PARIS — With most French designers now in the more lucrative ready-to-wear and licensing businesses, couture has been relegated to stepsister status the last few years.
But stepsisters have a way of turning into Cinderellas, and that's what happened this season.
From the first showing, by Gerard Pipart for Nina Ricci, to the final one, by Hubert de Givenchy last Thursday, emphasis was on opulence--in fabrics, furs and jewels. And there was revived interest on the part of retailers, who once again seem to be looking at couture as inspiration for upcoming ready-to-wear trends.
For Yves Saint Laurent, who currently has twin exhibits at the Musee de la Mode--one on 28 years of his couture creations and the other on his theatrical costumes--the challenge was to live up to his own reputation.
He succeeded beautifully, with day clothes that redefined the classic suit to new perfection. His jackets hovered on the hips; skirts were always slim and just at the knee, a length he followed even for the wide-shouldered coats, which covered some of the suits and slim day dresses.
As he has done for the past two seasons, Saint Laurent presented his show without background music, his models gliding slowly down the runway to the beat of clicking cameras.
Almost missing from the collection were his signature pantsuits.
The emphasis here, as elsewhere, was on late-day and evening clothes. Saint Laurent's designs hark back to his beginnings as a teen-age designer at Christian Dior in the 1950s. In this mood, slim black crepe dresses had velvet- or taffeta-pleated portrait necklines that bare the shoulders. The models' heads were topped with cartwheels of velvet draped with veiling.
Necklines, cleared of any accessories, were cut wide and plunging or with high stand-up collars. Bows were a leitmotif in every collection, and Saint Laurent used them as a theme for embroidered evening sweaters, for a patterned silk damask shaped into ball gowns and to punctuate the derrieres on short cocktail dresses.
His favorite color: black. Cut in velvet, taffeta, satin or chiffon, it never seemed somber. The Saint Laurent wit exploded in bursts of feathers cocooned into a coat or floating from a saucy cocktail hat.
As friends crowded around him after the show, he said: "I feel confident about this collection." And it showed.
At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld has the more difficult task of living up to someone else's reputation, that of Coco Chanel. He did it by revitalizing the classic Chanel suit, stripped of its cumbersome linings and with the classic braid trim now embroidered directly onto the fabric instead of being appliqued. The results are featherweight marvels. As he has done for several seasons, he inched up on the classic Chanel length so that by now, knees are definitely on view.
Accessories too have been pared down, often to no more than big, face-hugging earrings and a bracelet or two. When the pearl ropes are there, they often trail down the back of a suit or a dress. They turn up for the first time to replace the chain handle on the classic quilted Chanel bags.
Lagerfeld moves the quilting into yet another dimension by using it as inspiration for sequined fabric, which he cuts into a slim evening suit and a body-hugging sheath dress that explodes into a flare of floor-length chiffon.
Lagerfeld has surrounded himself with a group of young assistants, and from them he got the idea for what he calls his "powder puff" dresses--more than 200 yards of ruffled tulle tucked under taffeta dresses that just graze the knee. "Belle epoque for the age of hard rock" is Lagerfeld's description.
While that spinning-top silhouette may look exaggerated, it is in the same mood as short baby-doll dresses from Christian Lacroix at Jean Patou.
A relative newcomer to the couture, Lacroix has been given carte blanche by Patou's management, who, like him, are all under 40.
From an underground fashion-cult figure a few seasons ago, Lacroix has emerged as a new star of the couture, and his influence is already being felt elsewhere. He first came to notice through his use of wacky hats; this season, there wasn't a collection without fun hats. And from Lacroix's present collection, sure to be influential, are those baby-doll dresses--high waisted and flaring out in layers of taffeta petticoats. He does the look for day in charcoal-gray jersey; for evening, in fire engine red taffeta.
Even coats were in the same high-waisted shape. "I don't like to use the word Lolita, but," Lacroix says of the models wearing these, "I guess they do look like Lolitas--little girls all dressed up." As elsewhere, there was lots of back emphasis, with Lacroix reintroducing a genuine bustle.
Emanuel Ungaro dedicated his collection to Cristobal Balenciaga and, from Balenciaga's fashion repertoire, revived the bubble chemise, a loose bubble of silk caught in with a band or bow just above the knees.