SKIRTING THE ISSUE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Paris -- If the gods who rule Paris fashion got it right this season we're all going to get into the black.

Haute hippie black at Gianni Versace. Corseted and see-through black at Chanel, Christian Lacroix and Thierry Mugler. Jet-beaded black bras at Yves Saint Laurent. Furred and feathered black at Christian Dior. And from Givenchy, the man who brought us Audrey Hepburn in the little black dress, the new mother-of-chic little black suit.

For U.S. retailers here looking for clear, new fashion direction that they will buy later in the form of the couturiers' less expensive ready-to-wear, the other big news of the season is the overall endorsement of many skirt lengths. With the exception of Versace, who showed only one above-the-knee skirt in a collection that was otherwise headed straight for the ankles, designers are definitely pro choice when it comes to hemlines.

As Kal Ruttenstein of Bloomingdale's remarked: "The only length that looks wrong is the very short."

Mr. Ruttenstein, Ellin Saltzman of Bergdorf Goodman, Nicole Fischelis of Saks Fifth Avenue and Joan Kaner of Neiman Marcus all said they came to Paris expecting the majority hemline to be at mid-calf or below and were surprised at the lasting power of short -- short meaning an inch or two above the knees. By offering choice in lengths -- including that all-time favorite just-below-the-knee length sanctioned by Coco Chanel and now endorsed as "nouvelle longueur" by her successor Karl Lagerfeld -- designers are literally going to all lengths to assure women that it's safe to buy something new and that they no longer need worry about a hemline that's obsolete.

"Even at these prices," says Ms. Kaner, referring to the $16,000 suits and $25,000 gowns of haute couture, "women want choices, and more and more designers realize it."

Here are the season's trends from the 20 couturiers sanctioned by the Chambre Syndicale, the governing body of Paris fashion, and the three de facto participants in the biannual fashion rites: Valentino, Mr. Versace and Mr. Mugler. The latter presented a collection that was part ready-to-wear clothes already seen by buyers at his March opening and part made-to-order.

Pants

From Mr. Saint Laurent's narrow, cigarette-leg velvets to the wide-legged see-through wool voiles worn over thigh-high stockings at Chanel and the sheer black chiffons at Mugler, there are pants in every collection. Mr. Versace even managed to make bell-bottoms look chic in black wool teamed with matching long, narrow jackets. Pants also continue as an expression of the mannish mode introduced earlier this year in ready-to-wear. Gianfranco Ferre, for example, continues his gray flannels and -- pinstripes with sable cuffs.

With the exception of Emanuel Ungaro's epauletted majorette jackets, most pants jackets are long and lean with lots of shape-defining seams. With the exception of Chanel's lug-soled oxfords, most pants are shown with high heels -- some with wafer-soled platforms, others with thick-heeled pumps or T-straps, and a few with sleek, high-heeled boots. The high-heel wedge at Chanel looks like it will be especially influential on future shoe designs.

Looking back at the future again

Mr. Versace's Cher-and-Cher-alike bell-bottoms and vests may be rooted in the '70s, but they may well redefine the '90s. Mr. Lagerfeld's hippies for Chanel are seeded in the more poetic, wispy, misty flower children of Woodstock memory.

The name-that-decade movement also features Valentino's re-makes of Hollywood heroines of the late '30s and early '40s, complete with Marlene Dietrich pantsuits, Greta Garbo hats and Carol Lombard snoods. Mr. Ungaro salutes '30s surrealism with red lip and eyelashed eye embroideries on cashmere sweaters and strapless gowns.

While designers all say change is in the air, by week's end that began to sound like a lot of hot air. Mr. Ferre's collection for Dior gave a lot of oxygen to the tradition of grand couture by way of inflated jacket peplums and blown-up sleeves that breathed new life into old ball gowns, thereby pleasing customers who prefer the status of the status quo.

Considering the fact that some of the couture's best customers are Saudi women who wear the clothes behind the closed doors of the seraglio, where they are seen only by other women, and the Western world's grand dames who only dress up in the privacy of their own -- or someone else's -- homes, the reality of haute couture of the '90s is that most of the clothes shown here this week will be seen only in photographs.

Corsetry

The cinched waist looks like a cinch to succeed, thanks to the staying power of the corset. This trend that started in ready-to-wear is now literally and figuratively shaking the foundations of couture.

For Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel it's Mae West meets Tara in gowns with corseted basque bodices and big, drape-swagged skirts. For Mr. Lacroix, it's jackets with trompe l'oeil girdles that lace in back. And for Mr. Mugler, it's laced-front, laced-back girdle jackets or tops in a gravity-defying range that includes silk faille, wool, metal and plexiglass. Some are worn with laced-together girdle skirts, some with see-through black chiffon skirts with ribbed seams and some with tulle tutus.

The fundamental ornamental

In keeping with the toned-down mood in many collections, jet emerges as the bead of the season, often replacing the more traditional jewel embroideries. Passementerie braid, leather appliques and upholstery-inspired tufting and quilting give the clothes a touch me/feel me look. And for the first time in many seasons, ribbons appear as intricate braidwork on the bodices of gowns.

Mad hatters

At Chanel, the hat becomes a giant forest of bramble, bushes and bracken. At Dior, a draped fur hat continues around the neck to form a scarf. And at Lacroix, the snake charmer is a big-brimmed picture hat made entirely of python.

The hair as hat is the news at Chanel, where papier mache wigs in such colors as lavender and lime green make headlines, and at Versace, where long blond manes end in dark tiger markings.

Celebrity sightings

Joan Collins was the actress of record making the rounds here, but the real newsmakers were the kids. Ivana brought her 10-year-old daughter, Ivanka, to the Valentino show, and Renata Hirsch, everyone's favorite German customer, shared her little gold chair with her 11-year-old son, Leander.

Toujours couture?

Is it a relic of fashion's glorious past or a vital, viable force for tomorrow? These are the questions the Chambre Syndicale will debate when members meet in September to consider rule changes which would allow such ready-to-wear designers as Mr. Mugler and Claude Montana to become full-fledged couturiers. If anyone is going to save the haute couture from what at times has seemed like certain death, it will be the designers who give new meaning to the expression "to die for." In the meantime, haute couture remains a kind of fashion by photo opportunity presented to publicize designers and attract licenses for lucrative contracts in fragrance and accessories.

/# And the Chanel jacket lives on.

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