PARIS — You can tell times have changed when two of the season's three "hottest" French designers aren't even French, and one of those two is so little-known that most shoppers have never heard his name.
But the fashion industry is moving at a rapid rate. And the trio of Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and Azzedine Alaia--who showed fall collections here last week--probably illustrates where it's going.
Alaia is the future. The Tunisian-born designer zoomed onto the Paris scene in the early 1980s with curved-seam, stretch-fabric clothes, which clung so close to the body that they seemed to inhale and exhale with the wearer. Tall, skinny beauties wore them in public, and many mass-market retailers turned thumbs down, because, they claimed, no one but pencil-thin exhibitionists could possibly wear such styles. They were wrong.
Many women, especially in Los Angeles, were already wearing facsimiles every day--to and from their health clubs and exercise classes. They loved the sleek, no-fuss fit of their workout styles, and it wasn't a question of tight or loose--or even of showing off the figure. It was a matter of fashion that was simple, flexible and modern.
Alaia had tapped into the heart of the matter with clothes that, tangentially, related to real life--and for fall, he continues on his experimental path.
His shaggy, fake-fur coats are really separates--jackets that fasten with Velcro above a wide belt; matching, full skirts that fasten with Velcro below the belt. A woman can wear the top and bottom for a coat look or just the jacket or the skirt.
Alaia's loose look is so simple it's almost puritanical: A taupe wool coat hangs straight, from collar to low calf, over a dress that is a duplicate, but made of gray taffeta.
The designer's zigzag seams, stretch fabrics and leather outfits are still prominent. But most prominent of all are his short jackets with big, curving shoulders and wide armholes that taper down toward waist and hips, making the midsection look smaller than it is. Alaia showed most of these with tights, giving the impression he's abandoned designing for the bottom half of the body.
Alaia's clothes are meant to be fiddled with, adapted to one's own needs and figure.
Valentino, the Paris-based Italian in the group, personifies the present. Nothing too tight or too loose, lots of easy-fit jackets over soft pants or knee-length skirts--and the kind of cashmere sweaters most females would love to own. (They retail for about $1,000, which limits the market appreciably.)
His show was a smash success because few can quarrel with his slicked-up approach to the classics or with the virtues of beautiful fabrics, beautifully styled.
Valentino is for women who are up-to-date, but not exactly avant-garde. These women wear their skirts at the knee, their coats a bit longer, and they love those quiet, but exceptional, details that make expensive clothes worth the price for those who can afford them. (Some of Valentino's sweaters, for example, have sleeves with elongated knit cuffs that go halfway to the elbow. A seemingly small touch that puts a whole new emphasis on the shape.)
Saint Laurent's clothes, especially his suits, continue to be some of the most exquisitely tailored in the world. His evening suits, in particular, are often breathtaking to see. But the signature look, which served him so well for so long, now seems a bit out of touch with the times.
Even the soft and easy styles lack playfulness and movement. They are so obviously his, there's little room for the personality of the woman who may wear them. Saint Laurent's show reminded some viewers of the days when designers dictated and women obeyed.
He did not dictate anything new for fall, and perhaps that's what caused some in the audience to proclaim him a hero.
There are always those who would rather go back to the good old days.