FALL COUTURE: HAVING IT BOTH WAYS

PARIS — Oh, how times change — in couture as everywhere. The fall season closed here on Wednesday with two shows offering salient testimony to the scope of such change: the old and new couture playing out in stark contrast in the collections of Yves Saint Laurent and Viktor & Rolf.
Of course, in the greater scheme, couture is hardly a meaningful social barometer of this or any era, except in subtle ways. The modern attention span, profoundly altered by instant information and split-second visual imagery, finds looking at 92 of anything, leisurely presented, a bit taxing. But that’s what Saint Laurent showed, his philosophy of couture steeped in the once-stringent regulations of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. Conversely, only a few years ago, 12 looks amounted to a meaty preview, but that was the sum total of looks in Viktor & Rolf’s new collection, and no one in the exiting audience felt at all cheated.
As for the clothes themselves, Saint Laurent once again offered a calm review of his own rich archives, everything perfect and perfectly practical save for a few fanny-focused numbers that his clients applauded but would never wear. Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, on the other hand, provided one of the week’s newsiest shows in a high-concept theater piece of fabulous, inventive clothes — very few wearable as shown — and a dose of pretension. Ironically, of course, once upon a time, Saint Laurent forged a new era for the couture, complete with frenzy, adulation and, season after season, rapturous headlines.
Part of that frenzy focused on the audience. It was Saint Laurent who initiated front-row watching as a spectator sport, and his loyalists still come out in full force. For fall, his guests included French First Lady Bernadette Chirac along with Nan Kempner, Helene Rochas, Chantal Miller, Audrey Gruss, Sylvia de Waldner and Lita Livanos. Once again, the grandest dame of all, Catherine Deneuve, sat front-and-center, this time next to Lauren Bacall. And they made for an odd sisterhood: the ever-glamorous, perfectly coifed French icon and the salty, gum-chewing American, who, with reading glasses halfway down her nose and hair pinned sensibly behind her ears, looked more like a figure-skating judge than a couture client. But there was another star at Saint Laurent, as well. Tom Ford arrived looking very Hollywood behind dark glasses, unnecessary in the dimness of the Intercontinental Hotel ballroom, and the paparazzi went wild again.
Life on the runway proceeded more quietly, despite the collection’s provocative title, “Tout Terriblement.” As the legendary classics strutted past, one wished for the oh-so-minor tweaks that would make them instantly modern. But Saint Laurent, as usual, stuck to his guns, finishing off strong shoulders and perfect cuts with fedora, fez or riding veil. And if the message rang unintentionally retro, the essential Saint Laurent polish felt ever-right. The coats and suits were beautiful, the latter emphasizing tweeds and volume, with shapely jackets over full, swingy skirts. But Saint Laurent offered options, with pants, tight, sexy dresses and looser chasuble looks.
If one found the designer in a subdued mood by day, the suspicion was confirmed by night. While last season he reprised his glorious gypsies, here Saint Laurent kept mostly to black, and despite a flamenco flavor to some of the gowns, a mood of sobriety prevailed. Still, many pieces were beautiful — a strapless velvet gown, a draped mousseline bodice and velvet skirt, and delicate confections of point d’esprit.
Discretion may have been in absentia at Viktor & Rolf, but the Saint Laurent influence was not. In addition to a smoking or two (in white), the young upstarts Horsting and Snoeren displayed the kind of audacity that the master himself once flaunted. Their schtick: bells. Tens of thousands of little silver and gold bells, the kind that hang on Christmas stockings, embroidered onto the clothes. And it was great, even if poor Carmen Kass looked as if she might faint under the weight of her floor-length feather-trimmed coat. According to Snoeren, the ringing and the tingling of the bells suits a post-millennial present that requires “something more than visual, with an intangible aura.” Hence, they showed in a fog — literally — using a mist machine to create pea-soup visibility inside the Palais de Chaillot. They also commissioned “Generation X” author Douglas Coupland to write an essay for their program notes, in which he explained, “Art has vaporized. Every day we walk through its vapor.”
Anything you say, guys. While the presentation’s oddity offered amusement, the real strength of this collection was anything but a case of the vapors. Try rock-solid chic, delivered in the form of a tuxedo, low-belted coatdress and asymmetric party frock, most covered in dense packings of the little ringers. As a teaser, they even sent out a black dress, almost bell-free, and it was a stunner.
Inevitably, one will ask for whom the bell toiles? For no clients we can think of, given the bells’ weight (a ton), and sound effects far too noisy for the theater. But these clothes are beautifully thought out, cut and crafted. If they so choose, Horsting and Snoeren could get a real couture business going, adapting their vision to wearable art.

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