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Even High-End Houses Scale Back Ostentation As Pragmatism Overshadows Flash in Paris

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.

Gaultier is known for his ability to get inside of a community and see its beauty in a way that its members never have. At times, he has caused outrage by, for example, his willingness to turn the attire of Hasidic Jews into fashion. But he always seemed to approach his subjects with admiration. His fall presentation, however, exuded disdain. Even that could be forgiven if he had put something dynamic and irresistible on his runway. That was what made the show unforgivable: He didn't bring anything new to the world's oldest profession.

Gaultier would have been better served if he had followed the lead of those designers here who winnowed their show down to the necessities and eliminated the superfluous, which in the past has ranged from caged wolves to live performances by Rufus Wainwright. There has been little this season to make a woman wonder: How much is that indulgent bit of folderol adding to the retail price of these clothes?

Hussein Chalayan's clothes were inspired by geology, so dresses looked as though they'd been molded from clay and his coats gave the impression they'd been carved from stone. But there was no crystal-powered technology, no baffling transformer garments, as in the past. Stella McCartney might have had a front row overflowing with celebrities from papa Paul to Salma Hayek, wife of the brand's corporate owner, but the collection was focused on easy silk print dresses, boyfriend jackets and the kind of oversize sweaters that are more comforting than fashiony.

Dries Van Noten stepped away from his cacophonous prints, which have ranged from wildly colorful flowers to dizzying geometric shapes. Instead, he focused on restrained black-and-white photo prints of flowers and the interplay of muddy colors and simple shapes. Butterscotch trousers mixed with cantaloupe-colored jackets. Aubergine combined with ruby red. Orange bumped up against pale pink.

The runways Balenciaga and Christian Dior were also far more sedate than in past seasons. Dior's John Galliano showed day dresses in ikat prints and evening gowns in bright shades of fuchsia that glinted with gold embellishment.

At Balenciaga, designer Nicolas Ghesquière's love for science fiction was less obvious and the models on his runway looked more like approachable women -- albeit proudly wealthy ones -- rather than Amazons, cyborgs or characters out of "Gattaca."

His work was marked by its emphasis on draping and beading. Tweed bodices were crafted from tiny, intricately placed beads, and his skirts, with their generous swags of shimmering fabric, looked like something out of a grand opera. He created day dresses that from a distance looked as though they were covered in simple, abstract prints. Up close, one could see they were the result of extraordinary beading and embroidery.

Ghesquière did not reduce the intricacy of his clothes. He simply lowered the barriers to admission. One could easily imagine them on any woman's body -- rather than just a model's or a starlet's. They would be at home in a fine restaurant or at the Kennedy Center and not just on the red carpet.

It's tempting to think that as the clothes have become more attuned to the needs of real women, rather than idealized versions of them, creativity has suffered. But that has not been the case. At Balenciaga, for instance, it took a significant amount of imagination to drape those skirts in a way that evoked sensuality rather than interior design. And the devilishly detailed embroidery showed off craftsmanship, patience and maturity. Razzle-dazzle isn't always necessary to prove that one has the chops to work in fashion's big league.

Designer Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy, in fact, could have cut the razzle-dazzle by half and had a better collection. Tisci is a fine tailor, as demonstrated by the strong shouldered jackets and the crisp skirts in his fall collection. But other pieces looked like they'd resulted from a "Project Runway" challenge to create a garment from materials sure to gross out the audience. There were hair dresses on the Givenchy runway. (Chris March, you were robbed!) Whether those strands were human, synthetic or equine, it does not matter. There were thick black tresses twisted into cocktail dresses. The other details of these garments will not be discussed here because they undoubtedly would be lost on the reader still muttering: Hair? Are you serious? Indeed we are, for these atrocities cannot be made up.

When others were coming up with hirsute gimmickry and X-rated frocks, it took tremendous confidence for designer Marco Zanini to resurrect the Rochas brand with a collection inspired by slips and brassieres -- and to refrain from handing in a line of overtly tarty garments.

Zanini came to Rochas after a year-long attempt to revive the Halston brand. The last time Rochas had life was when Olivier Theyskens was at the helm and he transformed it into a house known for its lush use of lace -- and exorbitant prices.

Now, with new owners, the Italian manufacturing company Gibo, Zanini has created a collection inspired by the cool sophistication and quiet sex appeal of the 1940s and 1950s. His cardigans are lined in silk. His dresses come with slips edged in hand-crocheted lace. There are tulle insets in blouses; overcoats stand out because of the hand-stitching on the lapels.

And the prices have been realigned so that Rochas is no more expensive than other designer brands -- around $1,800 for a dress. That is by no means cheap. But the prices are no longer in the stratosphere of $3,000 for a day dress, which caused even the stalwart designer customer to recoil.

Sobriety looks good in the showrooms and on the runways here. And nowhere did it look more powerful, refined and dynamic than at the Yves Saint Laurent show Monday night. The company recently announced that it has broken even after hemorrhaging money for a decade. In the worst economic downturn since the Depression, YSL finds its footing.

In his fall collection, designer Stefano Pilati created a collection dominated by charcoal-gray pinstriped tailoring, extravagant white blouses, sexy black leather jackets with studded collars, leather skirts and platform pumps that give a woman presence without compromising control.

The skirts rose high on the waist, and the hemline allowed for a full, brisk stride. The trousers were pleated and full but not tricked out with a low-slung crotch. These were serious clothes for serious times. But they also were executed with confidence and such respect for the woman who would ultimately wear them that one felt certain she could handle whatever might come her way.

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