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THE FALL COLLECTIONS / PARIS : A Quiet Return to Romance


PARIS — Every season, one show here goes beyond fashion. It gives people a slice of Paris life they could never find on their own. This time, the Xuly Bet show was the ticket. Staged on an empty floor of Le Samarataine, a local department store, and attended by all the usual suspects from the fashion industry plus a hundred or so of the designer's friends, it was a reminder of where style is born--in the streets.

A rock band played "Foxy Lady," the Jimi Hendrix number, and at least half the crowd thought of it as music from their parents' generation. They were the half who brought the freshest style to the party.

Starting with Lamine Kouyate himself. He's the twentysomething Mali native who designs the Xuly Bet collection. Imagine him dressed in a tailored white shirt, sleeves rolled well above the elbows, topped by a fitted white T-shirt touting his company name and the slogan "100% Pure Afro."

Tied around his waist were a patterned red sweater rolled up like a cummerbund and, over that, the sleeves of a navy peacoat. In khaki pants, with African trading beads around his neck and wrist, dreadlock bangs pushed back against a crew cut, eyes sparkling, knees bending to the beat of the music, he was the joyous host of a huge, earthy bash.

The audience provided the best street fashion show of the week. One outfit was built around a kente-cloth baseball hat and a bush jacket cut from a patchwork of African textile. Another standout played day against evening wear, with a white T-shirt, satin slip dress, rhinestone "princess" necklace and pink Fair Isle cardigan sweater. A man in a monkey-fur hat shaped like a bell would have been surprised to hear that monkey was the preferred fur this season at Chanel. A woman with rhinestone-studded hair veiling her face turned out to be one of the models.

It was Paris underground, surfacing at the barely civil hour of 3 p.m., its cultural roots newly dug up from Africa, Asia and Europe as well as the United States.

Xuly Bet's collection was meant for this crowd to admire. Teal and black herringbone slip dresses with long flared skirts, patchwork plaid shirtdresses that hugged the models straight to their heels, leopard-print fishnet tunics and turquoise print tube dresses were among the best of the show.

Kouyate has used tight, stretchy tube dresses as a first layer for several seasons. Karl Lagerfeld does something similar and calls it the "skin dress." Kouyate puts shorter tunics or longer tweed jackets over his. Lagerfeld might add a complete suit.

For some women, the skin dress could become part of a modern wardrobe, as indispensable as leggings. But those who put functional dressing ahead of the latest look might find it too contrived.

The strongest trend to emerge on Paris runways this season is sure to catch on. Romantic dressing, especially with a glamorous edge, has pushed away the waifs, the grungettes and the motorcycle mamas who overran French fashion last year.

This return to romance shined through in some of the youngest as well as the oldest Paris collections, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino among them.

At Chanel, black sequined evening dresses had short, bell-shaped skirts to accent the hips. Big hips played a key part in several collections. Vivienne Westwood actually added cushions to the models' hips for her show. Curves like that haven't been seen since the Victorian era.

Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld's bigger game plan this season was to host a fashion Olympics. Black chiffon dresses with cashmere cardigan sweaters had bold pink or yellow stripes at the neckline, cuffs and hem, to imitate athletes' active wear. Black tulle evening pants had ivory racer's stripes down the side. And models wrapped short velvet unitards in vast cashmere scarves that looked like their national flags. Naomi Campbell wore a British flag shawl, Linda Evangelista had the Canadian maple leaf design, and Carla Bruni wore the triple stripes of her native Italy.

Olympic-inspired day wear ranged from a skater's dress with quilted leather belt and short circle skirt, to ski suits, parkas and warm-up pants in downhill racer fabrics. Most were mixed with pastel tweed jacket suits and tank-top dresses.

Lagerfeld skated too close to the ice follies with some brightly colored skirts that looked like monkey-fur snowballs. Otherwise, the Chanel Winter Games gave yet another blast of energy to those venerable tweed suits.


Standouts at Saint Laurent were a raspberry suede bathrobe coat whipstitched in lighter red, a black cashmere T-shirt worn with sable-cuffed black gloves, and a quilted parka in a silky print of red roses against a deeper red background.

Simple chic ranged from a charcoal gray shirttail jacket over lighter gray wide-legged pants to a perfectly proportioned black velvet evening dress with a deep inverted pleat from the waist. Saint Laurent showed it with a black velvet belt and a sculptured gold cuff bracelet on each wrist.

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