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City of Light Still Reigns in Fashion


PARIS — For young American couturier Jeremy Scott, designing, stitching and showing clothes in France's fashion-crazed capital is his calling's equivalent of leaping over hurdles in the Olympics or being center stage on Broadway.

It has given the 26-year-old Kansas City, Mo. native gooseflesh and giddy spells to be part of it. "Being present in Paris is being among the creme de la creme, if you will," says Scott, who will unveil his 40 most-recent creations this evening as part of this autumn's round of new ready-to-wear collections. "It blows my mind that I can be in the same city showing with Mr. Lagerfeld, Mr. Gaultier and Mr. Ford."

Time was, Paris dominated female fashion so totally that costumed dolls were dispatched to the other capitals of Europe periodically so women could keep current with the latest Gallic styles of finery and frippery, and French manufacturers could get rich selling cloth and lace.

"French fashion must be France's answers to Spain's gold mines in Peru," one minister of Louis XIV famously proclaimed. Such preeminence lasted into the modern era; in the 1950s, a visiting Manhattan dressmaker confided to a reporter for Time magazine that "there are more ideas here in a thimble than in all of America."

Nowadays, the fashion world is much more polycentric and diffuse, with MTV and the Oscars probably doing as much to set international trends as Vogue.

Even Frenchwomen, who spend an average of $530 a year on clothes, are as likely as not to shop now at a foreign-owned chain store, or to buy a dress made in Turkey or a sweater from China. Women's wear, like food, movies, books and a host of other consumables, has increasingly gone global.

Simultaneously, though, even if the French wear less clothing made in their own country than ever, the role of Paris in the fashion world remains without peer. London may be more in-your-face style-wise, Milan may have more production capacity, and New York more sales volume. But France's capital is the planetary showcase.

Nowhere but this city on the Seine plays host to as many designers from as many countries who have come to show off their wares, or to as many journalists eager to discover what's new and inform their readers and viewers about it.

"There no longer is this dated '50s idea that only in the air of Paris can true fashion emerge," says Valerie Steele, chief museum curator at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and author of 10 books on fashion. "Instead, Paris has taken on the role of presenting fashion from all over the periphery to the world.

"Paris," she says, "is now where all the style tribes meet."

At the latest session of this United Nations of women's garb, 120 designers are in town this week to unveil their spring collections to 2,400 writers and photographers.

Hundreds of screen stars, VIP clothes mavens and professionals from the garment trade are also attending the back-to-back fashion parades, which keep 3,000 people, from celebrated supermodels to anonymous seamstresses, busy for eight hectic days. The mannequins strutting their stuff on the catwalk are chiefly what the TV viewer sees. Off camera and behind the scenes, however, is where the real business is conducted.

In recent weeks, Paris-based Brigitte Bensimon has been on the phone to the couturiers to schedule sales meetings for the visiting 35-member contingent from Saks Fifth Avenue. The Saks team is in Paris to scan the runways for apparel that will sell in the chain's 62 U.S. stores and to negotiate the best terms available.

"In Paris, there is more talent, French and otherwise, in the creation of style," she says. "In New York, they know more how to sell."

It was in 1858 that a former English draper's apprentice, Charles Frederick Worth, set up shop on the Rue de la Paix near the present-day Opera and pioneered haute couture, or high fashion. Over the decades, the challenges to Parisian hegemony have been numerous: the devastation left by World War II, the "Swinging London" craze of the 1960s and the luxurious sportswear turned out by the Milanese in the late '70s and early '80s.

But each time, the City of Light rallied, and it once again can claim to wield more influence than any other city in determining--some would say suggesting is now more like it--what is "in fashion" at any given moment.

"There is no substitute for creativity, imagination and forward vision," Suzy Menkes, the respected fashion critic for the International Herald Tribune, wrote this week after covering shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris. "And just 24 hours into the spring-summer 2001 Paris shows, there was more of a buzz than during the previous three weeks of international collections."

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