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Spring 2001 / Paris Collections

French Intelligence

October 13, 2000|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times-Senior Fashion Writer

PARIS — It's perfectly OK here to be an intellectual in public. That can mean reading the philosophers in smoky cafes and dressing in the ratty tweeds and knotty scarves of the local Bohemians, or choosing instead the cerebrally provocative attire from any of this city's global community of fashion designers.

As the spring 2001 shows continue this week, it's clear that the French runways have delivered what was missing in New York, London or Milan: many distinct voices offering intelligent clothes, full of symbolism and new approaches to dressing. Designers from France, Japan, Britain, Belgium, America and points beyond united with one big idea: Wardrobes are no longer bound by season, time of day, or gender.

In this season's especially innovative atmosphere, a simple, wonderfully executed idea can seem like genius. So imagine a tap-dancing ensemble of Clara Bow look-alikes clippy-clopping to Hollywood show tunes wearing modern remakes of classic suits and tuxedos. My! For their ready-to-wear's first-ever runway show, Viktor & Rolf designers Viktor Horstig and Rolf Snoeren of the Netherlands entertained with the same daring that's made them the darlings of haute couture. While Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" blasted from the loudspeaker, the real-life, real-sized dancers illustrated that these clothes are meant for motion.

Glittery silver outlined lapels, pockets and collar ruffles on black, ivory or even faded denim suits, blouses, trench coats and, of course, tap pants. The eureka moment came abruptly during a group of deconstructed, Kelly-inspired white sailor shirts and pants, when the music and choreography shifted into a funky, hip-hop beat. Evidently, in the right hands, even the most old-fashioned Hollywood tune--or traditional attire--can look new if it's modernized.

With quiet power, Veronique Branquinho abandoned her roots in Gothic dreariness to embrace a lovely, light and versatile set of ivory, powder pink or black separates that, depending on the combination, could look androgynous or sweetly feminine. The Belgian designer expertly touched on most of the season's trends--masculine tailoring, asymmetry and full, pleated skirts--without looking trendy.

Only in Paris can a designer propose, as Yohji Yamamoto did Sunday, that our clothes and accessories become one piece. Starting with a garment that hasn't changed much in a century, the men's suit, Yamamoto built women's clothes that progressively ignored the suit, the body's standard proportions and the separation between bag and garment. As he attached a torso-sized, snap-together purse frame to a strapless top, a drawstring across a hood-like flap, or straps onto a boxy pocket, both the bags and the clothes transformed into a new kind of combined garment--some more functional than others. Scoff now, but the knockoff artists will have us snapping shut the pocketbook-pockets on our jean jackets.

Just as rigorously thought-provoking, Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garcons used punk-rock styling with psychedelic and camouflage prints to celebrate the do-it-yourself aesthetics of the home seamstress and vintage clothing fan. Using the amateur's favorite tailoring shortcuts--adhesive and iron-on tape--Kawakubo cinched in the floppy sides of a too-large men's suit jacket and refitted it to a slim model. Her message? One size can truly fit all with instant and reversible taped-together alterations.

It's tougher to sort out what, exactly, John Galliano hopes to sell from his amusing Christian Dior collection. He moved on from the past seasons' homeless couture and "ghetto fabulous" gear to satirize tough and trashy American stock car races and beauty pageants. Amid shredded denims, camouflage-print bikinis, logos and warmup pants, he mixed STP oil patches, racing stripes and even tiaras and sashes from the pageant queens. For good measure, he took a huge detour to Asia and added Oriental brocades and quilted jackets. As satire, it was crass and hilarious. As clothing, the joke's on the wearer.

Only hours earlier, Galliano's antithesis, the Roman couturier Valentino, showed why, after 40 years in business, he's become a worldwide power: great, achingly elegant clothes that still pack a punch. He harnessed a growling panther theme that showed up in skirt prints, on tall boots and as the jeweled decoration on the bracelet handles of bags. By adding a ruffle here, a chiffon fabric there, Valentino took the swagger out of the few menswear references in the collection, which looked sportier and more casual than in past seasons--and perfect for Los Angeles, where he'll stage an anniversary celebration on Nov. 17.

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