FASHION’S ALTERED STATES

Byline:

PARIS — Anyone coming to Paris looking for a message — the way everyone used to — has been left out in the cold. More and more, this city’s designers are roaming all over the map, failing to provide what one retailer calls “the big bang” that tells the rest of the fashion world what to do.
In many ways, this place is like the crumbling Soviet Union: a lot of little Lithuanias and Latvias challenging a few big Russias. They have no common language and no clear direction. Not only are these new fashion republics jealous of each other, they’re also eager to steal the others’ territories any way they can.
Headlines are the goal for almost everybody. And this hunt for publicity leads people to do extreme and silly things: G-stringed go-go boys; bondage paraphernalia; bare-bellied pregnant models, and bums the size of the Goodyear blimp. Issey Miyake even sent out a 94-year-old model. She was one of five who have already waved sayonara to 80.
A few houses, however, do carry on with the quaint notion that they are producing clothes for real women. And that’s why Emanuel Ungaro looked so good Sunday morning. This was a collection full of bread-and-beurre clothes: herringbone suits, perfect pants, great jackets. “At last, something I can really wear,” proclaimed one retailer after the show.
The evening may have gotten a little glitzy, but Ungaro kept to the straight and narrow during the day. In fact, this was his most restrained collection ever. The outlandish fabric and color combinations are a thing of the past, and have been replaced with cool navy coatdresses, cream-colored tweed suits and a dazzling group of drop-dead simple black pantsuits with short jackets. For women who want a little more voltage, there were touches of bold color — suits in apple green, tomato or sapphire. One editor referred to these as “friendly” clothes, and certainly Ungaro’s skirt length — just above the knee — looked appealing and wearable. Manny’s girls just don’t have the inclination to hobble anywhere.
Meanwhile, Karl Lagerfeld has his signature collection back on track. This is a house that’s had its share of recent troubles, and with the collection he showed Saturday, Karl indicated that he’s ready to refocus it in a more sophisticated, more commercial direction.
His first step on that path was to reemphasize smart tailoring. There wasn’t a skindress in sight, but there were plenty of great-looking jackets. Karl had two big ideas here: Tight and sometimes belted, or more relaxed and cut to the hip. And he added lots of details, especially in back, with everything from inset belts and double vents to deep flanges borrowed from Holland & Holland hunters’ jackets. These were usually shown over slim skirts or dresses.
Karl is one of the many designers who have taken a shine to hemlines that fall somewhere south of the knees, and they can be tough to wear, even for a supermodel. But the tighter — and shorter — he kept them, the better the skirts looked. And he also showed graceful, wide pants for those women who don’t buy into the dowdier aspects of Conservative Chic. Lagerfeld’s fabrics looked great — richly colored suedes, confetti wools and bright knits. His biggest passion, however, is for satin. He sent it out over and over, in solids or stripes, for day and evening. It’s long been a favorite of designers like Miuccia Prada and Helmut Lang, but Karl is determined to take it to a new audience.
When it got to evening, the collection fell apart. Patchwork fringes, sheer windowpane dresses and full flyaway shirts over HotPants belong to some other era. Which one, only Karl knows for sure.
If she’s not going to become the Henny Youngman of Paris fashion, Vivienne Westwood’s got to change her joke. Take away the big bums and the wire bustles — please! All they do is distract from her magnificent clothes and limit her commercial success. After all, Vivienne wants to be as rich as the rest of them, and designers with only half her brains and talent are living in palazzos and sailing the Mediterranean in their yachts.
This season, Vivienne dedicated her show to “La Cocotte,” or the French courtesan. “She wore the right things to the right places and she caused a sensation,” Westwood said of her historical muse. Nineteenth-century cocottes sure had to spend a lot of time getting ready for that moment of final seduction, and Vivienne did the same. She used all the tricks of the trade to seduce — but, this time around, never quite got her man.
With her floral-print dresses and jackets, super-short cropped trousers and mad mixes of plaids in her suits, the show was a dazzling display of Westwood’s versatility and technical prowess. Her romp through classical fashion was best summed up by a floral-print fabric taken from a pattern in the Victoria & Albert museum, as well as a perfectly tailored black jacket inspired by a 1951 Christian Dior suit.
The smile on the face of Azzedine Alaia, who was seated in the front row, said it all: Vivienne Westwood is a slyly subversive genius who is the fashion mistress of them all.
With 88 industrial-strength runway shows this season, Paris needed a happening. And once again, John Galliano was happy to provide it. The ambitious English designer took over an empty warehouse and created a snowbound urban rooftop, filling it with crystallized snow, windblowers, a few semi-naked boys and virtually every supermodel. Outside, Galliano’s commercial director acted like a Studio 54 doorman, picking and choosing among the pleading masses. Inside, the audience ran the gamut from a star of “Models Inc.” to Gianfranco FerrA, one of Bernard Arnault’s thoroughbred stable of designers, a group Galliano would very much like to join.
In fact, this event — show is too minor a word — seemed like an audition for the opening Arnault is soon going to have at the house of Givenchy. Some say Galliano is close to getting the job; others say he couldn’t be further away. Arnault himself was in St. Tropez and couldn’t be at the show, but many of his executives, including Givenchy president Richard Simonin, were there. “The press has already given this designer the job, but we certainly haven’t,” snapped one of them right after the show.
The concern seems to be whether Galliano has the discipline to manage the design and licensing staff of a major couture operation. There is also worry that personally he might be a bit too wild for the very conservative house of Givenchy. It’s a little tough to imagine Galliano and his dreadlocks in one of Hubert’s starched white smocks.
