ON THE MERRY-GO-ROUND
THE PARIS FASHION CAROUSEL IS SPINNING, REVEALING EVERYTHING FROM GREAT, TOUGH-LOOKING LEATHERS TO INTRICATE KILIM COATS, WITH PLENTY IN-BETWEEN.

Lanvin: As we all know, once you’re midstream, it’s about as hard to swing a label around as it is to pull a 180 at the wheel of a steamship. But this season, Cristina Ortiz has proven herself one tough captain. Just when you least expected it, she sent out a Lanvin collection that overthrew the drearier elements that had crept into her past collections. She honed. She sharpened. She focused. And she crystallized a new look for the house that is hard, sexy and spare.
Leathers were cut clean and mean in a wickedly tight, whipstitched black minidress and another tough little number with extra-long, scrunched-up sleeves. Cashmere coats, on the other hand, were refined and belted low, while an easy le smoking was a true knockout. Sure, Oritz hit a couple of rough spots. She is new to the tough bunch, and sometimes she just didn’t know what to do with all those wraparound belts and straps everybody’s showing these days. Still, she has finally maneuvered herself into a position to move with the current, not against it. For those who always knew that Lanvin could be more, now it is.

Balmain: To the sound of a slew of hum-along golden oldies, Simon Kneen and Gabriele de Rosa, the design team behind Balmain, sent out the classics to match — a cozy knit mink cardigan and heavy tweed pants, a tan and cream, plaid tweed minisuit and a slim tan suede coat that would look right in any era. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to tell the difference between those old ditties and plain-old Musak. And the Balmain team also strayed into that lifeless terrain. Who would have thought that a one-sleeved sweater knit with an image of a tomato — yes, a tomato — across its front would ever make it through the pre-show editing process?
The powers that be chez Balmain are intent on putting out clothes that will sell — in other words, no edgy stuff — but every line needs a breath of fresh air. The suave Fifties-style black cocktail dress was a step in the right direction, but maybe the collection’s designers should follow Petula Clark’s advice as it was imparted in her tinkling Uptowner’s anthem “Downtown,” which played throughout the show. “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city,” she crooned. “Linger on the sidewalks where the neon signs are pretty. How can you lose?”

Thierry Mugler: Calm? Not Thierry Mugler. He likes things wild — in the Wild Kingdom kind of way. Of course, the designer has explored jungle themes in the past, from insect couture to Amazon warrior babes. But in his show Monday, he took a deep breath and — loudly roared. To the drone of tribal music, he delivered a ferocious collection that ran the gamut from “naughty schoolgirls” to “urban panthers.” At least those were the words the designer used in the program notes to describe his efforts. And if it sounds unruly, well, it was. There were short pleated school skirts with sexy slits and leopard prints galore. But unleashed animal energy is Mugler’s preferred stomping ground. And even if his gowns with deep slits and sculpted bustiers were nothing new, they were served up with panache. He also cuts a mean suit with a sharp, futuristic silhouette. But some of his flourishes were too much even for the fearless. A suit with what resembled a lion’s mane around the collar needed taming.

Martine Sitbon: Martine Sitbon has her own way of giving a pretty girl a jagged edge. For years, her aesthetic has blended the tough-soft elements that are rippling through fashion this season. And her collection Sunday night was an example of the designer at her best. Floaty chiffon and tulle dresses, some with asymmetrical hemlines, others with ruched chiffon tops combined with floaty skirts or decorated with rhinestones, were examples of Sitbon’s fine romantic rock ‘n’ roll touch. Also noteworthy were A-line, high-collar coats with Edwardian shoulders, and knits destroyed into webs of asymmetry and then softened with sequins.
If there were one complaint, it would’ve been the lack of explosive color. Sitbon has always set her own rules and her vibrant explosions of purple and pink make many a girl go mad. So, crowding the runway with so much black-and-white — terrain visited by many this season — left one yearning to for more signature Sitbon.

