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Spring Collections / Paris

French Fashion With a Lot of Theatrics


PARIS — It is the ultimate conceit of French designers that what comes out of the Paris arrondissements is actually High Art. The Italians may make elegant suits and drop-dead evening wear. The Americans may dream of becoming Calvin-Ralph-Donna megabrands. But the French--and the outsiders who show here--want, more than anything, to spark intellectual fisticuffs over their clothes. How else to account for this week's spring '99 ready-to-wear collections, where Madonna-favorite Olivier Theyskens sent out a model wearing a flock of fake attack birds, like a scene out of Hitchcock? Where Dries Van Noten covered skirts in black fishnet adorned with clattering mussel shells? Where John Galliano at Christian Dior marched out an entire Red Army?

The opening acts of the French collections often seemed as operatic as Tuesday's student strike, in which masses of jeering, cheering teenagers streamed out of their classrooms and onto the streets to demand a different sort of intellectual grist--more books and teachers.

While Paris burned--with student passion, that is--Galliano offered up a Dior collection that zoomed from pop to highbrow, starting with Gwyneth Paltrow's traffic-stopping arrival and moving on to design homages to the dancer Nijinsky and artist Sonia Delunay. The show, staged in the ornate salons above the Dior shop, opened in a proletarian vein: a parade of models saluting the Red Army, Galliano-style. There were billowing olive green pantaloons piped in red, snug olive military jackets (with brass Cs and Ds the medals of choice) and even-snugger Chinese dresses fastened asymmetrically with gold frog closures. His black tough-chic cargo pants, worn with a sheer sweater and a sneer, looked less Chairman Mao than KGB-meets-Helmut Newton.

Criticized last season for not showing enough clothes, Galliano retaliated, telling Women's Wear Daily this week he would do an "enormous collection, showing all the products." He wasn't kidding. There were scores of outfits, from barefoot blonds in sweet, white dolce vita sheaths to seen-it-all sirens in graphic black-white-and-red evening dresses. And nearly all of it was accessorized with Dior-licensed watches, handbags and jewelry.

Marketing certainly is the message at Louis Vuitton, where American designer Marc Jacobs last season revved up the venerable leather-goods house. In sharp contrast to Galliano's rococo view of fashion, Jacobs' collection was as crisp as the soaring atrium in Parc Citroen, where he showed his clothes. These were clean, casual styles--unfettered sweaters and shirts with elbow-length sleeves--the sleeve length of the moment--worn with slim pants, knee-length skirts or barely there shorts, all done in whites, beiges and pastels.

For fun, Jacobs added sheer rain ponchos and raincoats covered in bubble prints. For evening, there were unadorned taffeta slipdresses and camisole tops embroidered with abstract squares. But since Vuitton's real fashion profits come from bags not blouses--the ready-to-wear is sold in just a handful of stores worldwide--Jacobs also debuted several new handbag styles, from tiny hobo and drawstring purses in the signature brown LV canvas to pastel pouches and cigarette-lighter cases slung around the shoulder or neck on a slender thong. And for the ultimate chic: a pale yellow Vuitton motorcycle helmet. But that wasn't even the most head-jarring work of the Paris season. So far, that designation belongs to the collection produced by Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens, who's perhaps best known for the steely black leather and gray tulle outfit Madonna wore to this year's Oscars--a dress that looked positively cheery compared with the opening tableaux of Theyskens' spring line.

Showing in a dark industrial loft on the Left Bank, the young designer aimed to unsettle: Fluorescent lights flickered with strobe-like intensity. Music pounded toward heart-attack levels. The models--some with hair slicked over their faces, others with eyes painted black and blue--tried to shock. So, obviously, did the clothes. At first, they were dark, angry, obtuse: a black leather fencing outfit; black leather jacket with black leather dickey; black leather funeral suit with a funeral wreath around the neck, and, yes, the black leather sheath being attacked by a flock of blackbirds.

Uncomfortable enough? That's when Theyskens sent out a collection of cheerful, wearable clothes, including tailored beige suits with delicate hook-and-eye closures, pink-and-white checked shirtwaist dresses and a yellow chiffon evening skirt with a gold-and-yellow awning-striped jacket.

Almost as cerebral, but not nearly as dark, was fellow Belgian designer Dries Van Noten. For spring, his collection was at once Amish and sexy, as if such wildly disparate ideas were not so disparate after all. On the sexy side are sheer white dresses and pinafores worn over white briefs. Their counterpoint: slim black coats worn over long, full petticoats, black knee socks and oxfords. Here, silhouettes go to extremes--tight skirts with bustles in back, or full skirts with ruffles at the hem and corsets at the waist.

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