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Welcome Departures

Jean-Paul Gaultier Leads a Pack of Designers Who Dare to Work Their Magic Far Afield of Main Street


PARIS — Victorian pornography was required reading in a social history course I took in college. The esteemed professor argued that one begins to understand a culture by studying its fringe, not its mainstream.

Following that logic (which doubled as an excuse, for the old guy obviously got a kick out of reading aloud details of Lord Bottomly's rendezvous with the governess in his secret pleasure room), an understanding of current style would come from avant-garde designers. At first, their work can seem odd, too strange to have a place in a conventional life. In fact, Ann Demeulemeester, Helmut Lang, Yohji Yamamoto and Jean-Paul Gaultier, all of whom showed their fall lines here during the past two weeks, are just a jump ahead. They know how many of us will want to look a year from now.

In defining a looser, easier, user-friendly silhouette that women who have tired of strangulating clothes will love, Gaultier looked to the past in a brilliant collection that drew on the history of Harlem. African American models, their lips glossed and stained as if by ripe purple plums, their heads adorned with turbans or towering beehives of coiled braids, strutted and sashayed to the soundtrack from "Shaft." Even Yasmine Ghauri, the Canadian supermodel of Indian descent, traded her usual regal stance for a proud swagger.

Gaultier could not have produced this collection without a sure grasp of street fashion and a varied cast of characters at play in his subconscious.

Beautiful, narrow, hooded cashmere sweaters were descended from a rapper's sweatshirt. A striped velvet pantsuit and fur-collared checkered overcoat--complete with shirt, tie and boutonniere--was a pimp suit out of a '70s blaxploitation movie. Full nylon sweatpants billowed under a boxer's flowing robe, accessorized with gold medals and high-tops left unlaced. Oversized, often double-breasted suits with loose pants were the key pieces. They looked as elegant on models with substantial figures as they did on very thin women.

Gaultier's women, so bold, bad and beautiful, had the attitude to thrive in any circumstance. Not only were they queens of the hood, these women could colonize a hostile planet.

The surest way to look hip is, once again, to wear black (or brown or gray). Black communicates depth and angst much as it did when the Beatniks of the '50s chose it for their club uniforms. Black. Black as night, caviar, ravens, coal, appeared in so many collections that designers whose hearts were never in doing color anyway the past few seasons must have been thrilled to return to their dependable favorite.

"Every collection started with black," said Saks Fifth Avenue President Rose Marie Bravo, wearing a lime-green shirt under a black suit. "There is color in accessories, color to accent, but it seems the designers have figured out that black is what sells."

Demeulemeester not only loves black, but her clothes look best when they're dark. She topped a black jersey dress with a belted black leather gilet, or layered a skewed gray T-shirt dress over a slip of sheer brown silk. One of the first to promote androgyny and asymmetry, Demeulemeester still does them well, belting one side and the back of full boyish coats or snug jackets, while letting the other side flap freely.

Right now, Demeulemeester is the designer who best carries off slouchy, draped dresses that are still sexy and sleek. In her hands, the fabric bunches in a way that suggests the rumpled look of someone dressing hurriedly after being caught en deshabille.


Lang also experiments with material that folds and bunches on the body. He has been so widely imitated that when fire marshals stalked the overflowing Italian fashion shows in their black rubber coats striped with fluorescent yellow bands, you would have sworn the uniforms were courtesy of Lang.

The designer worked again with bands of fabric, slinging a wide stripe diagonally over one shoulder and under the opposite armpit. His new band was a cummerbund, wrapped around the waists and hips of skirts or flat-front trousers that, left alone, proved Lang is still among the best sources of great basics.

A pioneer in using layering for effect rather than warmth, Lang continued to contrast smooth and shiny textures and cover opaque jersey with layers of sheer black, or wrap gauzy tops in more gauze, producing a translucent glow on a matte base. Lang could always do a gritty street look. Now, his clothes display a welcome softness, and he even presented much of the collection in combinations of pale colors--white, cream, sand and ivory, with touches of red.

Yamamoto is so in his own world that I'm not yet convinced that he influences anyone, but collectors view his unique clothes as timeless. Any review of Pablo Picasso's work shows that he was a competent representational artist who chose to explore Cubism and abstraction. He could have painted the nude descending the staircase as realistic as a photograph, if he'd wanted to.

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