The Shape of the Future? Behold the Birthday Suit!

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006

PARIS, Oct. 6 -- Full frontal nudity appeared on the runway Wednesday under the guise of fashion.

Go ahead. Let that swirl around in your mind for a second or two before you continue reading. Nothing else will register until the image of a naked model on a catwalk, under a spotlight, stops bouncing around in your head like an old videotape gone off track.

One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Okay, moving on.

Nudity was not the theme of designer Hussein Chalayan's spring 2007 collection, which he presented on a runway glittering with Swarovski crystals. But it was the denouement of a group of garments that aspired to represent the history of fashion from the Victorian era onward. Each model walked to the center of the runway and stood motionless. And then slowly, as if by magic -- or at least the battery-powered, remote-control kind -- their clothes began to transform. A collar was unbuttoned as if by phantom hands. A bodice was pulled back to reveal more of the human form. Dresses were shortened as if invisible wires attached to the ceiling were slowly tugging the hemline upward.

Finally, a model emerged wearing a wide white hat that resembled a flying saucer. Panels of fabric were draped from the back of the hat and around her body. Slowly, the panels began to retract into the hat to reveal . . . nothing -- or everything, depending on one's point of view. The model modestly folded her hands in front of her legs. And a puff of steam sighed from the top of the hat as if she were about to take off.

It was a teasing presentation that looked toward the future of fashion and the ultimate minimalist ensemble. But it also captured some of the silly spirit in the collections that have been shown in the last few days. No serious conversation can be had about these collections. They are not trying to be anything more than frilly, pretty and fun. They are not aspiring to social commentary -- at least not on any topic that deserves or requires more than five minutes of mulling. (But it might be worthwhile to take about three minutes to ponder why Albert Kriemler of Akris thought that female professionals would enjoy a collection inspired by a vintage swimsuit from Rudi Gernreich -- he of the famed topless bikini. Dresses and tops had necklines that plunged nearly to the navel, but each had a piece of sheer mesh that kept the garments from falling off the models' shoulders. Still, the mesh did little to obscure the fact that the necklines were cut down to the nether regions. Appropriate for work? Discuss.)

Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld

Lagerfeld's Chanel collection was his most charming in a long time. His jackets were dotted with sparkles. The dresses were short with full skirts, but nothing was so overwhelming as to be cumbersome or ridiculous. He often paired his jackets with nothing more than black sequined panties, but that was more to focus the eye on the blazer than to suggest that women take to the streets in glittering underwear.

He closed the presentation with a series of short black dresses that were buoyant with ruffles and worn with peep-toe ballet slippers. The collection had a youthful spirit but only occasionally veered toward childishness.

Earlier in the week, Lagerfeld presented his signature collection, which had a similarly youthful sensibility and was dominated by doll dresses. That collection is named Karl Lagerfeld but should not be confused with the mass market collection of the same name that he launched in New York but has since been folded. What he showed on Wednesday is the high-priced collection formerly known as Lagerfeld Gallery, which is based in Paris. Before the collection was unveiled, everyone seemed a little fuzzy on precisely what label they were there to see but understood that whatever was coming down the runway continues to be owned by Tommy Hilfiger Inc.


It was hard to know if what came down the runway at the YSL show was created by the current creative director, Stefano Pilati, or had simply been pulled from the archives left by the house's founder. Pilati expertly channels the styles that define YSL: the Gypsy look, the tuxedo, the trench coat, the suits with the strong shoulders and the emphasis on flowers and ruffles. Pilati plays with the proportions and fabric, but the collection seems just on the edge of stodgy and it often tips into matronly.

The collection was unveiled at the Grand Palais. As the show began, the back doors were flung open and the models walked in from the street. They made their way down a long runway covered in a fragrant carpet of violets. They were wearing platform shoes with spike heels. As their shoes sank into the soil, they struggled, not just to maintain their lackadaisical attitude but also their balance.

The best pieces in the collection captured the romance and femininity of the flowers. Dresses constructed of silk violet petals enveloped the torso, but because the flowers were pressed flat -- instead of being sculpted into three-dimensional corsages -- they did not make the models looks as though they should be pruned.

