PARIS — “There’s only one way to make the bubbles stay… Simply open a new window every day.”
So said Auntie Mame on the subject of champagne. And she had a point. That wonderful champagne fizz has simply fizzled out of the couture, leaving a dull, flat seasonal vintage that so far hasn’t gotten anyone drunk with joy. The missing sparkle: the lure of the new.
Fashion types are a greedy bunch: too much theater — same-old, same-old; too little — boring! In one sense, designers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and we in the press are to blame. The startling changes in the couture over the past few years took fashion by storm, but now we’re used to it all: the extravaganzas, controversies and behind-the-scenes rumors about who may be replacing whom, and when. It’s still news, but the novelty has worn off. All of this creates a situation in which designers must deliver more, with collections stronger than ever, just to hold their own in the eyes of a press corps with a severely limited attention span.
Of course, one dazzling collection and, instantly, the couture will sparkle anew. But more than halfway through the season, the blockbuster hasn’t happened, and despite some strong shows, the dominant mood here is one of restless anticipation.
Designers who do not subscribe to the circus school of couture must feel the greatest frustration when they sense that, for many in their audience, beautiful clothes just aren’t enough to generate the kind of excitement that great clothes once fueled. Surely they must long every now and then for the good-old glamour days, the days before fashion irony, when runways weren’t supposed to provide subliminal messages or theater, absurd or otherwise — the days when women just wanted to look beautiful. But at the same time, these designers are one-up on everyone else, because they believe that now, even after all these years, women still just want to look beautiful.
And we’re talking a lot of years. Valentino is currently celebrating his 40th anniversary in the business, 40 years advising women from Jackie O to Ashley Judd on matters of style. As for Emanuel Ungaro: Other than Yves Saint Laurent, Ungaro is the only major French couturier now working who was in the same position during the hype and glory of the haute Seventies. For fall, both showed strong collections. While compared with their longevity, Balmain’s Oscar de la Renta is still in his couture teens, he, too, is a practiced pro at playing to his clients first and only secondarily to the fickle press.
This season, Valentino saluted the glam life, playing up the Hollywood angle crossed with an Eighties confidence, but without its harsher connotations. And if he went on a bit too long, he offered plenty of style along the way. He chose to show some looks under the shade of gigantic retro hats, perhaps to make a point about the timelessness of his take on haute fashion: When the hats came off, the look was instantly modern.
As always, the suits were divine, shapely and elegant, a twist of fabric centering the jacket in front or back. On the other hand, coats ranged from lean to loose, the latter cut in black cashmere strewn with huge flowers or in a croc print. When Val tossed them over pants, the mood was rich sportif. His embroidered shirtdress took on a similar attitude at night, and he was more daring with a pair of leather cocktail dresses — one leopard-print, one in black pleats — that looked quite chic.
But some events call for grandeur. Any woman worth her stilettos knows that, for big nights out, Valentino’s her man. He offered a lineup of sultry siren gowns — the kind that will look divine on the stars who will show up for his anniversary party in Hollywood in November. But one of his best looks was an alluring beaded blouse, knotted in front over a richly embroidered skirt.
Valentino’s accessories also looked great — flamboyant feathered or beaded handbags that fell from bracelet handles, and sandals with jeweled snakes that slithered sensually across the foot.
Emanuel Ungaro’s work is an ongoing celebration of artsy lavishness. This season, however, he injected his characteristic exotica with a healthy dose of hip, and it worked beautifully. There’s always a danger when established designers go after that grail of cool, as too often the results look disingenuous or even silly. Ungaro, however, found a sound balance — ultra-rich, also Eighties in mood, but stopping well short of costumery.
For starters, Ungaro streamlined his clothes, relatively speaking, both in terms of silhouette and multiple fabrics. Here, there were fewer layers, fewer prints, a cleaner line than in the past. The prevailing silhouette was graceful yet strong, with a lot less flou than he touted in his recent romance with the boho hippie. He’s moved on to the power babe, and she looks great. Ungaro put a strong focus on pants — lean, mean and tucked into sexy back-tied ankle boots, worn with blousons or short, smart jackets. Sometimes, he tempered the message with well-placed frills — pinstripes with lavish embroideries, a flower perched on the shoulder, controlled ruffles. In fact, this collection was all about control, and that is, of course, a relative concept. Ungaro’s fabrics were as lavish as ever, his embroideries and extras all as rich.
For evening, he went for sparkle, shine and loads of sex appeal. But the real knockouts were the fabulous draped gowns — the ultimate glamour punch, wrapped in satin.
If Oscar de la Renta wandered a bit at Balmain, it may be because he has such an international host of admirers. In his front row sat an impressive list of royals and socials, along with the eternally tanned George Hamilton, in town to film “Off Key,” a film based, he said, on “the three tenors; you know who they are.” Among the Ladies: Firyal of Jordan; Ira von Furstenberg; Deeda Blair; Maryll Lanvin; Nada Kirdar and her daughter Rena Sindi; Claude Pompidou and her grandson’s wife, Marianne Pompidou; and Danielle Steele, who took notes so furiously, you might have thought she were penning a steamy new chapter in longhand. Steele was enthralled. “Oscar is the most fabulous designer in the world,” she said. “His clothes are so special, but they’re wearable and wonderful.” Yes and no, Dani. For day, Oscar showed some appealing, meaty tweeds for coats and suits. But he often opted for odd proportions, either that difficult below-the-knee length or very short, which still isn’t looking right past a girl’s Sweet Sixteen. But Oscar may be onto something; short is bound to make a comeback sooner or later. His other big message: international sportif in Mayan-inspired coats and jackets with lively embroideries and, often, sable trim.
While for day de la Renta homed in on a few key ideas, at night he offered a Whitman’s Sampler of styles. Some looked great while others, well, you just wanted to sneak them back in the box. But Oscar doesn’t like to limit his Ladies. After all, they have many moods, so he sent out just about everything — feathers, ruffles, satin and sparkles.
When she’s feeling frisky, a woman can go for bead-fringed fancy pants, and for more romantic moments, a major ballgown — some of the few we’ve seen this season. But de la Renta’s most beautiful looks displayed more restraint: an embroidered white linen shirt and black faille skirt and a drop-dead velvet gown with rhinestone bow straps.

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