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Valentino Extends His Hot Streak


PARIS — "Fashion is the glittering kaleidoscope of modern sexual personae," wildcat feminist and Madonna fan Camille Paglia once wrote.

One doesn't have to be sexually obsessed to invoke the subject when discussing style; clothes project an image, of availability or disinterest, that is as inescapable as details like color and shape. This thought came to mind while viewing the Valentino fall collection, an explosion of flamboyant wonders for a giddy hedonist.

Year after year, tourist shops near the Louvre feature the standard French woman's suit, the love child of Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, with its braid trim and gold buttons. Usually cut of a bright boucle wool plaid, it is a feminine, fussy classic.

Christian Lacroix and Emanuel Ungaro uphold the tradition, and even Valentino's noisy, ornate designs are descended from The Suit. But where the original is prim, predictable and bourgeois, his clothes are increasingly naughty, surprising and unrepentantly glamorous. Simply put, they're hot.

A proponent of lingerie flourishes worn beyond the boudoir, Valentino popped lace tunics over narrow-legged pants and let pointe d'esprit peek out from side-slit dresses. He goosed the ordinary. Knee-high boots were embroidered, leather and shearling hand painted. An emu-feather collar was added to a slim black cashmere cardigan, the neck of a beige Prince of Wales plaid mini-dress trimmed in brown Mongolian goat. For day and evening, rich texture mixes abounded: anthracite taffeta cigarette pants paired with a marbled gray flannel mini-coat; black leopard-printed mink piled on tweed; lace, velvet and leather cleverly combined in a single outfit.

Brilliant colors and a variety of proportions gave the show much of its energy. Coats were short and narrow or long and sweeping. Some jackets were boxy, while others were belted and wrapped like kimonos.

The most spectacular shades came out after dark--bronze, loden green, purple, peach, pink lace encrusted with gold. Full-skirted ball gowns, which the designer called crinoline dresses, and embroidered or ruffled chiffon flapper dresses were just gorgeous.

In a separate presentation, Valentino introduced a less-expensive collection, V Zone, aimed at a younger audience. Designers realize that ready-to-wear is beyond the means of many women, so they create secondary, or diffusion, lines to increase their sales volume. V Zone, which will be sold in U.S. department stores, relied on tempting items for after-hours: a high-waisted, cognac leather pant, strapless mini-dress or a black leather bustier with a gathered peplum. The customer Valentino has in mind doesn't buy put-together ensembles, but she will know just what to do with his metallic moire stove-pipe trousers.

"I don't know about some of these designers," a department store buyer from Texas said as Alexander McQueen ambled along the runway in running shoes and sloppy suit after his premiere collection for Givenchy had been shown. "They're really little piglets, aren't they?"

A brash 27-year-old from blue-collar London, McQueen was not an obvious choice to succeed John Galliano at the venerable house founded by a French aristocrat known as a consummate gentleman. McQueen's eponymous collections have been long on shock value and short on wearable clothes. While many observers detect a streak of misogyny and some class-conflict issues that might require therapy in McQueen's pricey, punky clothes, his supporters offer in defense an apprenticeship with a Savile Row tailor.

Good tailoring was in evidence at the Givenchy show. Mannish, double-breasted jackets with square shoulders and peaked lapels topped full-legged trousers. The same jacket, a few inches longer, served as a coat dress in straw wool, black wool with gold pinstripes or gray flannel.

A fitted, strapless dress with a slit skirt appeared in light-green moire, kelly green python, pale gray flannel, purple leather, perforated black leather, etc. Whether McQueen's tendency to endlessly repeat simple designs speaks to a love of certain themes or a paucity of ideas, time will tell.

The padded-shoulder/nipped-waist shape that emerged in Milan earlier this month and continued here was reminiscent of an Amazonian silhouette pioneered by Claude Montana 15 years ago, so interest in Montana's presentation ran high. Instead of looking at wannabes, people reasoned, why not visit the source?

Only Montana didn't deliver structured power suits. He could still qualify as head costumer for 30 years of James Bond girls, though, by creating costumes that identify the villainess long before she pulls a pistol. Picture Felicity Goodbody or Tatiana or Charity Galore, or whatever their names were, in lethal high-heeled boots and a channel-quilted jacket of shiny taupe microfiber over matching narrow pants.

Montana is given to grand gestures like towering funnel collars, high-waisted, ankle-grazing skirts, and slit, bell-shaped sleeves that give a cape effect to jackets. The result is high-impact, elegant sportswear, but too often the clothes seem to say, "We were created by a big-deal European designer."

That message meant one thing in the '70s and '80s. Now, thanks to the influence of the more easygoing Italians, if clothing makes that statement at all, it is whispered, not shouted.

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