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STYLE & CULTURE | FALL 2004 COLLECTIONS

In Paris, designers get serious

There are fewer theatrics this year and more attention on clothes that could actually sell. Jean-Paul Gaultier's first Hermes collection and Alexander McQueen's luscious gowns are highlights.

March 08, 2004|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

Paris — Perhaps it was the sight of a Frenchman breathing life into the vaunted French leather-goods house that caused a few women in the audience to dab tears from their eyes. It was one of the most anticipated events of the season here: the first Hermes collection by Jean-Paul Gaultier, the legendary designer who put Madonna in a cone bra and men in skirts. Started as a saddlery in 1837, the company is now known more for its wait-listed Birkin and Kelly bags than for its clothing, previously quietly designed by Martin Margiela. Saturday's show was held at L'Ecole Militaire, where officers practiced dressage as guests found their seats on bales of hay.

Gaultier at last gave the house a fashion identity, by melding his own design signatures -- corsets, bodysuits, sweatshirts -- with Hermes signatures such as riding clothes, silk scarves, the screw closures of the Birkin bags and luxurious skins. A tobacco shearling sweatshirt was worn with a slinky hooded green dress and one of many pairs of riding boots in crocodile or leather with Birkin hardware at the top. A black leather kilt had a blue and green scarf print layered between the pleats. A long trench coat floated down the runway in a bewitching shade of campfire-red velvet, with a matching leather pencil skirt. Also on offer: tweed trousers in autumnal shades of caramel and burgundy tailored by Gaultier's expert hand, a crocodile jacket with a shredded hem, a new elongated Kelly bag and, for giggles, a brown leather corset with a small padlock at the top -- a chastity belt that will cost daddy thousands.

Gaultier rekindled the house's heirloom quality by inviting several generations onto the runway. Twentysomething (or younger) models wore ponytails so long and lush, they resembled the genuine equine articles; Linda Evangelista brandished a riding crop; and an older woman was accompanied by ... her gigolo, perhaps? The presentation was unfailingly classy but also fun, which is what Hermes has been missing for so long.

When Alexander McQueen, who once had live wolves on his runway, described his show as "stripped of all theatrics ... the focus purely on design, manufacture, execution and simplicity, where creativity and commerce are unified," it was a reflection of the let's-get-down-to-business mood that has gripped the runways in Paris. Designers have been moving away from over-the-top runway antics and homing in on salable clothes. (Not Junya Watanabe's duvet dress, no, or the coffin-size coats at Dior ... but others.)

Perhaps it's all the endless talk about Tom Ford's departure from Gucci Group and the expendable designer, or the realities of a struggling luxury market, or simply a coming of age. But many designers seem to have had some sense scared into them. Even Hussein Chalayan, who once staged a show that consisted of little more than a model bouncing up and down on a trampoline with a balloon tethered to her jacket, had a straight runway presentation.

But McQueen was probably trying to send a message of seriousness mostly to his backers at Gucci Group. Fashion's perennial bad boy, he hasn't exactly produced hot-selling clothes and accessories since the luxury conglomerate acquired 51% of his label in 2000. And since he turned down the top job being vacated by Tom Ford at Yves Saint Laurent, saying that he preferred to focus on his own label, he knows he needs to prove it was a wise decision.

According to McQueen's show notes, his collection was inspired by new beginnings and the embryonic state. Models with pale faces and tight, short curls walked onto the circular light-box runway silhouetted by a kind of otherworldly light. Despite his promise of pragmatism, though, many pieces (a body-molding cream leather jumpsuit, a leather jacket with an all-over channeled tube design, a mossy green one-piece wool suit with pouf sleeves and culottes) were too Queen Amidala to be wearable. It seemed as if the designer had seen a few too many sci-fi movies.

But it was exciting to see him delve into eveningwear like never before, adding a Masai-like jeweled and feathered collar to a smoky lavender strapless chiffon column. Orchid prints from British photographer Peter Arnold's book "Orchids" emblazoned the side of a yellow empire-waist silk chiffon gown, worn with heels that lighted up when the model walked. If the clothes aren't salable, McQueen may at least get some red carpet exposure out of them.

As for theatrics, he couldn't help himself in the finale. Three models waddled out in incandescent dresses with wide, angular tops and bottoms and tiny waists, which made them look like Scandinavian-designed salt and pepper shakers.

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