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Spring 2001 / Paris Collection

His Yves Saint Laurent Line Shows Ford Has a Better Idea


PARIS — By 7 p.m. on Friday the 13th, Tom Ford was trying hard not to smile. Seconds earlier, his debut show as the new designer for Yves Saint Laurent had ended with a model wearing a rubbery-looking bustier seemingly molded from a naked woman's torso--complete with silver nipple rings.

Shocking? Maybe, but it was no worse than the see-through blouses or menswear pantsuits that shook fashion when Saint Laurent created them decades ago. Ford, best known for reviving Gucci, had the difficult task of suppressing his own strong vision while refreshing the image of a living French fashion hero, and doing it under the front-row gaze of many Saint Laurent friends and associates, including Saint Laurent's business partner Pierre Berge, muse Loulou de la Falaise, Bianca Jagger, Richard Avedon, Sonia Rykiel, Diane von Furstenberg and about 700 tired and critical journalists and retailers.

Saint Laurent himself stayed away, as he did during the debut of the first designer to replace him, Alber Elbaz. Ford assumed the design post when Gucci purchased Yves Saint Laurent in a complex deal that left Berge and Saint Laurent in control of the haute couture business.

Ford's debut was the much-anticipated finale to a five-week spring 2001 season that started in New York. The show energized newcomers and even complacent veterans as they searched for a new femininity that's delicate and strong, sexy and sensible.

From the first wide-leg trousers to that slightly sinister torso top, Ford's YSL seemed like the collection that should have been at Gucci in Milan nearly two weeks ago. More than a few items brought that ill-received collection to mind, particularly a corset-like tank top with a neckline that scooped directly under the bust.

Experienced observers, retailers and stylists alike called it a strong first collection, however. And it was, with Ford working mostly on new silhouettes. Using just solid black and solid white, Ford's YSL references were obvious and not. His all-white jackets recalled the white, man-tailored YSL jacket that Jagger wore with a long white skirt to marry Mick Jagger in 1971. (She still has the outfit.) And that shaggy flat hair on the models? It was hanging, as it always has, on the head of Saint Laurent muse Betty Catroux, who called this moment of transition "very exciting. It's not sad."

The suits were his most eloquent effort as they updated the lean tuxedo jackets, called smokings, that are a YSL classic. Ford modernized them with stiff and strongly padded shoulders and wide and flowing, or narrow and cuffed trousers. His dresses, particularly a set of short, shirred or pieced dresses cinched with stretchy, wide cummerbunds or long straps of fabric, gave a sporty, sexy feel to evening wear.

Ford stood as his own man with several new ideas: enormously full shirts with hip-hop styled utility pants, dresses short in front and long and trailing in back, and huge, jutting jacket sleeves with shoulders shaped like a rifle butt. The bi-level hems looked unbalanced, and his tuxedo jacket sliced in half vertically still seems a little silly, though such half-garments have appeared on other runways, too.

Retrospective was also the word at Chanel, where Saint Laurent friend and contemporary Karl Lagerfeld showed that he's still ready to roar. The man with the lightning-quick speech moved dozens of models and as many of his signature looks quickly down a multilevel runway. It all became a blur as Lagerfeld doused the women in pearls, chains and Chanel and Coco logos on veils, quilted bags, and even the platforms of sandals. Lagerfeld, who has updated an iconic design house or two in his day, didn't vastly move the Chanel look forward and he didn't really need to. The Chanel customer will have plenty of updated chenille suits, frothy eyelet and Chantilly lace dresses, and fresh bold logo prints.

John Galliano's show is usually the hottest ticket in Paris, but it began as strangely quiet and formal. Staged on the same mirrored runway as the Christian Dior collection he showed days earlier, Galliano skipped his usual elaborate, theatrical sets. Was he strangled by corporate cost-cutting from parent LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which owns Dior?

Corporate culture apparently hasn't hurt fashion's favorite bad boy. As the soundtrack from the Dior show rewound and started again, out marched a half-dozen Dior-clad models. This was a John Galliano collection, right? Darn right it was. The show was a critical commentary on a decade of retro clothing, industry conglomeration and double-dipping designers such as Galliano who are sometimes perceived as shortchanging one or the other collections. The symbolism was everywhere: ransom-note prints for a fashion culture kidnapped by corporations; a mirrored runway for a show that was a mirror image of its creator's other work; and the crown of thorns on male models in crucifixion poses.

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