PARIS — If your thing is seeing scores of beautiful women clad only in underwear, there is no place like Paris in the wintertime.
"This is the mecca," marveled Patrick Harestad, a masonry contractor from Humboldt County in Northern California.
He should know what he's talking about. His wife, Katherine, owns and operates a small company in the town of Arcata, 230 miles north of San Francisco, that manufactures "Victorian-inspired sleepwear and lingerie." This is the second year that the California entrepreneur has left redwood country to exhibit her lacy, silky creations at the French capital's lingerie show.
For that segment of the rag trade that buys and sells brassieres, panties, nightgowns, tights, bustiers, corsets, girdles, robes, men's briefs and the rest of what Italians call intimo--intimate wear--the annual Paris Lingerie Salon is the Super Bowl of trade fairs, a colossal display of Lycra and lace, of naughty and nice.
"For people like me, this is the most important show on the planet," said Katherine Harestad, 42, whose company, White Rose Designs, won an award this year for one of its creations. "Paris is really the wellspring of lingerie. This is where you seek the inspiration and the innovation."
For four days, two sprawling pavilions of the Parc des Expositions in southwestern Paris were turned into the world's biggest undies mart. This year, 430 brand names were represented, from Warner's slinky Marilyn Monroe line to Dutch designer Marlies Dekkers' aptly named "Undressed" collection of "revolutionary underwear" that includes slit panties and briefs so brief they are called "strings."
Claiming inspiration from Picasso, filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and the artillery-shell bras Madonna once wore outside her clothes, the 32-year-old Dekkers said she wants to put underwear to work for "the emancipation of women's bodies."
"That looks like it was made from dental floss," a female employee in The Times Paris bureau said of one typically daring Dekkers creation, a black leather thong that leaves more than 90% of the buttocks exposed.
Entry to the salon is supposed to be restricted to manufacturers, buyers and fashion journalists, and guards this year were posted at the doors to keep out everybody else. That means that under French law, the show is not a public event, so exhibitors like Daniel Perret, in charge of the stand for the Nina Ricci and Millesia brands of lingerie, can hire models as young as 17 to flog their wares.
"Oh, Sonya! You're going to give people in your office nightmares!" Perret chortled over the microphone as one of the young women he'd engaged paraded in a striking aluminum-hued bra and panties before an appreciative crowd.
Anne Laure, 20, a Nina Ricci model praised by Perret for "the most beautiful cheeks of the show," said she was working to help pay her way through law school. Did she ever feel self-conscious?
"This is an audience of professionals," she said. "Of course, you're going to get voyeurs in all crowds."
All these little bits of clothing add up to a very big business. According to industry figures, Western European manufacturers each year turn out nearly 100 million bras, more than half a billion pairs of women's panties, more than 2 billion pairs of women's tights, nearly 300 million pairs of men's underwear and 60 million nightgowns.
Though China has become the world's No. 1 exporter of undergarments, France is the runner-up. The market is a moneymaker for Europe, with $965 million in sales to the United States and other parts of the world in 1996.
Frenchwomen have always been famously interested in underthings; in fact, one of them is remembered here as the creator of the bra. In 1889, Herminie Cadolle cut off the bottom of her corset, the same type of notoriously constraining garment that a rebellious Scarlett O'Hara was laced into in "Gone With the Wind."
Designing and manufacturing a bra is still something akin to rocket science in the underwear world. At Aubade, a family-owned company that began as a Paris doctor's corset-making business in 1875, each bra still requires 15 different fabrics, twice that many pieces of material and a score of assembly processes. Each bra takes from 23 to 25 minutes to make, and sells for the equivalent of $46 to $58. The most common sizes are 32C and 34B.
"This is a highly technical product; it's the reason we are not overrun with cheap imports," said production chief Anne Pasquier. Like many Europeans, Pasquier is perplexed over what sells in the U.S. market. "It is completely out of sync with us," she said, as models wearing skimpy, black lace-trimmed nightwear circulated around the Aubade stand. "In America, women buy bras the way they do steaks, down at the supermarket. Basic white, basic model, nothing fancy. But as soon as you jump upward in quality, Americans start thinking of lingerie as something salacious and sleazy."