Lights, Camera, Allure!

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005

PARIS, March 7

At heart, the runway shows, which ended here today, are the most elaborate of marketing exercises. With all of the players in the fashion industry assembled in some underheated courtyard or overheated tent, designers make their best efforts -- and sometimes their most desperate ones -- at selling their brands and themselves.

Designers define their image in both heavy-handed and subtle ways, from the choice of the venue and its ambiance, to the way in which they ask the models to move around the room.

Saturday morning Junya Watanabe presented his collection before a modest audience sitting in the shape of a square. The models processed out wearing voluminous tweed jackets -- sort of a motorcycle style -- and skirts that could be raised and lowered like Roman blinds. The stoic young women would walk to the middle of the square, stand and spin slowly, and then rather morosely exit. There was no overt celebration of the garments. Here they are. Look at them. Done?

Watanabe is an extraordinary designer who can take a simple idea, such as a white shirt, and transform it with his own expressive artfulness. One white blouse, for instance, has criss-crossing pulleys that create a ripple effect along the bodice and across the chest. The clothes are distinctively eccentric, with their bold colors, bountiful volume and curious linings of functional fabrics. In the past, Watanabe has softened strict and traditional cuts with details such as ravaged edges that suggest passionate, sloppy emotions. For fall, the collection blends the conservatism of tweed with shapes that suggest "Easy Rider" action and rebellion.


In contrast, Valentino presented his collection in the Carrousel du Louvre, which is the official venue for the shows here. His presence there is a statement of tradition, stature and comfort. Part of his come-on to the customer is an assurance that he will never lead her astray. In his hands she will always look chic for Gstaad, New York, the Oscars. She will look as though she belongs among the world's richest and best-dressed ladies.

At their best, Valentino's collections can make one long to enter that world of wealth and privilege because one imagines that the women wear nothing but exquisitely feminine suits and the most rapturous evening gowns. But when the collections fail, they make one grateful for not having to supervise several household staffs and keep all those offshore accounts straight.

For fall, his collection has a more masculine tone and a harsher silhouette. The jackets, with their squared shoulders, have lost their feminine curves. And the after-dark pieces seemed more perfunctory than inspired.

Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche

But for fall, it may be Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche that has the fashion industry's most difficult marketing challenge.

Dear customers,

Forget all that sexually explicit stuff from former designer Tom Ford that we were hawking a mere one year ago. Yes, we once insisted that a low-cut dress that revealed purple-painted nipples was utterly divine. But now we think you should listen to our new man, Stefano Pilati, who would like to dress you in rather thick, bulky, black woolen suits cinched tight with a wide belt. They should make you look 10 to 15 pounds heavier.

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