Byline: William Middleton

PARIS — Fashion may be spinning off in many different directions, but all roads lead to Paris.
As the fall ready-to-wear collections open here this week, with all due respect to Milan, London and New York, there is the unmistakable feeling that this is a Parisian moment. If the trend is towards construction, designers here do it like no one else. If you’re looking for elegance, what better place than the City of Light? If you like your fashion Mod, modern or futuristic, they will all be here. And as for sexual role-playing, one of the surprise trends of the season, who could do that better than the French?
Designers here are falling into wildly different camps. There are those playing gender games, led by Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld and Emanuel Ungaro. Then there is the glamour group, including Valentino, Christian Dior and John Galliano. Vivienne Westwood is also toying with the polarities of masculine and feminine, while Jean Paul Gaultier is pushing forward with strong, sexy Amazon women.
And it may take the strength of an Amazon to make it through this season’s schedule of almost 90 shows in 10 days. After being criticized last fall for spreading the season out, the Chambre Syndicale has now done the opposite. The collections officially opened Monday, but most of the major collections are packed into slots from Thursday through Tuesday, causing logistical nightmares for models, hair and makeup.
For those who will be able to find the time, Parisian clubs are coming alive with events. Joey Arias and Edwige will be jetting in from New York to stage their Bar d’O show Thursday at Queen, while Nadja Auermann will be throwing herself a birthday party at Les Bains on Saturday. That same night, at the Bataclan, Paris’s hottest new club, Thierry Mugler is importing New York’s Sound Factory Bar. Also at the Bataclan, Suzanne Bartsch will be doing her thing at a “Day-glo Drag Ball.”
But the hottest ticket in town should be Blanca Li’s “Flamenco Fiesta” at the New Morning jazz club on Friday night, after the back-to-back Galliano and Gaultier shows. The hostess, a Spanish dancer who’s a hit with the Pedro Almodovar crowd, has rounded up a troupe of Moroccan dancers, surprise musical guests and performers who prefer their traditional flamenco dresses made out of rubber.
On the fashion front, the biggest news is gender-bending. Marlene Dietrich did it. Katharine Hepburn’s done it. And more than 20 years ago, Yves Saint Laurent’s tuxedos and safari suits showed that men’s wear could be shockingly sexy on women.
Now, it’s happening again.
“It’s not really lesbian — it’s more bisexual,” Karl Lagerfeld says of the collection he’ll be sending out for Chanel. When told of an American expression, he seizes on it. “That’s it! We’re doing lipstick lesbians!”
Coco Chanel was one of the first to put women in pants and play with men’s fabrics, so it seems right that Karl would push things just a little further. “The mood is in the air,” he says of his desire for a little sexual role-playing. “Nothing is forbidden anymore.”
To hit that mood, Karl is using men’s wing-tip shoes, both flat and high-heeled, nude hose and the spare jewelry and accessories he introduced in his last couture collection. To tighten things up a little, Karl will be showing 60 different jacket shapes — worn with with pants, dresses or tight black cashmere skirts that fall below the knee.
And while everyone else is focusing on construction, Karl is dabbling with deconstruction. He has come up with unstructured cardigan-like jackets closed at the hip with a single brooch, worn over tailored dresses that hug the waist and bodice. “I’m playing with structure and un-structure,” he explains.
Karl is also doing a little gender-bending at his own house, with a collection he’s calling, “bisexual marriage.” It promises to be one of the most mature Lagerfeld collections in seasons, with not a skindress in sight. They’ve been replaced by lots of smart tweed suits his design team calls “Karl-ized country,” tunic jackets made out of the fabric used for men’s ties and plenty of pantsuits.
Lagerfeld’s gender game is summed up perfectly by a series of evening dresses: floor-length screen siren gowns in white satin, paired with matching men’s waistcoats commissioned from the official tailors for the French military.
Even Emanuel Ungaro, who has always been the most overtly sensual of designers, is taking a cue from men’s wear. He will be showing variations on three-piece suits and mixed menswear patterns in a collection that tips its hat to dandies. “It’s not the Duke of Windsor,” he says of a group of mixed plaid suits, “but it could be.”
Still, Emanuel’s babes could never be butch, so he’ll also be showing silk tunics paired with pants, wool suits and dresses punctuated with animal prints and sheer chiffon blouses with velour pants.
Martine Sitbon has often had a masculine influence in her sharp tailoring. This time she’ll be showing long tailored jackets and lots of Mod pantsuits with a touch of rockabilly. “The most important thing about this collection is that it’s strict,” she explains. “I didn’t want anything romantic, I wanted something sharp.”
Dries Van Noten, who began by designing men’s wear, is balancing the masculine, the feminine and the haute couture this season. That translates into more pants than ever, skirt lengths that run the gamut from short to very long and jackets made feminine with darts and exaggerated volume. “I’m also mixing masculine and feminine fabrics with the kind of crepes normally used in couture,” Van Noten explains.
