PARIS — Who’s the real Wonder Woman of the Paris couture? For Christian Dior’s John Galliano, she’s the mythic heroine of his brilliant, brilliantly warped imagination. One season he might summon her as a bonkers ballerina, and the next, a blushing S&M bride. For spring, she’s Wonder Woman herself of comic strip fame, now a punked-out, rock ‘n’ roll she-warrior in a crazy corset. Of course, other designers, such as Valentino and Emanuel Ungaro, beg to differ. For them, couture’s Wonder Women are the clients, those loyal Ladies willing to pay out big bucks for the promise of chic. They formed the haute power base long before editorial hype took over, and their advocate-couturiers believe that, without them, this small, gilded world would become more farce than fashion. Such is the dichotomy — and the delight — of couture.
Just what the real clients thought sitting front-row at Dior on Monday evening is anyone’s guess. Surely by now they know that they won’t be ordering look no. 21 as is; that instead, they’re settling in for a theatrical extravaganza. This production was a humorous romp, a camp ode to the smash-pow-boom world of the comics, researched on the Internet and starring Wonder Woman, along with some of her super friends, Shadow, Catwoman, Firestar and Poison Ivy (the aforementioned no. 21). These gals aren’t all brawn; they have an aesthete’s feeling for super-hero chic, and put-together ensembles of stars, stripes, glitter, bustiers, warrior camouflage, an Elvis jacket or two and the occasional high-impact headdress — Sitting Bull feathered regalia or perky pink Martian antlers.
Through all this, Galliano has spun a yarn of sexual repression and self-realization, starting with the straitlaced secretary about to discover her inner strength. In that guise, she struts her stuff in the de- and reconstructed looks the designer has been refining for some time: odd smocking, zippers where they shouldn’t be, but everything as sexy as it is offbeat. Then the story line wanders, and the cast expands to prim Fifties housewives in fabulously exaggerated trapeze dresses appliqued with charming motifs — gardening, the baby’s room, an English breakfast.
It has become a fashion cliche to say that, beneath all the stuff, the excess, the indulgence, the work produced by the house of Dior is amazing. Its ateliers execute to perfection whatever Galliano conceives, from the sublime to the wonderfully absurd. Example of the latter: the most remarkable T-shirts. Surely there won’t be a run on the T lavishly embroidered with an eclectic collage of everything from a crucifix to a Coca-Cola bottle; it exists only because Galliano says it must. On the other hand, the coats — in embroidered fur and suede or hand-painted, cutout leather — are a client’s delight.
These were featured in the final act of John’s comic romp, Paradise Island, a place populated only by women graced with, he said, “youth, beauty and peace.” On the first two points, Pat McGrath’s bronzed makeup was breathtaking enough to make the staunchest antisun militant run for the beach. As for the sensual warrior clothes, they made those peaceful maidens look like post-apocalyptic escapees from Olympus. But the dresses were beautiful, and with a few modifications and a little more fabric — say, just enough to cover both breasts — clients will come calling. If only Galliano would put one or two looks like that on the runway, his fashion paradise would leap off the comics right into real life.
That’s just where Valentino and Ungaro like to stay, even if their clothes couldn’t be more different — Valentino’s, high-gloss and urbane, and Ungaro’s, exotic and exuberant. Recently, Ungaro has set out to make his shows more editorial, and for spring, his alternative staging had its woes. Guests entered a huge space at the Grande Halle de la Villette done up with little oases of trees, greenery and lakes nestled in a lot of pink sand. Obviously intended to take us off to some mental Xanadu, instead it played like a girly golf course. Yet wherever one’s mind wandered, it was snapped back to merchville when the show opened with a commercial for Desnuda, Ungaro’s new fragrance. The biggest problem, however, was that, because the twisting footpath covered so much turf, a few models didn’t walk the whole walk, and as a result, you just had to guess about some of the clothes.
But even with those partial views, there was plenty to appreciate. Before the show, Ungaro noted an “occidental view of oriental themes” in the collection, and with its riot of color, it captured an enthusiasm seldom found in such sophisticated fare. Rich embellishment ran throughout, and if citron or fuchsia leather pants seemed more mall-worthy than chic, they made for a small slip.
The best of this collection came at night. Ungaro mixes fabrics and textures with the surety of a master, and here he kept the contrasts at fever pitch: shine against matte; opaque against sheer, color against color. With so much going on, he wisely cut everything to look weightless and unfettered; no corsets here. Pieces were as wispy as a jeweled sarong and tiny top or as bold as a lavishly embroidered, gold silk and lace coat.
For all its exotica, the collection was actually more diverse than it seemed at first glance. Yes, there were the finale’s fabulous princess skirts in satin over 100 meters of tulle, and some looks needed more torso coverage to be client-ready. But what woman wouldn’t go for the allure of draped gowns with pleated insets, or the saucy minislips — minus the runway headwraps?
No headwraps at Valentino. He wants his Ladies to know just how they’ll look in his clothes — even if they have to factor in a few real-life years and pounds. This season he’s nudging them to get in touch with their inner romantic, still worldly and chic, but with a wistful grace replacing last season’s high-glam attitude. And if the shift made more for gentle sparks than major fireworks, there were still plenty of strong clothes.
Elegance ruled the day, with a major focus on, you guessed it, suits. So far, we’ve seen precious few, but Valentino knows women still want them, and he aims to please.
He cut his appropriately sexy, with smart details: racy buckle closures, contrast piping, a double burst of pleats trimming a jacket. Such embellishments are Valentino’s forte. He thinks that, even in her quietest moments, a woman wants some pizzazz, so he puts nude tulle insets in a red wool dress and lace strips beneath the pleats of a white skirt.
Of course, that philosophy carried over into evening, when Valentino really loves a flourish or two. Accomplished flirts will go for his racy laces, from charming jackets over skirts to a delicate short dress in layers of pink and sage. For grander moments, would Val let a lady down? Mais non! He lets her find her comfort zone with a broad lineup of looks. Demure types might opt for a tiered black slip edged in lace, while sirens can never get enough of the high-voltage Valentino red.

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