Bernhard Willhelm: In just one season, Bernhard Willhelm has made the jump from folkloric frolic to plain old freaky. For fall, his touchingly odd nomads made their way from the Mideast by way of Venice Beach to the Paris runway, picking up a striped djellaba here and a caped tie-dye T-shirt there. Of course, a few models also seemed to have picked up a bug — literally. As young Willhelm made plain in his stranger-than-fiction show notes, he’s obsessed with Scarabaeidae, aka the dung beetle, and even strapped what we can only hope were fake balls of dung to the models’ foreheads, beetles and all.
As for what that all had to do with the low-tech skeleton dancing spastically across a giant movie screen behind the runway or, even more importantly, what it had to do with the designer’s beautiful, intricate kilim rug coat or his sharply ruffled Victorian shirts, well, that’s for Willhelm to know and you to find out. He’s on his own trip, and when dung beetles meet hacky-sackers, maybe it’s better just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Kenzo: Designer Gilles Rosier is easing into his role as women’s ready-to-wear designer at the house founded by Kenzo Takada. After years spent with Takada in the design studio, Rosier possesses a deep understanding of what the house should be about. But making Takada’s vision his own has not proved an easy task. In his fall collection, however, Rosier took a definitive stride forward. It’s not that the collection was wildly inventive, but his effort will speak to many of the house’s faithful clients. There were ethnic touches in the rich choice of fabrics, some woven to resemble tapestry, and the silhouettes cashed in on some of this season’s most prevalent themes, from the Edwardian shoulder to military elements.

Paco Rabanne: One has an idea of what to expect from Paco Rabanne. He’s a sworn futurist, a pioneer of space-age design and is capable, in his own quirky way, of hitting hyper speed. On Monday, in his fall outing, that’s just what he did. They may be deja-vu chez Rabanne, but his signature chain-link and metal mesh numbers worn over skintight leather trousers were a blast. There was an architectural bent to some of the other A-line mini dresses in plastic chain-link squares and circles. He also whipped up some sharp jackets, bound at the waist with nifty chain-link belts, and clean trousers and dresses.
Josephus Thimister: He sat last season out, but for fall, Josephus Thimister came in with a collection, though small, that took on the trends one by one. There were rough and shaggy furs, brass-buttoned military coats and novel leathers, to boot. The first look, a cream and tan shearling coat, heralded Thimister’s new luxe stance, and he kept up the momentum with olive wool suits, a sleek fur shift dress and a short belted jacket in white snakeskin. While at no point did Thimister rock the boat — not even one iota — the collection was certainly solid.

Eric Bergere: Parisian style is important for Eric Bergere. When he serves it up, it translates into silhouettes that are both chic and evocative of the city’s storied history of style. But in his collection on Monday, he occasionally lost his bearings. He revisited the Seventies — a tired theme — with rich velour dresses and blouses and equestrian jackets worn over tight trousers tucked neatly into boots. Some of them were cute, such as an indigo velour dress with macrame-like details in front and flowing sleeves. But one would like more from a designer like Bergere.

Hussein Chalayan: He may have canceled his show in London, but otherwise, it’s business as usual for Hussein Chalayan. Well, sort of. The designer is in discussions with potential backers and expects to make a concrete announcement within the next couple of weeks. In the last year, Prada, Gucci, LVMH and Pegasus have reportedly shown interest, and during the London collections, word about town was that Hussein was working on his line in a space loaned by Tom Ford.
Chalayan is now showing that collection here at his sales office, CVDC, and the clothes prove that he hasn’t been distracted by all the upheaval. He is an incredible talent. While his runway shows are wonderful expressions of craft and intellect, in the showroom, one can focus on their reality factor. For fall, Chalayan’s concept was to produce a lineup of looks, which, if animated, would morph one into the next, and in fact, he’s working on just such an Internet project.
If it sounds tricky, it’s not. He started with a wool jacket, its collar half-faced in denim, and added more to successive pieces until the entire jacket is denim. But make no mistake — these are clothes to wear, and each piece stands on its own. Chalayan’s tailoring is gorgeous — a short jacket spliced with leather, a dreamy cashmere coat lightly bunched at the hips. He affixed the waistband of pants to the ends of his shirts, creating a trompe l’oeil effect, and conversely, added shirttails to skirts. As for his dresses in silk and jersey, they are both complicated and gentle.
While Chalayan definitely expects to return to the show calendar next season — the city yet to be determined — he says that this season has been highly educational. Retail clients have been tremendously supportive, he notes, and he’s using this trip to learn just what makes their customers tick. “Basically, this has been an exercise in understanding who buys the clothes,” he explained. And who is that woman? “She’s likely to be someone who likes design of all kinds, rather than fashion, fashion, fashion.”