LES MISERABLES

Byline: William Middleton

PARIS — As the French strikes wore into their third week Thursday, the January couture season has been put in jeopardy, society has ground to a halt, business continues to suffer and gallows humor has become the best means of strike survival.
“It’s Sarajevo over here,” said Karl Lagerfeld from behind the doors of his 18th-century hotel particulier. “I think it’s really getting out of control. It’s bad for the country, for tourism and for people who, just before Christmas, have to walk three hours in the cold. It’s really nasty.”
Some are saying the crisis is much like the French protests from the Sixties, but Karl is having none of that. “People compare this to the student uprisings in 1968, but there is nothing connected to joy or youth,” he snapped. “It’s sinister. The only thing you want to do is get out of Paris.”
But the big question on the fashion world’s mind right now is when the strikes will have to be settled in order to salvage January’s couture shows.
“Christmas,” said Lagerfeld. “But that’s already very late. It would be better if it stops Monday.”
Richard Simonin, president of Givenchy, is even more cautious.
“If the strike lasts longer than December 15 or 18, I think it will be very difficult,” Simonin said of the season that will mark John Galliano’s debut at Givenchy.
“It’s difficult now, but not impossible. After next week, it will be tough to catch up.”
Galliano has been working overtime at the house since last month and has already succeeded in winning over the hearts of the Givenchy atelier, but the strike is an unwanted complication.
“It’s always a tense period,” Simonin said of the month before couture, “but this makes it particularly tense.”
And the mood is no less anxious on the society front. Jacqueline de Ribes has decided to cancel a dinner she had planned next week for Prime Minister Alain Juppe — the politician whose austerity plan sparked the strikes in the first place.
“There is no way anyone would think of giving a large private party now,” said de Ribes. “The ambience is very difficult — we are not in a party mood at all.”
Like almost everyone in Paris, de Ribes has taken to the sidewalks, discovering it’s much quicker to walk than to drive. “We can’t do 50 percent of what we want to do — professionally or personally,” she said of life during the strike. “Even going to the doctor is impossible.”
Dreda Mele, director for Giorgio Armani in France, has also been forced to walk — from her Seine-side apartment to her office overlooking the Place VendOme.
“I feel fresh because I just got back,” Mele said after a 10-day trip to the U.S. “But the people who have already lived through these two weeks are starting to be worn down.” Mele was more than a little surprised, after her 30-minute hike to the office, to find cars parked everywhere around the normally pristine Place VendOme. “It was as though they’d been abandoned,” she said of the scene.
Across the Place, Franco Mora, director of the Ritz, said that business has dropped by 25 percent. “Cancellations are a problem,” Mora said. “But even worse are the reservations that are never made because of the strikes.”
Mora noted that there have be no cancellations for haute couture — yet. “I think people are still confident that this will be resolved before then,” he said. Local media, meanwhile, have come up with a punchy new phrase for those who have lost business from the conflict or are struggling to get work: “Victimes des Greves” or “Strike Victims.”
Some noteworthy Victimes des Greves:
* Lady Celestria Noel, who, after taking the train from London last weekend for Paris’s Debutante Ball, said it took longer to go from the Gare du Nord to the Hotel Crillon than from London to Paris.
* Azzedine Alaia, who, working at the Ritz on costume fittings for the next Tim Burton film, was abandoned by the director’s driver and had to hoof it home.
* Naomi Campbell, who found out that even the supers are not above the strike when she sent her driver to the Rue de Varenne for Perlier moisturizer — traffic turned a 20-minute errand into an all-day excursion.
“Personally,” Lagerfeld said of the strikes, “I couldn’t care less. It’s not a disaster for over-privileged people like me. I can get out of Paris in a second — at least for the moment. Until all the electricity is cut and all the planes are stopped.”

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