One thing, however, is obvious: Galliano can definitely design a couture collection. At least a very small one, since he again showed only 25 outfits, each impeccably cut, from the retro suits to the thoroughly modern dresses. Although they didn’t push any new fashion frontiers — Galliano’s jackets and bias-cut evening gowns were essentially the same as those he showed last season — they certainly were beautiful. And in a week when Paris is seeing too many downright dull and dowdy clothes, that’s quite an accomplishment.
The Christian Lacroix lady is a very fey madame. This type of social doyenne assumes that all eyes are on her when she walks into a room, and she considers it her duty to present them with something worth looking at. That’s why she adores Lacroix. He’s the great decorator of fashion, and the collection he showed Friday was as lavish as it gets, packed with a museum-quality perfection — and excess — that’s perfect for those ladies who live to throw open the trunk and dress up.
Lacroix started with a shapely silhouette and then piled it on from there. His runway was awash in elaborate prints, mohairs, laces, cut velvets and tweeds, worn in any number of daring combinations. There were flying bustiers and flower bustles, embroidered
epaulettes and lace gauntlets — not to mention all the feathers, jewels, glittering buttons and powder-puff headdresses that pull a lady’s look together, from her perfect coif right down to those expertly pedicured toes.
At times overpowering — without question. But at the core of it all were some very beautiful clothes. Lacroix sent out sweeping coats, smart metallic leathers and suits in assorted tweed melanges. At night, there were elaborate combinations of laces, taffetas and tulles all put together with storybook romance and a sizable pricetag — a sort of costume couture.
It’s certainly not the most accessible fashion out there, but Lacroix’s exquisite workmanship and color sense are something to marvel at. And if his clothes lack a certain currency, they still require guts on the part of the wearer. The woman who steps out in Lacroix is proud of the fact that she looks different, maybe even a bit odd. And at a time when fashion is so often dreary, a little eccentricity can be a breath of fresh air.
Jean Paul Gaultier, here’s an idea for you: Next season, why don’t we forget about all the hard-core hoopla and just go back to doing a simple, relaxed presentation that shows off the things you do best? After all, your coats, jackets and pants are some of the best in Paris. But my God, you do make it hard to see them amidst all the S&M harnesses, Andrew Crispo masks, padded codpieces, feathered shoulder pads, whips and sundry other Mad Max accessories.
Of the many ideas that came stalking down his runway, the best were tight PVC dresses, shirts and pants; suits with long sweeping skirts cut in partially-erased pinstripes; full-skirted leather coats with torn hems; jackets in men’s wear fabrics inset with solid stripes of fabric, and beautifully cut coats over skin-tight jerseys printed with futuristic dots. But the show lacked the charming humor that Gaultier made his reputation on, and, in the end, all the histrionics just got annoying.
Helmut Lang’s brazen style has made him one of the most talked-about names in fashion. His stark, clinical cuts have been knocked off everywhere, and editors seem to swoon at the mere mention of his name, ensuring his position as one of those consummately hip designers who get lots of frenzied press attention whether or not they sell.
This season, Lang is true to his spare roots. The collection he showed Friday was so focused it became repetitious, but the clothes were beautiful — terrific jackets and knee-length coats; tight little sweaters; straight, knee-length skirts that sit on the hips; slim pants with cuffs that extend halfway up the calf. The designer has also added one of those little extras — white bands around the knees of black satin pants — that might seem insignificant anywhere else, but amounts to a major statement chez Lang.
The one departure of this collection was the absence of anything that looked as if it were made out of a Hefty bag. Lang ditched plastics altogether and used only the most beautiful fabrics. And for all those debs who’ve been dying to wear Lang — and surely there must be dozens — Helmut sent out rustling skirts with trains in back. Who said Conservative Chic couldn’t be hip?
Poor Claude Montana. He had a perfectly fine collection Saturday afternoon, but there were virtually no photographers there to record it. There are conflicting stories, but apparently Montana’s security guards — or thugs, according to some people — roughed up a CNN cameraman when he tried to get into the show. An impromptu walkout followed, and fashion editors and retailers had the eerie sensation of watching a vast fashion photo op without any photographers. The experience even prompted one philosophical observer to ponder: Is a supermodel still a supermodel without a photographer there to snap her?
Still, Claude carried on with his razor-sharp shapes, architectural layers and sophisticated leathers. These turned up in everything from trenches to suits in bold colors like green and violet. In fact, Montana loves a single, strong color head-to-toe, and showed bright reds, pinks and mangoes in killer skiwear; lantern-sleeved boleros over catsuits, and fluffy feather coats and dresses over matching tights. Not exactly quiet — but then, Claude’s never been interested in shrinking violets.
The French gave you baguettes, berets, brie and Sonia Rykiel knits. At any of her collections you know exactly what to expect, which is one of the reasons she is such a commercial success. This season, her silhouette is tight and long, with oodles of faux fur collars. Her best looks included mohair trenches with matching pants and a pink wool twinset decorated in pearls. When Rykiel’s ladies aren’t swathed in sweaters, they’re strolling in iridescent pantsuits, or dancing in peek-a-boo, velvet-trimmed sheer dresses. But the Knitmeister didn’t know when to stop, and it all got a bit repetitious.
It’s out with the trendy and in with the classic at Hermes — and what a wonderful thing that is. The house’s collection, designed by a five-person team, had lost its way in recent seasons. But it was right on the money — and money is the operative word — with this clean and concise show of sportswear. A group of buttery leathers were standouts — including fitted knee-length coats, jumpsuits and a chocolate brown pantsuit.
But if leather isn’t what you’re looking for, there were plenty of beautiful cashmere coats, long and short, in simple, unadorned shapes. Other timeless must-haves include black cashmere twinsets and scarf-print blouses. Evening was a problem — with a bunch of silk taffeta dresses that looked messy and cumbersome — but one doesn’t go to Hermes for a ballgown.

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