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Simply Christian Dior

No Runway? No Problem. Fall's Looks Shine Without Showmanship

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page C01

PARIS, March 3

When guests walked through the flaps of the enormous tent pitched in the Tuileries for the Christian Dior show Tuesday afternoon, they were struck by the studied simplicity and humble ruggedness of the setting. The usually sleek, raised runway had been replaced by a wooden floor. The models would walk along at ground level instead of swanning above the audience. The first row of seats had also been altered. Instead of the usual long row of dramatically lit benches, there was a lineup of worn love seats and armchairs. And instead of a loud thumping soundtrack, there were two musicians who tinkled away on separate grand pianos, playing elevator versions of tunes such as "Eleanor Rigby."

The presentation was strikingly different as well. The models had been stripped of the kabuki makeup that was so emblematic of a Dior show it had become a cliche. There were no absurdly high-heeled shoes that oftentimes had one fearing that a nasty tumble was imminent. And the clothes were not obscured by the kind of flourishes that left one wondering if there was actually anything at all in the collection that a woman might wear if she was not the sort who fancied rubber skirts and latex turtlenecks. Instead, there were dramatic coats with belts that wrapped high on the torso. Oversize sweaters in sailor stripes slumped around the body. There were cargo pants and leather suits with bowl-shaped skirts. A burgundy coat in lush velvet topped a black and merlot printed mini-dress. And there were caftan dresses and evening dresses in peekaboo lace.

Christian Dior delivered surprisingly simple designs, such as this rich velvet topcoat over a printed mini-dress. (Maria Valentino - For The Washington Post)

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There also were garments that were awkward and odd, and one couldn't quite imagine anyone wanting to wear them unless they happened to be working as a backup dancer on Gwen Stefani's pirate ship video. But there were exquisite clothes, too. And for once it was possible to see them without having to squint through the fog of showmanship.

After having gone through the trouble of putting a significant number of nice frocks on the runway, Dior designer John Galliano was rewarded with disgruntled rumblings from his audience that the collection was boring. It is the sort of comment that makes one believe the fashion industry deserves every mocking commentary lobbed its way. It deserves the lousy consumer turnout during the holiday season. It deserves every business-stealing, watered-down knockoff that ABS and Club Monaco can produce. Boring? The runway presentations are no longer simply an insider's show. Consumers look at the videotapes and the photos on the Internet five seconds after the show finishes. Why not throw them a bone? Entertain them, but put some frocks on the catwalk, too.

Stella McCartney, Givenchy

Of course, no one wants to see a dull recitation of serviceable clothes. The challenge is in the balance. Serviceability is what was on the runway at Stella McCartney on Thursday morning.

The designer, who delivered her first child less than a week ago, left the collection in the hands of her creative team. They tried to give voice to her penchant for volume through the torso and her skill at tailoring. But the result was an uneven collection with little emotional impact or pizazz.

And at Givenchy on Wednesday, a team-produced collection was displayed on mannequins. The garments looked as though they had been plucked directly from the archives. There were navy jackets with silver gumball buttons and navy A-line dresses with Empire waists. But those were really "save the date" frocks -- reminders that Givenchy still makes clothes.

Givenchy will return to producing fashion -- that unwieldy blend of clothing, artistry, entertainment and emotion -- this summer when its new designer, Riccardo Tisci, debuts his first couture collection for the house. His ready-to-wear debut will be in October for spring 2006. Tisci's appointment was announced earlier this week, just days after the 30-year-old presented his own darkly romantic collection in Milan. That label, only two seasons old, will be closed and Tisci, who was born in Italy and trained in London, will focus solely on Givenchy.

Balenciaga, Rochas, Undercover

The fashion industry has always been in a pitched battle between its creative passions and business necessities. In Paris, those tensions are underscored, because collections are presented before an audience with a high tolerance and a high expectation for shocking, stunning, disturbing style. People come to Paris to be bowled over, and the designers are happy to accommodate them.

This season designers mostly have maneuvered that fine line with great skill. But the feat is not an effortless one. One can almost always see the designers sweat.

There have been splendid collections for fall 2005 unveiled here over the past few days. One of the most gratifying was from Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga, one of the most beautiful was from Olivier Theyskens at Rochas, and one of the most intriguing came from Jun Takahashi at Undercover.

Only moments before the start of the Balenciaga presentation early Tuesday morning, one wondered rather pessimistically: Was it possible for Ghesquiere to design a collection that could speak to the imperfect bodies, busy lives and unreasonable desires of the average workaday woman, at least the ones willing to spend an inordinate amount of money on clothes for the sheer pleasure of dressing distinctively and well? In the past, Ghesquiere has created garments that were marvels on the runway but were more creative hypothesis than anything real.

For fall, however, Ghesquiere made one believe in his ability to turn enchanting musings into reality. His slim-fitting coats with their industrial fastenings and thick clouds of fur trim went straight to the heart of what it means to create a collection that elevates simple lines and curves into artful practicality. His white trousers with their spare lines and the white shirt with its banded collar that sits elegantly away from the neck speak of Balenciaga tradition, but only in a whisper. They just as easily draw inspiration from the simple dream of an unfettered modern life.

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