PARIS: CONTRETEMPS AND CORSETS

Byline: Bridget Foley

PARIS — We’ve seen the appointments, the wild-child antics, the great end-of-the-century renaissance of haute couture. Now, with stock markets faltering and the shock of the new no longer that, haute-o-philes had reason to fear: Was couture about to slip into a hiatus of dull prettiness? Au contraire, as they say in the City of Light. Au contraire, thanks largely to two apparently quite contrary personalities squaring off inside the biggest fashion conglomerate on the planet.
Of course, the conglomerate is LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and the two key players in couture’s latest drama, Bernard Arnault, the person most responsible for reviving the once-staid French tradition, and Alexander McQueen, one of the beneficiaries of Arnault’s considerable largesse and a good bet to soon be the former designer of Givenchy. Contractual obligations or not, can anyone imagine him lasting through the October ready-to-wear shows? (On the other hand, in this often S&M world, the two men might torture each other with civility until the very end.)
As everyone knows, McQueen, lauded by Arnault in this publication as “the most capable of creating new ideas,” recently sold 51 percent of his London-based house — the house he often suggested he would never sell — to Gucci Group.
As everyone also knows, there is no love lost between Arnault and the Gucci guys. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when Givenchy announced late last week that it was canceling McQueen’s couture extravaganza. The show was to have been held at the vast Salle Marcel Cerdan exhibition space, and would have accommodated 700 seated guests and about 100 photographers. The official reason given: “Production problems.”
And problems there were, with in-house labor issues resulting in an abbreviated run of show: Only 35 of the originally scheduled 50 looks were finished. These were shown to clients in two small presentations on Sunday afternoon. Originally, members of the press were told that, while these were for clients only, the collection could be seen by appointment sometime this week. On Saturday night, however, that invitation was clarified. Although magazine editors would be welcome to select items for editorial shoots, reporters from this and other newspapers could drop by to sightsee — sort of like you do during downtime at the Rodin Museum — only after agreeing in advance not to review the collection, as the house deemed it incomplete and not appropriate for review. Naturally, that turn of events only heightened the intrigue, so much so that at least one couture client called with an offer to sneak a reporter in undercover as her companion. Interviewed after the show, clients said that the scene was emotional, with ample applause throughout. McQueen took his bow to a standing ovation, and he reportedly had tears in his eyes. House employees cried, as well.
As for the clothes, the clients raved. McQueen found his inspiration in tribal Africa, with, according to one client, an Arabian digression, “with scarves wrapped around the models’ heads so that only their eyes showed — like a PLO terrorist or Lawrence of Arabia.”
She and numerous other women interviewed after the shows found the collection spectacular. They gushed over cutout leather dresses, intricate beading and Masai-type jewelry. One also noted embroidered coats and a kimono dress. “It looked as if he had traveled through the Masai Mara, to Mount Kilimanjaro, like he’d been through the deserts of Africa,” she said.
Another guest, Mary Rossi, called the show “dreamy and very McQueen, with big belts, a lot of suits and beautifully cut, structured dresses. It was as good as anything he’s ever done.” Melanie Hennessy proclaimed it “the best collection he’s ever done. I feel bad for the house, the talent that they’re going to lose.”
No doubt unintentionally, yet another guest twisted the knife more overtly. “It was very moving, with very sophisticated work,” said Marie-Christine Bendavid. “He cut leather to look like lace, which will be great at Gucci.” Of course, McQueen won’t be designing Gucci, but Marie-Christine’s got the gist right.
Immediately after the 3:30 show, McQueen and his parents made a beeline for the train to London, leaving questions about the fulfillment of his contract unanswered.
Still, there was the opening weekend of the couture season, and some news was made on the runway. In fact, with the season barely under way, spring has its first bonafide trend — corsets. Both Donatella Versace and Jean Paul Gaultier showed plenty, and today, in his ode to Wonder Woman, at Christian Dior, John Galliano will do his part, as well.
Once again, Gaultier proved that elegance and edge make perfect companions. True, this show lacked the drama of some of his past efforts, but by now, the idea of Gaultier couture is no longer ephemeral. We expect his vision of high chic and his expressions of imaginative sophistication. The great joy of a Gaultier collection lies in that delicate balance: He knows exactly the point at which the pleasure of indulgence turns to vice.
The designer showed in the Carrousel du Louvre, which he fitted with huge scrims painted to create the heavy-duty boiserie of a tres Parisian salon. This provided a marked contrast to the names of the various rooms: Wimbledon, Newport, Aspen. But then, if you can’t mix references in couture, when can you?
Gaultier did just that, although his concept of the sportif life is, shall we say, a bit rarefied. But if he wants to think that a corseted bubble dress references volleyball, or a delicate star-flecked tulle gown, square dancing, as his program notes indicated, more power to him. As always, he opened with coats and suits, the latter perfectly sculpted and draped. The stunner: a navy pantsuit with a strapless corset jacket worn under a tiny bolero. As for the former, the backless trenches may have been a tad tricky, but looked ever so haute. And since Gaultier knows that there’s another side to “daywear,” it has become something of a tradition for him to bedazzle his audience with jeans. This time he festooned them with blue crystals.
Then there were the dresses, and here, Gaultier favored a few themes — corsets, sheer cages over embellished gowns and slashes that looked sauvage enough. He also worked in Grecian, flamenco and Zelda elements, with flourishes of jewels, ruffles and appliques making each one a gem.
On Saturday night, Donatella Versace set out to answer a quirky question: What if Toulouse-Lautrec had honed his artist’s skills, not in the dancehalls and brothels of Paris, but in the haunts of Eighties punk princesses? It made for a lovely collection, one much more subtle than the crossover theme suggests. In fact, up close, the pieces are far more impressive than on the runway, probably because Donatella prefers reality, relatively speaking, to theatricality; she wants women to wear these clothes. But first they must say yes to corsets, as Versace’s hyper-construction turned the most boyish of model figures into an hourglass.
And they looked plenty alluring. Toulouse trekked through the collection with a wonderfully girly palette and major display of stripes, either embroidered or inlaid. Sometimes they ran straight, at others, curving and shifting with the body. When Donatella digressed from stripes, it was with rich fabric combinations, as in the periwinkle blue lace and charmeuse dress. While some of the dresses floated like a breeze; others, such as the knockout black gown draped to one side, bore their corsets for all to see.
Skirts and jackets were similarly constructed, and if the designer fell prey to a Nolan Miller moment or two, more often, her strong-shouldered jackets looked great. The Lautrec inspiration made a perfect fit, nudging her to temper her flashier instincts the way the painter idealized his ladies of easy virtue. The end result was sexy without vulgarity.
That doesn’t mean a girl can’t have fun. That’s what faux tortoise coats and bags are for, not to mention feathers, in a fluffy jacket or face-flattering neck ruffs. And all that corseted couture beachwear — just imagine the swan dives!
Afterward, Versace hosted a bash at Korova, the new restaurant near the Champs Elysees. There her front-row guests, Pamela Anderson, Lil’ Kim and Selma Hayek, giddily dissected the show as girls do. “It’s the first couture show I’ve ever seen,” Pamela said. “It’s fantastic. It makes me want to be a supermodel.” “If only we had longer legs, we’d be on the runway,” Kim added.
Director Robert Altman, himself a chronicler of the fashion life (remember “Pret-a-Porter”?), waxed more sociological. “It’s a fascinating and weird art,” he said. “More than sculpting and painting, really. Everything is constantly reinvented.” He then added what fashionistas already know: “It’s entertainment in the world.” Both on and off the runway, as the Givenchy-McQueen saga proves.

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