Parisian haute couture is alive and well and kicky


PARIS -- Karl Lagerfeld added plastic to the haute couture fabrics he used for his Chanel collection because he thought it was fun. Emanuel Ungaro invented a never-never land for his fairy-tale clothes, and Philippe Venet pursued his simple classics in a low key. Each interpreted the couture concept in an individual manner as the spring and summer fashion shows this week.

How does plastic fit in with the couture's chiffons, beads and satins? In Lagerfeld's hands, it works just fine. First he has the material beaded by Lesage, the world's most prestigious embroiderer. Sometimes, he confines it to the midriff, where it suggests bare skin. At other times, he puffs it and gathers it as if it were silk. Certainly, it shakes things up.

It's a tradition at Chanel to shake up fashion. Gabrielle Chanel did it much earlier in the century when she used wool jersey, then a men's underwear fabric, for women's dresses. Women thought it made them look like their maids, and they loved it.

Lagerfeld is already on the map, so it doesn't matter so much if women decide they don't want to spend $10,000 or more for a sheet of plastic, no matter how delicately embroidered. But it helps revise the stodgy image of the couture.

Besides, Lagerfeld has a lot of other ideas. The main one is his combination of 1950s tailoring with unconstructed 1930s fluidity.

This sounds a lot more pretentious than it is. It means combining a tweedy jacket, usually long and lightly fitted, with a dress in chiffon or another thin, sheer fabric. The skirt is full, layered and long enough to reach the shoes, or even to form a short train.

One effect, doubtless unforeseen, was that the skirt panels tended to twist around the models' feet and make them stumble. the audience was treated to the sight of power models like Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford stooping to unwind their hems from their ankles.

Miss Crawford's husband, Richard Gere, caused a frenzy among the photographers when he arrived with Sydney Picasso, the wife of Claude Picasso. "I was a little terrified," he said, referring to the crush. But he added, pointing to his companion, "She was cool as a cucumber."

All this contributed to the idea that the couture is lively, but Lagerfeld went further: he provided attractive clothes.

Emanuel Ungaro made clothes for a mythical kingdom where all the women look like fresh-faced milkmaids in flowered dresses. The colors are strong and playful.

Among green, yellow and red flowers are black and white stripes, dots and checks. Sleeves tend to be puffed, as in storybooks, and jackets fitted. Skirts are generally slender and calf length, but such details don't seem to matter.

What matters is the floral arrangements: one pattern for sleeves, another for the yoke at the neck, a third at the hem and so on. The combinations are ingenious and the prints not overwhelming. The designer recalled that when he began mixing patterns more than 20 years ago, his audience went into shock. Today, the melange is accepted as part of his style.

Besides prints, there are bead embroideries, including pearls and jet, outlining paisley patterns in dresses wrapped in blanket-size stoles. These would be nice to wear when the daughter of the lord of the manor marries the scion of the neighboring barony.

The wedding dress that ended the show, all polka dots and puffy sleeves, its long, flat bodice embroidered in jewels, could have been made for an infanta of Spain at the time of the Inquisition.

These are fantasy clothes, existing outside the contemporary world of struggle and strife. They express the couture in terms of playful styles that give a woman a chance to dress up in an unfamiliar way. Fashion as escapism, you might say. Four women from Bahrain, their heads swathed in black chiffon scarfs, said they found the show delightful.

Philippe Venet doesn't concern himself with philosophic issues.

To him, couture is a business, a pretty good business.

It thrives when you provide good service to the customer, he said, and there will always be customers, "as there always will be people who like good food."

Venet makes clothes quietly for those with old money and unobtrusive taste. After six years of staging shows in hotels like everyone else, he returned to his salon. It was partly to save money, but he rejoiced in the more modest presentation.

"When you have a big theater," he said, "you end up making clothes for the runway, not for people to wear."

What he expects that they will wear are slender, double-breasted suits with long jackets or a beautifully tailored classic one-button style. His white dresses with pleated skirts are accompanied by coats or jackets in strong colors.

For evening, he offers an occasional flash of bare skin and a glimmer of beads, but he focuses on one-shoulder dresses and pajamas for evening.

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