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THE SPRING COLLECTIONS / PARIS

Horsing Around at Chanel

October 17, 1996|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

PARIS — Chanel was a real thigh-slapper. The girls--Naomi, Claudia, Amber and even Stella--giggled their way through the final show here, when designer Karl Lagerfeld put them on a moving walkway spanning a football field-sized exhibition hall near the Eiffel Tower. The sensation of standing still while whizzing past the audience made the models, normally grim haughtiness incarnate, giddy.

The fashion press was happy, delighted by the novelty of seeing cheerful clothes at warp speed. The photographers, a vocal fraternity that truly appreciates that underwear labels have been easy to read through a plethora of transparent outfits, were elated. And store representatives know no joy like writing orders for the costly clothing women sign up on waiting lists to buy.

The conveyor belt runway was a motor-driven metaphor for the impatience of Chanel fans. "Bring us more," they cry. "Faster! Faster!"

More pastel boucle plaid suits, skinny tweed single-breasted coats shot with glitter, long knit dresses with breast and hip pockets adorned with double C buttons. The Chanel dolls in bouffant wigs rolled by like products from a busy toy factory, dressed in long riding jackets over white denim jodhpurs that laced at the ankle. Pedal pushers and skinny trousers of blond leather, khaki cotton or glazed charcoal denim featured lacing at the bottom too, the sort of detail that instantly pegs them as this year's model.

Pastel organza evening dresses with full skirts and dropped waists were short enough to show the pump of the year, which, except for the obligatory black patent toe, was clear plastic on a Plexiglas heel. The dresses were something Grace Kelly might have worn in the '50s, oh so pretty and tasteful.

Subtlety frequently takes a break at Chanel. A garish housedress print appearing on jodhpurs, dresses and shorts, all worn with gaudy plastic jewelry that might have been molded from hard candy, was so awful that one had to suspect Lagerfeld of snickering up his sleeve. (You know, this stuff is really tacky but the cool people get the joke and the dense ones deserve to look silly if they don't.)

A deluge of logos was its own parody; on an alphabet print that spelled out Coco Chanel in white on black dresses and on the lining of otherwise elegant black coats. Bright, tight jumpsuits cut off at the thigh and rompers with matching jackets begged to be worn by women whose daytime jewelry includes necklaces that spell out "spoiled" in diamond chips.

The popularity of Chanel can't be attributed solely to the logo lust of show-offs. A stunning group of plain, slim, black evening dresses would please a more reserved customer, and what easily goes unnoticed amid the glare of glitz, is that most Chanel styles are easy to wear. They make a good body past adolescence better, and flatter an imperfect one. Even the most celebrated designers too rarely achieve that.

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With "romance" and "femininity" the buzz words of the season, it would have been a shock if Valentino hadn't delivered a gorgeous collection. His fluttering chiffons, delicate ruffles and lovely florals didn't disappoint, but the lace and a spectrum of greens (sea foam to mint, celadon, chartreuse and khaki) lingered in the memory. A number of show-stopping gowns at last month's Emmy Awards were in shades of green, and Valentino provided ample temptation to continue that trend.

For a while, any simple, spaghetti-strapped dress has been called a slip dress. Valentino's versions were more specifically true to their name, with lace trim across the top and hem. A lacy camisole peeking out from under a jacket has become a classic combination. The designer took the idea a step further, letting the lace of a short slip dress worn under a suit show both at the chest and through the front slit of a narrow skirt. Long, sheer dresses slit to the hips floated over lace underskirts. This lace didn't look like it belonged only in the bedroom, but unless an evil spell robs beautiful clothes of their power to seduce, it might well wind up there.

Female designers are fond of pointing out that no one understands how a woman wants to dress like they do. Sonia Rykiel knows that a wardrobe is built on basics and nifty sweaters loaded with personality. By her count, she's designed 6,000 of them in her long career. Sexy, snug rayon twin sets and wrap cashmeres fastened with knitted roses over matching hip-huggers offered the collector a rainbow of choices for spring.

Like Missoni, Rykiel has been around since the last time knits were hot. "She is the queen of knitwear in Paris. She has always had a very strong following, but her sense of color and the way her things fit are perfect for right now," said Nicole Fischelis, fashion director and vice president of Saks Fifth Avenue, after the show.

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