PARIS COUTURE: SCENE AND BE SCENE
PARIS — “Bitch, watch the dress!”
Leave it to that great socio-fashion commentator Puff Daddy to sum up so precisely the essence of haute couture. Puffy uttered the comment to Jeremy Scott on Saturday night, when Scott, bedecked in an elaborate necklace, made from a deconstructed Judith Leiber bag purchased on Ebay from “a stewardess” (memo to J.S: They’re flight attendants now), thrust himself into a tiny front-row space in the celeb section at the Versace show — as it happens, right next to Emma Henning, Puffy’s gorgeous and gorgeously gussied-up date. Hence, “Bitch, watch the dress!”
Puffy may have uttered the profundity in the micro moment, but it captures the greater moment as well. Because more than anything else, the sometimes anachronistic, sometimes surreal, always wacky world of couture is about that irresistible, mutual high of watching and being watched. About John Galliano’s brilliant, outrageous cacophony at Christian Dior. About Jean Paul Gaultier turning his Madonna collaboration into an Oriental excursion. About blond Hilton bookends photo-oping their way to seats at Versace, done up like starlets on the prowl at the Oscars. About the demonstrative hand-holding entrance at Versace of Kevin Spacey and Naomi Campbell, followed by his proclamation that Donatella and Puffy’s babe-infested fete at Cabaret would make for “a chick fight.” What’s not to watch?
Galliano opened the season with dazzling fireworks, a fabulous Christian Dior collection that once again paraded his brilliance and his bite. Why pander to stodgy notions of elegance when you’ve got an imagination that seemingly knows no limits, and gall to match? Virtually every collection Galliano does could be dissected as a psych study: What thought process could possibly produce such astonishment? Of course, the answer is, who cares? In all of his phases, flamboyant, controversial, insane, Galliano never lets you go away blase.
Unlike some of his recent, darker efforts, on Saturday, this collection stayed lighthearted and fanciful, even if John opened with a group of paramilitary references mixed with non-specific Eastern exoticism. He called it Rebel Chic, which might as well be tattooed on, well, the body part of his choice; nobody pushes the parameters of elegance more fearlessly than he. Throughout, he mixed rugged with delicate, Amelia Earhart meets Arabian Nights, discordant pieces in harmonious layerings. And that was the simple stuff. Yet for all the madcap posturing, his point, ultimately, was a merchy one: to transport lavish embroideries into a daytime context.
Galliano then lay down his arms for a holiday in Goa, and a happy convocation of uninhibited British ravers. Suddenly, the mood turned ethereal with flimsy, graceful chiffons hand-painted with vibrant flowers, butterflies and reveries such as “Party Animal,” “Trance” and “Lady K Goa.” In lesser hands, Edie Gorme fare; in John’s care, a band of post-modern hippie urchins. From there, the caravan moved on, joining a fanciful Tibetan circus, starring a comely Western runaway: Malibu Ski Barbie. Clearly everybody’s favorite teen dream found inspiration not only in the traditional dress of the locals, but in the exaggerated proportions and riotous colors of Bozo the Clown. Her key accessory of choice: a parka worn as a veil.
But for all the apparent folly, there was a method in Galliano’s madness. From the start, he wanted clothes with movement. So before he conjured up his paratroopers, Goa Girls and Barbie, he consulted with music man Jeremy Healy. They settled on a mix of high-tech, Eastern and classical, some delivered live by the Orchestra of the National Opera of Paris, and he designed from there. He also wanted the pieces to stand alone, offering couture clients a sportswear sensibility in addition to suits. If such practicality didn’t leap off the runway, one gets the point immediately in a walk through the Christian Dior flagship, where racks of newly delivered fall clothes look fantastic. In his recent return to deconstructionist, sometimes hard-edged themes, often so out-there on the catwalk, Galliano has actually resolved his former issues with day clothes. Now both the couture and ready-to-wear look young, chic, and, piece by piece, utterly wearable. Still, if a girl wants to wear her parka as a veil with sleeves, God speed.
There’s always plenty to take in on Versace’s runway. This season it started with the return of supermodels Amber Valletta and Shalom Harlow, and even the catwalk itself, a low glass box packed with thousands of roses. Clue! A garden du mode. A “Savage Garden”, to be exact, as Donatella said she wanted to up the haute fun factor for fall.
The designer flaunted wide trapeze coats splashed with huge painted flowers and lined in lynx, the aura of Fifties fluff offset by glittering fishnet leggings, perfect for the Eighties vixen who wants to relive her glory days. Throughout, Versace mixed elements of the two decades, along with a can-can flourish or two — nothing takes the cute out of frills like mile-high power hair.
