PARIS: TRUE TO FORM

PARIS — Sonny and Cher had a point — the beat does indeed go on. When their ditty came on the soundtrack at Yves Saint Laurent’s couture show that closed the spring season here, one didn’t have to be a deep thinker to sense its relevance. Certainly not chez Saint Laurent, where the master holds steadfast to his classic, cloistered vision. At other houses, as well, one can rely on certain things: that Christian Lacroix will revel in lavish eccentricity; that Balmain’s Oscar de la Renta will celebrate the practical; and that the never-a-dull-moment philosophy will fuel the house of Givenchy.
Yes, in the end, journalists were allowed to review the Givenchy collection, most likely Alexander McQueen’s swan song there. Talk about leaving on a high note — his clothes looked magnificent, and it’s tough to fathom him leaving couture behind. The little coffee klatch presentation was an odd affair: Reporters, yes; photographers, no; one model; several racks of clothes and two public relations people explaining the pieces, while accepting compliments on McQueen’s amazing work. Just why all the drama remains unclear, but one thing is certain — the 34 looks presented to clients would have made a fabulous runway presentation.
On the other hand, seeing them up close allowed one to linger on their more feminine aspects. McQueen’s show styling is always theatrical and often hard; he even went for the gusto at the client shows, painting dark masks across the models’ eyes, wrapping their heads Arabian-style and adding Tough Chic molded corsets at will.
But make no mistake about it, such flourishes aside, for the woman who appreciates a little drama, these clothes are very real, and the house reports that sales have been red hot. McQueen’s tailoring remains staunch, as strong shoulders define the jackets, one in sequined and wood-beaded gangster stripes, another, in lacquered checked wool worn with a corset. But the designer can go girly as well, with tiered, perforated leather dresses. And his grand trenchcoats with full, billowing backs — spectacular.
Throughout, McQueen’s imagination soared: One skirt was a big taffeta circle lined with miles of ruched tulle; another, a tiny stretch of tulle covered in mother-of-pearl buttons. Similarly, two side-baring gowns were a marvel of contrast, in bold red-and-white silk stripes or slithering python. One could go on and on about the work, the lavish embroideries, the provocative way in which the designer mixes disparate elements for startling effect.
As for McQueen’s amazing wedding gown, it was crafted by Sylvie Pavlik, a member of the Givenchy atelier for 43 years. A triumph of lace, silk and skill, the dress is Mme. Pavlik’s last great work for the house, as she will retire in March. No one stays on forever, as the house of Givenchy well knows.
On the other hand, it seems that nothing changes at Yves Saint Laurent. Catherine Deneuve still plays the surprised star of the front row (although this time, the photographers went just as crazy over Fabien Barthez, goalkeeper for the French national soccer team), and Saint Laurent’s loyal Ladies, including Bernadette Chirac, still turn out, as does Alber Elbaz, who noted: “Getting here is always difficult because of my memories.” Of course, Pierre Berge still waits for no one, including Vogue couture model Renee Zellwegger and French actress Arielle Dombasle, both of whom arrived well after the show started.
But there was still plenty to see, as Saint Laurent adheres to the more-is-more school of editing. Once again, he reprised his classics, and although the cuts looked impeccable as always, the archival aura bred a sense of uncomfortable sobriety. Still, Saint Laurent and his ladies are content in the knowledge that he provides them the security of unconditional chic.
Saint Laurent sent out a parade of suits in curvy jackets over skirts or loosened shapes with pleated pants. And while last season he took a subdued approach to evening, here he opted for flamboyance, allowing his models to mock Fifties’ society matrons in big-sleeved, fluffy organza blouses embroidered with amusing fruit motifs, or vamp it up in white Jean Harlow satin under a feather-trimmed coat. He also gave in to that fabulous color sense with graceful garden party-print dresses and frilled organza gowns.
There was one difference in this show, however. Instead of closing with an elaborate bridal gown, Saint Laurent titled his final look, “Just Married.” Out came Laeticia Casta in a Forties-type suit, still carrying her bridal bouquet. She was soon joined by her groom, the robust-looking designer, who escorted her down the runway to the strains of “Oh Happy Day.” The beat may be familiar, but Saint Laurent clearly still loves the song.
Oscar de la Renta continued with the jaunty pragmatism that has marked his reign at Balmain. And he made it look effortless, even though the strains of being a two-hemisphere designer can take their toll. No, he wasn’t being coy when he merely peeked out from backstage after his show. He just didn’t make the trip down the runway because recently his sciatica has kicked in big time, and he hasn’t had time to visit the doctor.
De la Renta’s couture philosophy is concise and crystal clear: clients first, last and always. Who needs folly? Certainly not his loyalist legions, who turn out season after season to place their orders. If the equation sometimes lacks oomph, they don’t care; they love the special sportif infusion de la Renta has brought to the couture, and with it, just the right touch of Americana.
Remember the spring coat? De la Renta wants to bring it back, in nautical navy and white, to toss on over pants. His suits, too, have a jaunty spectator feel, some with smart pleated peplums. The pared-down approach carried over into evening, at least part of the time. These days, grand occasions are few and far between, and de la Renta wants to give women plenty to chose from for all those intermediate events. The best bet: black, in little dresses and charming jackets and skirts with assorted embellishments, and for the diva, his divine black lace coat falling from a satin band across the shoulders. Of course, de la Renta has hit his share of major soirees, and for such fetes, he showed ballgowns in bold polkadots and romantic florals.
On one level, Christian Lacroix is couture’s most reverential practitioner, and on another, its most outrageous. His elaborate vision is, in some ways, as out-there as those of his bad-boy colleagues. For spring, he wrote in his program notes of an eccentric traveler enjoying “escapades of every kind.” Yes and no. He got the eccentricity part right, but these sojourns are of a kind only he could orchestrate — soulful and arrestingly beautiful, if sometimes too complicated for all but the most adventurous pilgrim du mode.
Describing the designer’s clothes can be like describing chaos itself: odd and odder combinations spun into visual reveries; imprecise references to past centuries and far-off lands; colors that clash; ribbons, ruffles and multiple bustles; and then, out of nowhere, a pair of canary yellow spangled pajamas that look like the castoffs of Elvis’s kid sister. Lacroix lets his humor show further with crystal-detailed handbags shaped like teddy bears or teapots. And somehow it works. At least most of the time, although for day, one does long for more of the relative calm of his hand-woven tweed coat with geometric details.
As usual, at night, Lacroix conjured up a wide cast of characters, crafting unique beauties in princess-pink Gazar, a Spanish shawl with Chantilly lace and miles of organza, draped in embroidered tulle and corseted in crocodile. And that’s when his indulgent instincts made for pure magic.

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