PARIS — Fashion retailing is a risky business and a number of corporate lives depend on it. That is why neither wind-propelled rain nor the threat of terrorist bombs keeps store executives from the drafty, makeshift tents set up in the soggy courtyard of the Louvre museum where the French fall collection shows began last week.
And that is why nobody laughed at the pregnant-look peplums, padded hiplines and bouncing bustles shown by three Japanese designers who kicked off this city's fall fashion week. In fact, buyers seemed grateful to get back to unreality here, after two weeks of viewing traditional clothes in London and Milan.
Traditional is not what they came to Europe for. They are here for invention and artistry, for the touch of design magic that will turn dressing-room try-ons into cash sales. Some buy the actual designer clothes, others catch the trends and copy them. In either case, when they reach Paris they're at the hub of the fashion wheel.
Buyers at the Japanese designer shows knew that the average Ms. America wouldn't walk the avenue with the front of her jacket padded to look like a deflated life raft. She might even resist a flap of fabric, folded origami-style, dangling from the hipline of an otherwise simple and elegantly tailored suit.
But that doesn't matter. What designers Kenzo, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto always offer stores is an alternative view of fashion rather than specifics. Their overall approach to body covering is imaginative, fresh and experimental--an approach that is usually served up to even the most conservative shoppers in one form or another each season.
Kenzo's show was a hot shot of much needed color: red, yellow, pink, purple, blue, often in wild solid or patterned combinations. His simplest styles were best: long, loose coats over narrow jersey sweaters that topped long, bias-cut or pleated skirts. But there was plenty of fun stuff for the trendies, including hip peplums, rear bustles, Western fringe on jacket sleeves, tent-shaped blouses and even slim, bell-shaped skirts formed by diagonal tiers of fabric.
A big chunk of the show was Kenzo's happy fantasy of how Western girls look at home on the range. It was a costume designer's dream, with huge cowboy hats and boots providing the sandwich ends between which Kenzo stuffed a glittery assortment of bright minis and tights, gold-embroidered jackets, shearling coats over velvet outfits and what is probably the world's longest fishtail, ruffled peplum.
Kenzo is not alone in celebrating the American West. The streets of Europe are filled with citizens of every age, wearing fringed leathers, blue denims, cowboy boots and tooled leather belts--even with mink coats. It is an unexplainable street fashion craze, one of many that this designer has picked up and personalized.
The Long and the Lean
Rei Kawakubo, for Comme des Garcons, still views the world at a tilt. Her fall look is basically long, soft, lean and narrow shouldered. But her clothes are asymmetrical in the extreme, with side-draped jackets dangling lower on one side, intricate skirts listing to left or right at the hemline, parts of garments hitched up or sliced away to reveal what lies beneath.
Even peplums and collars are skewed to one side and often made of fabric that is bunched up to look like soft sculpture with some of the stuffing removed. The overall effect however is appealingly feminine and her fabrics are fascinating. Nubby, crunchy, black-and-white wools in soft tweeds and textures that make you want to reach out and touch them.
Kawakubo was the first this week to show the padded hip look, achieved by stitching bonded jersey into convex cups over the hiplines of skirts and long jackets.
It takes genius to make such eccentric styling look wearable and Kawakubo has it. Whether stores will buy much of what she showed is another question. Bernard Ozer, vice president of fashion merchandising and marketing for the Associated Merchandising Corp. (A.M.C. buys imported products for Bloomingdale's in New York and Bullock's in Los Angeles) told The Times that the bulk of Kawakubo's collection is "a bit too gimmicky."
Emphasis on Hips
The biggest gimmick was by Yohji Yamamoto, who pinned what looked like huge meteors of bright tulle to the hiplines and derrieres of otherwise simple clothes that came down the runway. Yamamoto also emphasized the hip with puffy peplums, dangling hip panels, low-slung side pockets and the same hip-level, cupped-out, bonded jersey that Kawakubo had offered in the show before. It might have looked like a replay, except that Yamamoto chose lime green, rose beige, robin's-egg blue, pearl gray and some colorful plaids, to which the audience responded with applause. The designer's best offerings were big, long coats over slim separates, long shapely suit jackets over narrow pleated skirts, and multilevel outfits of jackets over tunics over tights or skirts.
Tent-shape blouses, coats and jackets that flared gently from shoulder yokes are a recurring theme, first in Milan, then London and now again in Paris. This may mean the start of something big.