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Puttin' On the Ritz

Cashmere, Leather, Fur--Lavishing On the Luxury

March 19, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

PARIS — Is there a scientific explanation for an addiction to cashmere? Well, I suppose behavioralism, which holds that we are driven to repeat experiences we find pleasurable, would justify it.

As 10 days of fall fashion previews ended here, one word appeared in the program notes of nearly every designer: luxury. There's quiet luxury, hidden luxury, casual luxury, glamorous luxury, simple luxury. Not much has been said about cheap luxury, but that would be an unpardonable oxymoron in this context. If women follow designers' leads, they'll glide into the 21st century on a river of cashmere and fur.

Michael Kors knows something about hidden luxury. In his first collection for Celine, he demonstrated the concept by presenting cashmere sweaters that looked like a well-bred college girl's Shetland. An American classicist with an unerring eye, Kors showed the sort of perfect sportswear that has earned his Michael Kors line loyal fans.

If it was impossible to pinpoint the difference between the cashmere turtlenecks, cuffed, hip-riding cashmere trousers, fur-collared cashmere coats and luscious suede skirts at the Celine show from similar pieces he has and will undoubtedly continue to create for Kors, that's good. Now the woman who loves Kors will find more of it at Celine, which operates its own stores, including one in Beverly Hills.

He sometimes eliminates eveningwear entirely in his own collections, but gave it its due for Celine. With a nod to the boundary-busting mixing of night and day looks that is one of the hallmarks of this season, he scattered beads on a narrow cashmere skirt, then offered it in smoky gray, mushroom, white or black. Night for day? Yes, with a cashmere crew neck. Day for night? Yes, when the skirt is ankle length and black and it's topped with a plain cashmere pullover. With Yankee pragmatism, Kors says that his favorite thing about a grand entrance gown of white stretch georgette covered with beads is "it feels like a T-shirt."

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Luxury is a favorite term of Narciso Rodriguez, another American working abroad. In his first collection for the Spanish leather house Loewe, he would have had to try hard to avoid it, given the materials at his disposal--leather, shearling, mink, cashmere, mohair, alpaca, suede and python. Occasionally, Rodriguez did try to bite Loewe's softly gloved hand by distressing leather, giving it a weathered appearance. Such small signs of rebellion were refreshing.

The collection was basically beautiful leather items and other pieces to go with them. Sometimes, the pieces were better than the leather. A long, sleeveless slink of gray was the little black dress's more sophisticated cousin. It would have been equally wonderful paired with a long wrap coat of camel leather.

For a few scary moments during the fall shows in Milan, it looked as if we were in for a '50s and '60s revival, featuring the boxy styles of Balenciaga, Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Courreges. At their best, the clean, geometric silhouettes conjure memories of a young Audrey Hepburn in "Charade" or Twiggy at the height of her waify adorableness. But they can also be as stiff and unflattering as cardboard boxes, and would be hard for women lulled lately by Voyage-like femininity and Gucci erotica to learn to love.

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Although the collection American Peter Speliopoulos designed for Cerruti at first seemed to be of the same retro genre, it was everything the bad Italian throwbacks were not. The Cerruti clothes were lean, simple, but still pretty. He incorporated topstitching and collarless silhouettes, but made everything look new by adding modern details. The hem and sleeve edges of a jacket were embellished with delicate beading. Nuggets of beads were embedded in plush, knitted shells.

Hot breakfast cereal colors were seen on Cerruti's runway and elsewhere. If the cashmere and mohair weren't cozy enough, associations with oatmeal like Mommy used to make would emphasize the feeling.

A number of established European designers also worship at the altar of luxury. Yet they seem to belong to a different church from the American champions of understatement. It's more common to find overloaded luxury, ostentatious luxury, loud and noisy luxury when Emanuel Ungaro and Valentino strut their stuff.

Youth is so revered in the fashion world that most designers fear old age more than Dorian Gray. In recent collections, Valentino has been increasingly naughty, while remaining unrepentantly glamorous. This time, he showed he has learned that the antithesis of old and stodgy isn't necessarily young and hot. It can be grown-up elegance.

He still offered lingerie flourishes and fur trim for fans of the ornate. But a ribbon of mint-dyed mink edging a felt jacket was slender, and a sporty, thick Irish fisherman's sweater of sand cashmere topped a skirt bordered with lace. A roomy pullover descended from a sailor's top appeared in several fabrics, all of them unadorned.

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