Paris Fashions: Less Ostentatious as the Recession Is Felt

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

PARIS, March 10 This city has become quite serious about Clothes. As the large fashion houses unveil their fall 2009 collections here, designers, who in the past have monkeyed around with high concepts, futuristic visions and theatrics, have woken up to a grim economic reality: They no longer have the luxury of dancing around the bourgeois notion of "commercial." They can't sneer at pragmatism. They cannot spend their time indulging their egos and musing about motivation, inspiration and what it all means.

They've got to move the merchandise.

And so they are putting clothes on the runway, good old clothes: some extraordinary, some confoundingly dismal and some just okay. The Chanel show Tuesday morning was like a tour through the brand's Rue Cambon flagship boutique. It was a steady stream of little black dresses decorated at the cuffs with camellias, boucle or lace jackets in every permutation, and black cocktail dresses in a frothy mix of silk and chiffon.

In the past, design houses here deemed the runway too rarefied a place for the garments that a woman might wear day-to-day. Who wants to be known for dressing an executive for an afternoon of phone calls and spreadsheets? The catwalk was reserved for the big ideas, the most fanciful cocktail clothes and the singular gown that a Saudi princess or the wife of a Russian oligarch might have the funds to buy. But these days, the oligarchs may soon be shopping at Wal-Mart.

Designer Alber Elbaz has always known that great clothes don't have to be boring. He transformed Lanvin into a house that taps into the daydreams women have about themselves -- rather than the ones that men might have about them. Elbaz has proved in one collection after another that there is something glorious about a dress that a woman can wear from her first morning business meeting through to a goodnight kiss over champagne and dessert.

Elbaz uses drama in his presentations to sell his vision, but his version is more cinema verite than science fiction or melodrama. Elbaz wants his audience to see his clothes the way he does. They look their best out in the world -- in the case of fall '09, on a darkened street after a rainstorm. But Elbaz is a romantic, too. So his street is pristine. There's no mist to ruin the hair. And his models come into focus after passing through an archway covered in red roses.

The clothes speak to the moment. His palette is dark. Why pretend that women don't always go for black in the end? He embellishes his dresses and skirts with gold studs and jet beads. But Michael Jackson will not be calling demanding his clothes back. Elbaz's glittering garments speak of sophistication and nonchalance.

There were luscious fur coats and wraps on his runway and, make no mistake, they announce a woman's wealth -- or at least her willingness to splurge on her attire. But his furs aren't trendy; they're garments a woman might put in her wardrobe for the duration. Someday her daughter might wear them. And his cocktail dresses, with their languid lines and single exposed shoulder or sexy peek of the lower back, are for women who don't need to be obvious about sexiness. They are for women who think there's something a little desperate about those girls who throw back apple martinis or any other drink the color of bubble gum.

Elbaz understands that though successful design is far from easy, it doesn't have to be that complicated. Women want clothes that make them feel as though they can take on the world. But they do not need to be costumed as gladiators or seductresses.

They especially do not want to look like the empire over which they reign consists of bordellos, a point that would seem obvious and thus not bear mentioning were it not for the collection presented by Jean Paul Gaultier.

His collection was meant to be wry and provocative, but instead it came across as unsophisticated and out-of-touch. It revolved around the sex trade. Indeed, the invitation came inside a pair of black fishnet hose. Gaultier made ample use of fishnet: as a print, a fabric for jackets and a casing for a full-length fur coat.

Models wielded long-stem red roses like whips. There was a catfight finale featuring hair pulling, mudslinging and water throwing. It was as bad as it sounds, and the only thing missing was Jell-O wrestling. And while the models appeared to have a good time wrecking one another's elaborate updos and makeup, the audience had the painful task of witnessing the worst sort of sexist sideshow.

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