FRILLS AND THRILLS

PARIS — Long before Sept. 11, anticipation percolated over Paris. The power designers continued to flex major competitive muscle, certain animosities still simmered and Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Hussein Chalayan were all preparing to show under new circumstances. But then, emotions, inspirations and opinions are always especially strong in Paris, where, while not every collection is great, most designers seem to have at least some kind of genuine creative spark. Now, however, emotions are suddenly magnified and so are reactions to just about everything, including fashion. The opening weekend of the fall collections here brought that reality into sharp focus, as optimist squared off against pessimist; sweet idealist against hard-edged aggressor.

Viktor & Rolf: Their inaugural show featured pre-millennial, post-apocalyptic party fluff, and since then, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren have invested their collections with elements of intellectualism, comic irony and controversy. For some reason, they chose this moment to indulge in an ode to joy that gave their preoccupied audience a dual treat: a celebration of innocent serenity and a showy exhibition of technical skill. Bravo, on both counts. Horsting and Snoeren played to an earth-angel motif, their models tressed in tight braids wrapped in white fabric and arranged in halo-like coils. Against the liturgical strains of organ music, they strolled out in one white outfit after another, their communal countenance utterly serene in a manner that had nothing to do with minimalism. A larger-than-life quality took hold, the abundance of joy apparent in the abundance of stuff — boxy shapes, huge bows, Jacob Marley chains strung with charms, spiffy white patent shoes — presented with cartoon-like bluntness.
This is the pair’s most developed ready-to-wear collection to date. Last season, they finally started to translate some of the lavishness of their couture, moving from the just-basics approach of their earlier efforts. Here, it all came together beautifully. The lineup of pristine coats, jackets and dresses strolled a path less taken — the impact dramatic, the attitude pure innocence. The only digression from pure white was a crisp black-and-white heart print, a pattern also seen in delightful cutouts. Many looks were strewn with bows; some sported could-be-tricky triple waistbands or collars. But these are clothes for wearing. At least most of them are, and the rest will no doubt be modified appropriately for real life.
As for technical prowess, these boys obviously relish the craft of fashion as well as its more ephemeral elements. While so many 20-somethings out there slice, dice and staple old T-shirts and call themselves designers, it’s a pleasure to see clothes from the young-and-hip camp that you don’t have to be a naked emperor to get excited about.

Yohji Yamamoto: Are you ready for the Zen Olympics? Yohji Yamamoto is, thanks to dual forces: an embrace of the Buddhist Shizuka philosophy, and his continuing relationship with Adidas. The former, depicted in script across some of the clothes, indicates a state of emptiness in which there is “no form, no perception, no volition and no recognition.” While, to the uninitiated, that may not sound like a laugh riot, the state facilitates openness to possibility, so perhaps there’s a subliminal message to the fashion moguls of the world. In flaunting his Adidas ties so prominently, could Yohji be signaling readiness for another, perhaps more inclusive, deal as well?
Either way, Yamamoto’s collection celebrated athleticism at its most artistic. And if the results fell short of the kind of high-drama Yohji blockbuster everyone has been longing for, the clothes looked great. He evolved last season’s exotic tracksuit motif into something of a gentler nature, focusing on clothes with languid lines, leotards, leggings, full pants. Of course, there is nothing simplistic in the way Yamamoto drapes and enfolds the body, a little top slung across one shoulder on a string; a tunic falling into a single sleeve. He mixed such items with more obvious references: boxing shorts, warm-up pants, terrific shrunken baseball jackets in vibrant satins.
Still, sportif has its limits, and for those times Yohji showed chic black dresses, their rolled necklines falling off one shoulder, some of his fabulous, inventive jackets, here manipulated to twist seamlessly into dramatic braids in back.
Yamamoto worked mostly in grays and blacks, digressing only with the satins, kaleidoscope prints and the new footwear. This looked fabulous — soft, minimal leathers and jazzy, snazzy versions in colorful florals, brocades and embroideries. Just the way to put your best foot forward.

Comme des Garcons: Girls will be girls, even Rei Kawakubo. Just think of her lingerie romp last season. Kawakubo is not yet ready to turn in her frills, although fall’s overt sexuality has given way to the gentleness of spring. Which is not to say the Kawakubo woman has suddenly become an innocent; this woman is far too worldly. Just check out her sleek Pierrot-like helmet, cast from various international newspapers. Surely she perused the print before patting down the papier mache.
Yet while fashion intellectualism drives her choices, there’s another side to the Kawakubo customer that gets considerably less attention: her flamboyance. Let’s face it, you don’t wear these clothes unless you want to be noticed. For spring she’ll attract glances with sweetness pushed to the nth degree, while pilfering various sources, from an infant’s layette to liturgical lace. Kawakubo opened with some oddly whimsical dog prints on pajamas, but soon embraced the not-quite-demure frills that would dominate the collection. At various times, one could imagine Grace Kelly (in a white dress, black ribbon at the waist); Audrey Hepburn (in a sweeping trapeze) reborn with post-modern edge, and even Ralph Lauren reinventing his Sante Fe frills for a girl who can’t quite hide her penchant for romance behind artsy iconoclasm.
Kawakubo showed white on white, crossing muslin with organza and lace. She added apron-like additions to pants and short dresses, and paired cropped capelike jackets with filmy pleated skirts. Often the seemingly simple turned complicated in an instant, as a change of angle revealed additional, minute details.
As usual, some of the clothes were too high-concept to hit the streets, at least not more than an inch beyond confirmed Kawakubo turf. But overall, this might be one of the designer’s most wearable collections yet, filled with snowy metallic tweeds, deb dresses, swingy skirts, even a bold number print. And with their giant collars flattened just a bit, her lovely Pierrot tunics will make for fine real-life romance.

Junya Watanabe: Remember that Seventies show? Which one? There have been scads of them, and in most cases, they blur together. But not this one. After two seasons of toying with French classics — Deauville, Chanel tweeds — Junya Watanabe looked Stateside for inspiration, embracing not only the ultimate in Americana, faded denim, but the idealism of a generation it has come to represent for so many people. Yet this was not the same-old, same-old hippie chick procession we have seen ad nauseum in recent years, but an inventive display of the fusion of creativity and craft. It made for the most insightful investigation of Seventies counterculture in recent memory, primarily because Watanabe never takes anything literally, and he wasn’t about to start here.
An easy-listening soundtrack set the tone for models with gold-glazed lips and hair all Pre-Raphaelite frizz pinned back haphazardly with bobby pins. They wore denim dresses twisted and swirled in near-miraculous ways, always with time-honored double-stitched seams. Watanabe mixed in stripes and washed floral chintzes, and spelled out his message for the future on a leather belt: Love is powerful. Then came the jeans, often worn with tiny Liberty prints, sometimes the expected prairie blouse, more often multiple fluffed-up, puffed-up layers, challenging for all but the artsiest types bent on a meaningful weekend at Yasgur’s farm.

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