “I’ve tried to make it very now. It’s very London, New York, Paris — now. I want that feeling when someone sees an outfit, and no matter what it costs, they’ve got to have it.”
Some of the designer’s must-haves include bustier dresses, glove leather jackets and skirts, optical-illusion prints and flesh-baring suits cut close to the body. “There is a new Givenchy suit that is cut on the bias, with trousers that are tight on the upper leg and boot-cut,” he explains. “Younger women do want to look sexy. They don’t want to look like a sack of potatoes.”
The invitation features an old sepia-toned photo from the Wild West, and some of McQueen’s colleagues at Givenchy describe the mood of the collection as “Calamity Jane meets Las Vegas.” But McQueen cites an additional reference. “There is a bit of a Dolly Parton feeling,” he says with a laugh.
Another designer who’s going West for inspiration is that alta moda ranch hand, Valentino. “There will be beaded dresses that look western, sort of cowboy,” he says of his Sunday show. “And there are very tight, very sexy leather cowgirl skirts.” Some references, however, are as much high art as high plains. “There is a connection with Georgia O’Keeffe,” Valentino says. “Dusty pastels are the color of my season: dusty pink, dusty gray, dusty green, dusty blue.”
One of the season’s most eagerly anticipated collections is that of Stella McCartney, who has taken over for Karl Lagerfeld at Chloe. Stella’s Wednesday show at the Opera Garnier will have a suitably starry front row, including Hollywood’s biggest fashion fan, Demi Moore; Marianne Faithfull, and, yes, mom and dad. Paul McCartney has even made a contribution to the show. Stella’s soundtrack will include a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra of his brand new symphony, “Standing Stone,” which will have its world premiere tonight at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
But, with all the excitement, don’t think Stella is taking her fashion over the top. “Anyone who’s seen my work knows I’m not about shock tactics,” McCartney says. “This will be a nice, mellow, pretty collection. It’s all really wearable.”
That means plenty of feminine, floaty shapes. To create her structured pieces, Stella has imported a consultant: Savile Row tailor Edward Sexton. “He was brought in for technical reasons,” she says. “Chloe doesn’t have the experience of making that kind of tailoring in-house.”
In keeping with Paris’s international mood, Christian Lacroix has taken to wearing a Union Jack sweater from the Duffer of St. George. “With all the new designers, maybe we should get them for everyone at LVMH,” he quips. For the collection he’ll show Saturday, the designer is mixing his references. “There is a little 18th century, some Arles, some North Africa and the exuberance of the Eighties,” he explains. “This is about the eroticism that can be found everywhere, as well as the sophistication of ‘Death in Venice.”‘
Another champion of fashion eclecticism is Emanuel Ungaro. “It may sound pretentious to say this, but I consider myself the innovator of a certain kind of fashion mix,” the designer says with a smile. “And don’t forget that there are many imitators.” For the collection he’ll show Sunday, Ungaro is thinking of such influences as Antonio’s illustrations from the Seventies and Eighties and “the savage, colorful dreams of Gauguin.” That will translate to draped and layered animal prints, stretch minidresses, tropical prints, jersey evening dresses and a color palette that ranges from natural shades to vivid yellows, orange and purple. “It’s the opposite of minimalism,” he explains. “It’s maximalism.”
Helmut Lang, who is showing Friday, promises to continue in the luxe direction of recent seasons. “It’s continuing the approach of luxury and quality,” he says. “And the silhouette is looser. The volume still respects the body, but the body-consciousness is gone.”
Also gone — and this is where the fashion world might want to pay attention — are high tech fabrics and transparency. Helmut’s new fabrics will include fine cottons, mohair knits and “lots of silk — fine silk organza, pleated silk, elastic silk, silk jersey, cashmere and silk knitwear, as well as elastic silk and silk cottons for suits.” The color palette includes white, cream, light blue, electric blue and black.
Ann Demeulemeester, one of fashion’s most influential designers, is thinking about the arts. “The feeling this season will be pure, but surrealistic,” she says, describing her Wednesday show.
Ann will use pleats to move the silhouette away from the body and play with trompe l’oeil effects she credits to the Dada movement. “But it’s not complicated,” she stresses. “It’s a way to add mystery, a question mark, and that’s something we all want.”
And with a new Patti Smith album just released, Demeulemeester is listening to her musical muse this season. “There is still a strong attitude that says, ‘Don’t mess with me,’ but in a positive and poetic way,” she says. “At the end of the Nineties, I think we need to build up positive energy and respect.”
Meanwhile, Alber Elbaz is off on a summer holiday in St. Moritz for his second collection for Guy Laroche. “There is the idea of vacation, where everyone wears whatever they want to wear,” he says of the looks he’ll show Thursday at the Opera Bastille. “The proportions are very short or very long, very tight or very wide, but nothing is perfect.”
Laroche’s mountain holiday will mean dresses with layers of tulle; red, green and turquoise double-faced leathers; metallic lace dresses, and a finale of bias-cut evening numbers made from men’s cotton shirting.
Cerruti’s new designer, Peter Speliopoulos, wants to put his own mark on the house while maintaining its recent momentum. “I believe that tailoring — meaning more structure and more jackets — is important now,” he says of the collection he’ll show Saturday at the Universite Rene Descartes. The designer cites a host of inspirations — the lights of Paris, the sparkling design of Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the play of light on water. All this translates into a palette of grays, plenty of luminous silks and pleated details.
Martine Sitbon also has visions of water. “The show begins with a mood that’s dark — almost oppressive — with the feeling of wind and rain,” she explains, describing the collection she’ll show Wednesday. “It then becomes brighter toward the end, before exploding with light and optimism.”
Martine’s mood swing will manifest itself in double-jersey skirts against the rain, Vietnamese silk blousons to catch the wind and abstract prints that look like broken glass, followed by flashes of fuchsia, royal blue, bright red, yellow and pink.
“And although I don’t even like to say the word any more, there is devore — but it’s difficult to recognize,” she adds.
Finally, for the collection he’ll show Saturday at the Salle Wagram, Jean Colonna is seeing the light. “Last season was like a story that finished with a woman of the night,” he says. “This collection is the story of the same kind of strong woman, who is now in daylight.”
Colonna insists the change is significant, and he has decided to leave his longtime seedy Pigalle showplace to underscore the shift. “I hesitate to use the word romantic because it can be misinterpreted, but there is an urban romanticism, ” he says. “There was only one thought in my head — the light of day.”

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