Pilati's suits, in their big bold checks, are for a particular taste. They seem fussy and awkwardly proper and destined to make a woman look as wide as a house. But Pilati cut delightful swing coats, as well as a beautiful white evening gown with a ruffled bodice and a train blossoming with floral applique.

His decision to include flouncy peasant dresses with floral aprons and droopy genie pants, in which a woman couldn't even cross her legs, seemed as silly and indulgent a notion as asking models in spike heels to tramp through a flower bed. Were there no flat sandals? Box heels?

Jean Paul Gaultier

While Pilati was turning for inspiration to the YSL archives and possibly old episodes of "I Dream of Jeannie," other designers looked to the streets. They have been inspired by sportswear and gym clothes: the sort of attire that a real woman -- not the always well-groomed creature of designers' imaginations -- might wear to run errands on a Saturday afternoon. Jean Paul Gaultier, who is celebrating his 30th anniversary this year, showed a collection Tuesday afternoon that was inspired by a sports club.

To mark the anniversary, Gaultier opened the show with a reminder of his history: cone bras, transgender pants/skirts, tattoo dresses, Hasidic-inspired overcoats. His spring collection exemplified what Gaultier has always done best. He transforms what he sees on the street into polished, luxurious fashion. He may inflame tempers along the way, but Gaultier remains a keen observer. He sees secular beauty in religious adornment. He sees mainstream elegance in the fetishes of the fringe element.

And for spring, he sees glamour -- not just ease and comfort -- in sweat clothes. He cuts slinky and colorful baseball jackets and embroiders the backs with "30," as well as ornate flora and fauna. Basketball jerseys are elongated into cocktail dresses, and sweat pants have the fluidity of silk jersey.

Branquinho, Vionnet, Demeulemeester

All too often, the collections in Paris that focus on accessible, wearable clothes -- really, there are a few -- get lost in the hubbub surrounding this city's mad scientists, P.T. Barnums and Goliath corporations.

Designers such as Sophia Kokosalaki, Ann Demeulemeester and Veronique Branquinho don't run huge companies with enormous advertising budgets. (The promise of a few ad dollars is always a lure for magazine editors to attend a show.) They are not famous scions. They don't have a flamboyant celebrity or socialite clientele. All they have going for them are their clothes.

Branquinho was in the unfortunate position on Wednesday of presenting her quiet collection of layered white dresses, feminine skirts and slouchy white trousers just before the Givenchy presentation. Givenchy is part of the enormous LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton conglomerate. It is a globally recognized brand that demands attention. And the show was on the opposite side of Paris from Branquinho's. She barely stood a chance.

Her audience arrived already antsy about whether the show would cause them to miss Givenchy. People glared at their watches and consulted colleagues by cellphone. They sighed heavily each time another model appeared on the catwalks. How many mannequins are back there? Would Givenchy wait for this tiny little show to end?

The last model had barely turned her back to the cameras -- and the designer had certainly not even taken her bows -- when the audience stampeded toward the door, crashing its way through the crystal beaded curtains that had created an atmosphere of soulful romance. Had anyone seen the poetic collection? Or had folks simply been ticking off the minutes?

Kokosalaki, who was recently appointed creative director of the French fashion house Vionnet, showed audiences a collection that highlighted her signature use of draping, ruching and pleating. Her clothes swirl around the body in the manner of a cloak in classical Greek and Roman statuary. Kokosalaki works with her fabric like a sculptor molding clay.

Demeulemeester's melancholy clothes -- rumpled, long and ascetic -- were perfectly suited to the dark mood of fall and its emphasis on layers. But it was hard to imagine how Demeulemeester might give her clothes the airiness that defines so many of the spring collections without losing the essence of her aesthetic. How does a designer who is inspired by singer Patti Smith -- grumpy and dark -- create lighthearted fashion?

In the collection she showed Tuesday, Demeulemeester chose white eyelet as a tool for leavening the sobriety in her work. She created languid, almost genderless jackets that were rendered less mournful by the sweet fabric. And the usually saccharine eyelet benefited from Demeulemeester's weighty and emotional point of view.

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