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The Spring Collection / Paris

A Moment of Sanity

Some Designers Give Runway Antics a Rest to Show Clothes Women Can Actually Wear


PARIS — When Yves Saint Laurent decided to throw a party here last week, guests were invited to dress up as they might have "for the 7 in '77, for the 54 in '78 or for the Palace in '79"--a wink and a nod to the golden clubs in the glory days of disco. Ordinarily, such bits of costumery would have simply underscored the fashion madness of France, where designers have been known to put birds' nests on models' heads and lion tamers on the runways. But not this season. In a city that flips decades faster than a deejay at an oldies station, the most astonishing thing about the clothes being shown here is how utterly '90s they are.

Have the Parisians forgotten this isn't Milan? Blame it on the rocky international economy--and fears that play-it-safe shoppers won't pay four-digit prices for a jacket embellished with the profile of a Concorde. Blame it on boredom with sartorial artifice--how many women are going to wear hip padding or bustle skirts to the office? Blame it on harsh corporate realities--the growing number of venerable old houses, from Givenchy to Dior, telling their artistic young stars to produce bankable clothes or lose backing for their own collections.

Whatever the reason, as the spring '99 ready-to-wear shows zipped into high gear last week, designers offered some of the most wearable fashions in years, from Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld swapped last season's constricting bustles for softly draped silhouettes, to Guy Laroche, where Alber Elbaz turned out the sort of understated dresses and coats that Grace Kelly might have worn with her Hermes bag.

Of course, the French have hardly abandoned their wit or their sense of the absurd. In a bit of editorial naughtiness, Chloe designer Stella McCartney played a slice of Bill Clinton's "this-is-not-a-sexual-relationship" grand jury testimony as she sent her unabashedly sexy clothes down the runway, right past her father, Paul. And in the most lavish production of the week, John Galliano fashioned a petal-strewn gypsy reverie, where acrobats contorted and models-turned-dancers showed off elaborately worked gowns that could have stepped out of an Erte painting and suits that could have stepped off the Orient Express.

Even so, after the theatrics of the opening shows here, the swing to realism was stunning. Starting at Chanel, where the biggest--or most commercial--launch of the season was the so-called 2005 bag, a futuristic little purse designed to evoke the shape of a woman's bottom and, Chanel Inc. hopes, to coax fans out of their classic quilted handbags. (Remember, fashion houses would much rather sell a million logoed bags at $1,800--the price here of the 2005 in leather--than even half a million jackets at $3,000.)

And what to wear with the bag? From the Space Age shape of the 2005, it's obvious Chanel designer-photographer-writer Lagerfeld is as taken with millennium madness as his counterparts over in Milan, and so fashion's reigning Renaissance man offered up future-shock skirts, shorts and trapeze dresses done in a shiny silver synthetic. Think George Jetson-meets-Coco. Think '60s plastics and the sort of moon dresses they still sell in the Courreges shop in the mall under the Louvre.

Admittedly, millennial silver may not be for every Chanelista. But on the runway, at least, the classic little Chanel suit has gone the way of the classic little Chanel bag. Lagerfeld's alternatives: a soft shirt jacket with flyaway front and single button at the throat, or a short, Japanese-inspired kimono jacket, wrapped snug in front and tied in back. Silk skirts and pants are softly wrapped too, usually with three fabric panels fluttering down from the hip--potentially hazardous to anyone jumping in and out of a car, but a clear signal that Lagerfeld is easing up on last season's long, constricting skirts. But most surprising of all in this era of market mania isn't the silhouette, but the buttons: Aside from the 2005 bag, there's hardly a Chanel logo in sight.

Talk about marketability. Last year, bad-boy Brit Alexander McQueen opened his spring collection for Givenchy with Lady Godiva prancing down the runway on a Lippizaner stallion. Not this year. With orders to get real, the designer who's long taunted the fashion establishment turned the volume down, way down. And not just in terms of runway antics. Gone were the pointy shoulders and exaggerated shapes for fall. In their place were clothes that some cheered as salable and others decried as utterly dowdy.

You want ladylike? I'll give you ladylike, McQueen seemed to be daring--with a vengeance. So, in his showing at the mammoth Palais des Sports, he sent out an endless parade of smartly tailored suits and coats in graphic black, white and gray color blocks. For evening, he repeated the geometric motif in sequin-covered suits and gowns. In between, there were plenty of McQueen's signature necklines, deeply draped in front or back. Clearly missing, though, was McQueen's signature sense of mischief.

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