But there was more, so much more. Versace put the savage in her garden with short, tight animal prints and Me-Tarzan-You-Jane shredded lace. More romantic types might prefer tiny Tinkerbell dresses, jeweled just so, and because a little Courreges homage goes a long way, she offered a pair of white petal-covered mini coats, one patent, one fur, over sparkling crystal boots.
If it sounds like a lot, it was. Too much, in fact. It didn’t quite hold together as a collection, and with the over-the-top styling, some strong clothes turned unnecessarily cartoonish. But then, too much is what chez Versace is all about. Which is why season after season, Donatella punctuates her show with a big, celebratory bash. On Saturday, revelers including Kevin and Puffy along with Heath Ledger, Christina Ricci, Rupert Everett and others reconvened at the subterranean boite Cabaret for a sweaty, messy dance party, deejayed by none other than P. Diddy himself. “Donatella,” he announced over a mix of Eighties disco and current hip-hop, “you gotta get some bottles of tequila over here to the deejay booth.” Even that wasn’t enough, and the merriment moved on, first to David Guetta’s Pasha party at Les Bains Douches for a little table-top dancing, and then to the Eiffel Tower, for a glorious sunrise. Now that’s something to watch.
Like Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier is also feeling for the East, no doubt driven by global “Drowned World” frenzy. Being seen? The world scrutinizes Madonna and her clothes, including the tour’s geisha girl reprisal, among other Gaultier-designed looks. How could the designer resist an haute adaptation? But now, he quipped before the show, “I’m more in the mode for China.”
To put it mildly. When the Paris-Peking fashion shuttle departs, its tony travelers can feel ready for every possible situation. But a cheongsam is a cheongsam, and a tad limited. Gaultier also held his typical humor in check, save for two-piece shoes — ballet slippers sliding into platforms — along with a pair of eyeglasses strung with vision-impairing fringe. And in the end, not even his inventiveness and remarkable technical acumen could keep monotony from settling onto his red lacquered runway.
Still, any show by so brilliant a couturier is bound to astound with moments of great beauty and skill. Gaultier shows in so intimate a format that his models sometimes graze the front row with a sweep of taffeta or tulle, the perfect distance for marveling over his cuts: precision suits, here with sharp, bold shoulders; remarkable coats and jackets that fold softly back into themselves; sweeping, high-drama trenchcoats, an intricate quilted leather bolero..
But the cheongsam ruled the show. Gaultier worked it better than Suzie Wong, showing it alone or in layers, embroidered, plain, cut out over lace. He chopped it off into little mandarin-collar tops, sometimes flowered, ruched or tassled, and played with countless tunic variations, including one in liquid gold side-slit all the way up to play peek-a-boo with a bright, blush-enhanced nipple.
For evening, Gaultier continued on his Orient express, in everything from a blue-velvet-and-lace mermaid gown to a long black dress slit to reveal the shock of a red bra, bikini and garter fringed to the floor — cross-culturalism run amusingly amok.
On Sunday afternoon, all eyes were on Julien Macdonald, who made his debut at Givenchy, ushering in the house’s third new era since the retirement of its founder in 1995. If this is going to be the match that fits, the young designer will have to grow into the haute position.
Ironically, Macdonald’s position is both a plum spot and an unenviable one. What could be more difficult than following Alexander McQueen following John Galliano? Before his show, Julien rejected their spectacle-type couture, saying, “What I’ve done is all about real clothes.” Which was part of his problem. His clothes looked a little too real, in a pret-a-porter kind of way. Yet to his credit, Macdonald didn’t shy away from making a bold statement, and those expecting an adoration of Audrey left a bit surprised. Instead, he perused the Givenchy archives to explore, he wrote in his program notes, “how Victorian clothes would look if interpreted by Helmut Newton.” An historical approach that might make le Grand Hubert wince, if, after the one-two punch of Galliano-McQueen, he has any wince left in him. It was a big task, and one Macdonald couldn’t quite pull off. Many of his cuts looked forced, and some of his flourishes, ill-conceived. Case in point: the skirt knotted in back over the rear-end. While such a lump may or may not feel like a giant hemorrhoid while sitting, while standing, it enhances the posterior’s girth, and who needs that?
Still, Macdonald showed promise, as well as a certain audacity, in sleekly-cut dresses and suits, their lines enhanced by the all-black palette. And that’s promising for someone plucked from the cozy cocoon of anything-goes London and plopped onto the world’s toniest and most competitive fashion stage. Bitch, watch the dress! And every last move a new couturier makes.