Christian’s Fundamentals

Anyone who says couture is dead obviously didn’t see Christian Lacroix’s triumphant show on Sunday in Paris. The Provencal designer is as strong as a bull. The press and his bosses have been pushing him to be more commercial for years, but Christian stubbornly sticks to his dream of couture as the crown of luxury, workmanship and beauty. If some find his ideas unworldly, Lacroix couldn’t care less. “I will always claim the right to shock. Even if sometimes this means being disliked,” he said in his program. “Couture is my passion.”

And Lacroix was at the top of his form, with a magnificent display of color, mixtures of prints and elaborate embroideries. The applauding audience, titillated by practically every number, knew that this was a showing in the best haute couture tradition. Ellin Saltzman gave it an open-mouthed “Wow,” and Donna Karan, embracing the designer after the show, said, “Thank you for giving us all this art.”

Ironically enough, Lacroix started his collection with pants, the big Paris story. They were low-slung and wide, paired with cropped striped sweaters and little bolero jackets. There were also sassy short skirts and tailored shorts, Directoire-style jackets and slithering gold tops.

The designer sent out plenty of clothes in intricate combinations of patterned fabric, embroidery and lace. But this time he was in complete control of his technique, never overplaying the folkloric tune. Sometimes he piled the ideas on a bit thick, but if the looks were taken apart, there were pieces for everyone, from knitted bandeau tops to mesh T-shirts. Gone were the over-the-top ballgowns, replaced by a slew of short, sexy cocktail dresses reminiscent of Lacroix’s bubbly early days, and the simplest long satin gowns that would do any glamour-girl proud.

Karl Calms Down

As the man responsible for pumping up couture’s volume, it’s only fitting that Karl Lagerfeld be the one who tries to turn it down. His collection for Chanel on Saturday morning was virtually disco-free, accessory-free and, with the exception of a few rather silly feather face masks, gimmick-free. Karl tried to make up for his new seriousness with sheer quantity: he showed 101 numbers, more than anyone else in Paris. The problem is, however, that Lagerfeld’s audience has become fond of his clever tricks, and a lot of them left the show at the new Carrousel du Louvre a trifle disappointed.

The best part of the collection was the briefest. Karl sent out a series of splendid cropped tweed jackets with Coco-ish wool trousers. By the time they make it to the ready-to-wear line — where they belong — these unmatched suits will be the look everybody wants. Also interesting were Karl’s newly proportioned suits: short, short skirts with slightly longer jackets.

The rest of the collection was a maze of wonderful and not-so-wonderful dresses, most of them black chiffon. Some were tiered, some were laced, others had corsets, or sleeves that hung to the ground. Sheer also raised its hoary head but in a slightly more ladylike manner — and, hell, Lagerfeld invented the look, so why shouldn’t he exploit it?

By the end of the show, Karl was really in fashion overdrive, with bustles, tulle skirts that a mad ballerina could love and a big black feathered cape. As for the surrealistic feathered masks, Karl’s claim that they allowed women to see the world without the world seeing them, was proved wrong. The audience could easily guess a model’s identity from her legs or other body parts, while the poor girls kept tripping down the stairs that led to the runway. Thank God the Kaiser spared Claudia Schiffer: she had enough trouble negotiating the stairs without a mask.