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Old Guard, R.I.P. : The Diors and Valentinos Look Downright Hokey Next to Up-and-Comer Demeulemeester

March 19, 1993|MARY ROURKE | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

PARIS — French fashion will never be the same.

The great names that shaped French style over the past 40 years finally, indisputably, have been replaced by a younger generation. Christian Dior, Emanuel Ungaro and Valentino, along with Yves Saint Laurent, continue working in their usual way. But it would be a shock to see anything new in their collections. If they pick up on a trend, as Valentino did with his version of the Edwardian dandy this season, it almost seems quaint--like watching someone's grandmother try to keep up with the times.

It would be a service to everyone if we simply assigned these designers the title of "honorary chairman." At least it would take some of the frustration out of watching their shows.

The troubling question of why these men do nothing to move fashion toward the future seems irrelevant once it is understood that no one should expect them to do so. That job is the work of younger designers.

"They aren't the cutting edge," Neiman Marcus CEO Terry Lundgren said of the old guard. And neither are most of the women who wear their labels.

"Those customers have paid off the mortgage, put the kids through school and reached their peak income," said Lundgren.

What matters now is how well members of the old guard apply their particular strengths, and how smartly they adapt their best looks to each season.

In Dior's case, not very well. At least not for fall, 1993. The best of Dior designer Gianfranco Ferre's collection included an ankle-length cardigan sweater over beige riding pants and a quilted silk blazer. The worst was a pair of beaded black motorcycle goggles and a necklace jangling with house keys worn over beaded black knickers and a short pink tunic. That outfit deserved a special category. "Mission Impossible" comes to mind, since actor Peter Graves, who starred in the TV series, sat in the front row at Dior.

Valentino played to his strengths, crafting glamorous suits for day. Black or dark gray wool jackets had velvet collars and cuffs. They went over mid-calf-length skirts with a soft ruffle in back. He showed most jackets with crisp white collars and cuffs underneath. Picking up on Edwardian themes, he added wide satin bow ties to some collars, and he finished outfits with velvety top hats.

His evening dresses were not so good. Most suggested corsets and petticoats, a look that is way too tired.

Ungaro moved his show from the tents at the Louvre to his studio on Avenue Montaigne, with its beige stone floors and red Persian-carpeted staircases. It was part of what he described as "a new era," in a press bulletin he sent out earlier this week. He promised, "to progress, to invent, to innovate."

Not.

Men's pin-striped pants with women's silk print blouses and printed jackets were one of the simpler daytime looks. A floral print blouse and a paisley skirt, worn with a hat on top of a scarf, was one of the more complex. It was old Ungaro set in a new place. Away from the tent at the Louvre but not from his long-established style.

New York-based Oscar de la Renta cut his first ready-to-wear collection for the Pierre Balmain label this season. Veteran fashion watchers noted that the narrow suits with belted jackets, and a black dinner jacket with a white satin bib-like inset, were true to the late Balmain's '40s style. But De la Renta did little to recast the Balmain image in any bold new way. He did supply a good number of pretty, wearable-looking clothes.

Hold any one of these collections up against fashion's cutting edge, and the clothes are downright hokey. Still, to know this and wear them anyway could be the best revenge for women who love quality craftsmanship but not the latest trends. There is little danger that these purchases would soon be out of date.

Londoner Vivienne Westwood, who is known for her unerring sense of where fashion is headed, helped make a case for hokey classics in her show. For fall, she took what have become the dinosaurs of British design and gave them new life.

Tartan kilts, gray flannel suits and royal-blue velvet gowns got turned on their arched eyebrows. The kilts were a brighter shade of blue, and some of them were minis. Hand-knit sweaters, a staple of the British Isles, had a generous peek hole just above the bosom. And what looked like a demure floral-print scarf tucked into a jacket turned out to be a blouse with a gold mesh back and sleeves. The platform heels that went with most outfits were so high that model Naomi Campbell fell off hers.

"British cloth has a whole set of associations," Westwood said of her "Anglomania" show. "Red wool for fox hunting, melton (wool) for school uniforms. Playing around with all of that is like playing around with an empire."

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