But for those who like their elegance without a trace of masculinity, there’s always Valentino. He’ll be showing smart tailored suits and tweed jackets with full flannel pants — all with just a whiff of nostalgia. As the designer explains, “I’m thinking about women of the past, like Babe Paley or Gloria Guinness, who always gave to their clothes a relaxed chic.”
At Christian Dior, Gianfranco Ferre is going for a stripped-down elegance. “This season is more pure, with just a few flourishes,” Ferre explains. Pointing out a tight-waisted, flared coat that could have come straight out of Dior’s original New Look collection, Ferre exclaims, “Now, that’s Dior!”
But the designer who raised the stakes on glamour, John Galliano, plans to emphasize it even more this season. He is tightening up the tailoring, focusing more on construction, cutting more on the bias and, as he says, “going for a harder kind of glamour.”
With all that activity, it’s no wonder the atelier has blown a few fuses lately. As the designer exclaimed when the lights went out once again, “There’s not enough power in Paris for the house of Galliano.”
For his collection, Galliano has dreamed up a fashion romance. “I see a captain with lovers in two ports, one in Africa, the other in Spain,” the designer says. “There will be some kind of tragedy, love letters will be discovered and, as the collection progresses, their relationship will unravel.”
His vision means Ethiopian and Andalusian influences, as in a bias-cut evening gown designed to have the feel of a moth-eaten flamenco dress, along with animal-print hats by Phillip Treacy. Galliano noted that the collection, a total of 25 outfits, will be 60 percent day and 40 percent evening — the opposite of last season.
“People want to make fashion again like in the Fifties, but, I’m sorry, we’re living in the Nineties,” says Ann Demeulemeester, throwing down the gauntlet for fashion’s modernists. “I think it’s great we want to find a new elegance, but in my way — not Irving Penn’s.”
Demeulemeester’s idea of elegance involves a strong emphasis on the masculine, which she feels is a reaction against all the recent emphasis on femininity. “As a woman and as a designer, I need to feel strong now,” she explains. “I don’t want to be a Barbie.”
If it’s strong women you’re looking for, Gaultier’s your man. After playing with fashion history last season, Jean Paul will be making a very modern statement with his “Femmes Amazones”. Colors are dark, with some bright shades bursting out of the shadows, while the silhouette is very long for both jackets and skirts, creating an effect that is almost menacing — particularly when accessorized with a riding crop. With lots of neoprene, spandex, stretch PVC, leather and fake fur, the designer is making a return to unrestrained sexiness and just a hint of the dominatrix.
Jean Colonna, who’s doing a collection he calls “Female Fiends,” also feels this is a time for women to be strong. “It’s a mix of sensuality, sexuality and a little vulgarity,” the designer explains. “It’s for the type of woman that if you get too close to, you might get burnt.”
Rifat Ozbek is mixing the modern and the ethnic in a collection influenced by the 25th anniversary of the lunar landing. Jackets with emphatic shoulders will be paired with narrow pants with padded knees, while astronaut-style jackets in silk chiffon will be worn over sequined velvet dresses. “It’s really sort of futurist, but mixed with tribal embellishments,” Ozbek says. “It’s opulent futurist.”
Vivienne Westwood, who has too much fun looking at the past to think about the future, is having a historical frolic this season. She’s always loved a good romp through classical fashion, and this collection, “Vive la Cocotte,” is a tribute to French courtesans. Formal English style will be mixed with a healthy dose of French decadence, as the designer continues to draw attention to bosoms, hips, waists and bums.
Hubert de Givenchy is a perennial classicist, and, with what may be his last ready-to-wear collection, he won’t disappoint his elegant Ladies. He promises lots of tight-waisted tailleurs, belted pantsuits and cocktail dresses inspired by ballet costumes.
“It’s soft-angled modernity,” Lagerfeld says about his collection for ChloA. That means colorful lace dresses, satin skirts with matching shirts and a finale of flowing mohair coats. Karl has also pumped up the volume of the usual ChloA pastels. “They’re frozen colors,” he points out, “Like deep-freeze pink.”
In her second collection for Nina Ricci, Myriam Schaeffer, who spent years at Gaultier’s side, is in a classical mood. Inspired by fin de siAcle artists’ muses, the designer is having visions of female dandies. “It’s a sense of elegance that we’ve lost, and a refinement that shouldn’t be forgotten,” she says.
Meanwhile, Thierry Mugler has been holed up for months on the fashion equivalent of a closed set. He and his staff have been working late into the night and through the weekends for his 20th anniversary show. The spectacle will star more than 50 models, along with dozens of other celebrities and performers, and will be shown live on local television. Regardless of the how the fashion turns out, Mugler’s extravaganza, to be held at the Cirque d’Hiver, promises to be the greatest show on earth — or at least in Paris.