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The Fall Collections / Paris

Big on Drama

March 16, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

PARIS — The crowd gathered for the Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion show in an old nightclub here was so densely packed that a shouting match among photographers sardined into a tiny pit nearly broke into a fistfight. The popular French designer's presentations are always mob scenes; he's known for putting on a good show, so conservatively dressed American retailers find themselves crushed against pierced and tattooed Gaultier groupies.

The clothes are supposed to be fabulous enough that fashion journalists balancing their bony bottoms on hard, narrow chairs will overlook that the room is too hot, the models can barely be seen through the haze of cigarette smoke, and the hundreds in attendance must enter and exit through only one door.

Gaultier is hardly the only offender of comfort and safety. Designers stage shows in cramped, airless venues all over the city. That fact made the Paris police department's abrupt cancellation of a show and party planned by Milan-based designer Giorgio Armani on Wednesday night reek of irony and hypocrisy.

The Emporio collection, usually presented in Milan, was to be shown at 9 p.m. in two tents erected on a square on the Left Bank, where an Emporio Armani store had been opened in late January. Dinner was to be served to 1,200 guests, to celebrate the launch of Emporio's new fragrances. The morning of the event, local inspectors criticized the tent's exits and ventilation. Corrections were made by Armani staff, but late in the afternoon the Prefecture of Police announced the show would not go on.

Armani had spent a million dollars and three months planning the evening. He is the most meticulous of designers, and nothing about his work or organization is ever sloppy. So the inescapable conclusion was that the situation had more to do with local politics and French hostility to foreigners than safety standards.

In another bursting, smoky nightclub on the outskirts of the city, John Galliano paid tribute to the underground night life that flourished in prewar Berlin. Although the clothes were highly theatrical (a foregone conclusion with Galliano), they were more refined, and actually more wearable, than the excessive collection he created for Dior this season.

Two silhouettes dominated--a funnel-necked, long-sleeved dress that followed the body's topography and a low-waisted, spaghetti-strapped gown whose full skirt was supported by a boned petticoat. In steel blue crochet, black wool or mohair plaid, the first silhouette, although slinky and ankle length, could be worn during the day. Geometric patterns inspired by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt appeared on dresses, 1920s-ish cocoon coats and beaded flapper dresses.

Many elements of a modern wardrobe have become tediously generic--a T-shirt, a pair of pants, a jacket. Everyone needs a stash of reliable basics. But we depend on designers to dream for us, to imagine possibilities beyond the ordinary. Galliano does that. And in his collection for Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld also creates the sort of dramatic clothes that make a woman stand taller and move more gracefully than her favorite khakis (which he's produced in the past).

Lagerfeld returned to the 1920s, putting snug cloche hats on models wearing long skirts and long, languid tops. One new Chanel suit is a tweed riding habit, its ankle-length skirt forming a bustle of ruffles, its jacket curving in at the midriff. In a beautiful collection, Lagerfeld included such Chanel hallmarks as braid trim on sweatery jackets. The double C appeared in dull silver on some jacket buttons, but since the suit's skirt was long and pleated, no resemblance to the tacky versions so emblematic of the '80s was evident. Die-hard logo lovers can best find CHANEL woven into a ribbon of black lace on gowns so light that even advertising the wearer's tribal identification doesn't weigh them down.

In the three seasons since Israeli-American designer Alber Elbaz began designing for Guy Laroche, the buzz about him has been growing. The 36-year-old who was Geoffrey Beene's assistant for seven years is, in fact, as good as it gets. In a season when one might ask, "Where have all the jackets gone?" he delivered perfect suits, as well as great coats and stunning evening gowns. We don't think about breathing as an activity, it's just something we do. For Elbaz, color isn't an issue, it just is. He designs as if it is easy for him, and women wearing his clothes will undoubtedly project the same kind of unforced chic.

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Anyone lucky enough to see the models at that jammed Gaultier show saw an affectionate parade of Left Bank stereotypes, especially the earnest black-clad intellectual we recognize from American movies set in Paris in the '50s and '60s. Wearing ballet slippers or desert boots, long, sometimes voluminous skirts, duffel coats and Peruvian folkloric sweaters and knitted caps, she was the picture of comfort and disinterested ease. Forget global warming. In layers of cozy turtlenecks, leggings and fur-lined vests, these Audrey Hepburn look-alikes, circa "Funny Face," were dressed for the cold.

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