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PARIS — Did the Paris collections sizzle or fizzle?

That all depends who you ask. In one of the most divisive seasons in memory, international retailers took distinctly opposing views of Paris Fashion Week, which winds up officially today. And with the continued weakness of the dollar against the euro, U.S. and Far Eastern retailers said they would be ordering fewer units from Paris for fall, just as they will be from Milan.

This story first appeared in the March 9, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“One comes to Paris to see people lead and not follow,” lamented Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “I didn’t find a lot of originality. We found the same themes of vintage, couture, ladylike and bows. It was a continuation of Milan and New York. Usually I’m caught by surprise in Paris. I usually depend on Paris to provide something that the customer didn’t know they wanted.”

Majed Al-Sabah, owner of Kuwait-based Villa Moda, agreed. “I’m quite disappointed with Paris this season,” he said. “Milan was much stronger. But there were three collections that were the stars in Paris: Chloé, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent, which was unbelievable. It’s a pity [YSL designer Tom Ford] is leaving just when it’s turning around.”

“It has not been so exciting,” said Yoshio Fukuzawa, merchandising manager at Matsuya Co. Ltd. in Toyko. “I didn’t notice any significant trends this season: There was a lot of black. Nothing stood out in particular. But Chloé was quite impressive.”

Even hometown buyers found little to cheer about.

“Milan was by far the best,” said Cedric Charbit, chief women’s buyer at Printemps. “Women will be coming out of summer wearing muslin and chiffon and I have difficulty seeing them embracing the masculine fabrics and rigidity in many of the collections here. Paris was all over the map: China at Yves Saint Laurent, retro at Celine and Givenchy and masculine at Jean Paul Gaultier.”

But while some criticized the Paris season, others applauded.

“Milan and New York were good, but Paris rocks,” said Julie Gilhart, vice president of fashion merchandising at Barneys New York. “Overall it will be a great season, even with the [poor] exchange rate. I loved the masculinity that crept into fashion here. It balances that plethora of womanly retro looks.

“I liked bigger volumes, maybe in a voluminous skirt, an oversized jacket or a bigger pant,” she continued. “It will change the way we look at fashion the next few seasons. Paris gave us newness.”

Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, said Paris is always inspiring. “My favorite collection of all the collections this season was Jean Paul Gaultier for Hermès. It was stylish, sexy and charming, but it was really all about class. In ready-to-wear, Chloé was a standout. Phoebe Philo’s collection was feminine, beautiful, charming and sexy.”

Ruttenstein praised Paris designers for showing “the right way to do fur” and more sophisticated and subtle beadwork and embellishment. He also praised a “new and fresh” color palette of neutrals, led by pearly grays and beige.

“There is an interesting crossroads of masculine and feminine that is wearable and very new looking,” said Suzanne Patneaude, executive vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom. “The prevailing trend continues to be the plaid, tweed and argyle story: feminine haberdashery, all mixed up and not Savile Row — much sexier and more interesting.”

Key items she cited included capelets, cuffed pants, voluminous skirts and interesting dresses.

Given the lack of consensus on trends, retailers said they would be faced with some tough choices, especially at a time when the weak dollar is making European goods more expensive. “There is definitely a return to more elegance and more couture fashion,” said Joyce Ma of Joyce in Hong Kong. “The only problem is the euro-dollar exchange, which is very high for us in Hong Kong. One has to be more careful and reflect really on how much we can sell.” That said, Ma added that she “welcomes the return to the waist line and more elegant looks.”

Many observers detected in the disparate trends an uncertainty among Paris-based designers about where fashion is headed.

“Paris had a totally different take on the season,” said Michael Fink, senior fashion market director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “The play of feminine versus masculine has been done exceptionally well here, like at Chanel and Comme des Garçons, and then you had all-out glamour at YSL. What’s interesting is this search for what’s modern. It’s coming across as architectural shapes from younger designers and a sci-fi fantasy at Alexander McQueen.”

Fink said fur, tailored jackets and slim-line skirts were elements in Paris that were synchronous with Milan, but done sexier and more “grown-up.”

“It was a good, not great, Paris season,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “What the season comes down to is items and the customers will mix the clothes to make their own statement. I loved YSL from beginning to end and Hermès was an excellent start for Gaultier. It was classic, with quality and just enough of a whimsical twist.”

Kaner also praised Chloé, Alexander McQueen, Ann Demeulemeester, Akris, Issey Miyake, Chanel, Celine and Dries Van Noten, who she said crystallized the Paris season by mixing an English eccentric/Bloomsbury style with collector pieces. “As for silhouettes — cropped or skinny pants, fur, interesting skirts with movement and wonderful belted coats are important trends,” she added.

Anna Garner, head of fashion at Selfridges, praised Paris for not being as ladylike as New York and Milan. “It was more eccentric and madcap,” she said. “The pencil skirt is a massive trend. Volumes in Paris were strong with skinny on top and larger on bottom, or vice versa. It was an individual season and very good.”

Scott Tepper, fashion director at Henri Bendel, said he came to Paris looking for wearability more than avant-garde styles, which is why he called Chloé a “smash hit, home run.” He also praised Lagerfeld Gallery for being “a wonderful counterpoint to all the rampant femininity overall this season. We increased our buy to accommodate his incredible white outerwear and ski-inspired looks.”

While downbeat on Paris, Bergdorf’s Burke allowed that there were highlights — and plenty to buy. “Lanvin was wonderful and elegant — but very modern — completely clear and very sophisticated. Valentino was outstanding. That customer is not wealthy, she’s rich and he really tapped into that in a spectacular and focused way,” he said. “Nina Ricci was restrained and elegant and Chloé was fun, fresh and feminine. Saint Laurent was a great show, because it was a perfect way to end in that it was Tom’s interpretation of YSL, not going backward but going forward.”

Linda Dresner, who operates boutiques in New York and Birmingham, Mich., said she would narrow her focus.

“We’ve been very concentrated on our choices because of the dollar and difficult business. There was sometimes too much of a commercial approach. If it’s too sleepy, it’s not that interesting,” she said. “We’re focusing on looks that are strong and beautiful and have a real signature.”

Comme des Garçons, Junya Watanabe, Martin Margiela, Rochas, Balenciaga and Dries Van Noten were among collections offering such qualities. “We’re definitely interested in the larger, looser pants,” she said. “I think it looks good with a small, feminine, curved jackets.”

Dresner also cited a trend toward evening fabrics for day, such as hammered satin, coats with “swagger,” especially military styles with raised waists, and variations on cowboy boots.

“The idea of really decorated clothes doesn’t appeal to us right now,” she noted.

Printemps’ Charbit said the “surprise” of Paris was that “some of the more marginal designers, such as Hussein Chalayan, were less intellectual and more commercial. There were superb collections: Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga, which was exceptional. Helmut Lang was also good,” she said.

Joan Burstein, owner of Browns in London, said she found the knitwear strong in Paris, as well as accessories such as brooches and narrow belts with adornment. Her top picks were Lanvin, which she described as “young and elegant,” along with Dries Van Noten, Junya Watanabe and Sonia Rykiel. “All of these collections were completely different, which is rather nice to have in Paris,” she said.

— With contributions from Emilie Marsh and Jennifer Weil

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