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Clothes Ready For Takeoff On the Paris Runways

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2004; Page C01

PARIS, Oct. 7 -- A fashion show can be a powerful form of communication. Designer Dries Van Noten made a persuasive argument this week for the romance, strength and artistry that can be revealed through the theatrics of a perfectly executed runway show. He celebrated his 50th fashion presentation Wednesday with an evening that combined bracing cocktails, a dinner table almost as long as a football field, and compelling, romantic clothes.

The team of Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren made splendid use of their presentation with a revolving stage and a minor explosion to announce the arrival of their fragrance, Flower Bomb. And at Christian Dior, for the first time in far too long, designer John Galliano put clothes -- not costumes or ego -- on the runway. It was a lovely sight.

Dries Van Noten's spring collection is cheerful and romantic, with full skirts, exotic prints and florals. (Maria Valentino - For The Washington Post)

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Fashion shows are often rightly denounced as expensive displays of hubris. Only occasionally are there wonderful shows that connect a series of dots from politics to sculpture to film and on to fashion.

The runway can be an ungainly way for designers to present their work. Simple clothes do not benefit from the scrutiny they receive when shoved into the spotlight. The catwalk can also lure designers into engaging in sweeping displays of silliness and absurdity that overshadow the clothes; put a barnyard animal on the runway and no one is likely to remember whether the skirts had pleats.

But this season, designers have been making smart, compelling use of the catwalk. It has been a fine tool for surprising, entertaining and romancing the audience. But most important, designers have not forgotten the crucial element in the runway production: quality clothes.

Rarely does an entire evening make an evocative statement about the way a designer views his work. But for Van Noten, fashion shows have held a particularly important place since he founded his company more than a decade ago. The designer does not advertise. There are no starlets associated with the collection. Britney Spears is not nuts for his embroidered scarves, Gwyneth Paltrow didn't wear his floral tunic dresses while she was pregnant, and Madonna did not wear any of his full skirts while on her Re-Invention tour. Runway presentations are Van Noten's sole method of communicating his aesthetic sensibility to media, retailers and ultimately the customer.

For the spring 2005 collection, he chose the setting of an old boiler factory in a Paris suburb and organized a seated dinner for 500. An expanse of white linen covered a table that extended the length of the warehouse. An army of waiters in black aprons marched out to serve each course -- one waiter for each guest. Not a wineglass was out of alignment. Not a seam was visible in the smooth tablecloth. At dinner's end, after the plates had been cleared, the chandeliers were raised, spotlights were switched on and models marched down the center of the table.

Van Noten's practice of serving food and drinks at his presentations is a way of making them less formal and more reflective of the elegant nonchalance that has always been a part of his work. The location reminded one of the sometimes rough and imperfect nature of his clothes. And the precision with which the evening was executed spoke volumes about Van Noten's attention to detail in his designs.

His collection for spring is filled with full skirts. There are small jackets that tie or are belted at the waist. Delicate slip dresses sit just low enough on the torso to reveal the top of a delicate pastel bra underneath. Saronglike skirts wrap around the body but have been reconfigured so that they don't require a master's degree in origami to tie them.

Van Noten indulged in his traditional mix of exotic prints, florals and brocades and decorated many of them with hand embroidery and splashes of beading. Most enticing and surprising, however, was a group of bleached floral prints that looked as though the patterns and colors had begun to age and bleed beyond their borders.

It was a cheerful collection that evoked the celebratory nature of the evening. Even the models' path was meant to suggest a party turned wild. The drinks are flowing, the conversation is spirited -- and by the end of the evening, everyone is dancing on the table.

Viktor & Rolf

The inspiration for the Viktor & Rolf collection was bows and ribbons -- including the kind that would be used to wrap a bouquet of flowers.

The collection presented Wednesday was divided between stark black and festive pink. Part One was devoted to dark-as-night attire: a short black leather trench coat , a glossy black suit with whip-thin trousers and a shirt with kimono sleeves, a tiny jacket with waffle-texture sleeves, an evening gown with a portrait neckline and a bow twisted sideways.

Black ribbons adorned both the clothes and the models. But there was nothing sweet about the bows. They were worn with a sense of irony and aggressive attitude by models whose faces were obscured by motorcycle helmets. They stalked the runway like angry bikers and charm school dropouts. Then they retreated to the stage, where they posed on prop ladders as if they were organizing themselves for a glossy magazine photo shoot.

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