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Saint Laurent, Good as New
A Rain-Forest-Fresh Collection

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 1999; Page C01

PARIS, Oct. 4—New York designers can help a woman fill her closet with sophisticated, multipurpose clothes. Milan can give her sexy tailoring and glamorous delights. But Paris can astonish. In Paris, there can be rebirth and renewal. The creativity can take one's breath away. And in one simple moment, the mystery of fashion's allure is solved.

There was sorcery at work on the runway today in the spring collections. The epitaph had already been written: Here lies Yves Saint Laurent ready-to-wear, once a great and glorious line. But its new designer, Alber Elbaz, now in his second season, not only pulled the collection from the brink of death; he has also rejuvenated it.

In his first collection for Saint Laurent, Elbaz was not daring enough. He made subtle changes to the silhouette of a jacket. He returned to such Saint Laurent signatures as the trench coat and knickers, but he did not shake off their dust. They still seemed like relics from another era.

This time, Elbaz makes bolder, more confident changes, particularly in his permutations of the tuxedo. There are sleek tuxedo suits with skinny, flat-front trousers and slim-fitting jackets. There are below-the-knee black skirts with cummerbund-style waistlines worn with a mannish black shirt. A full-length chiffon gown in a graphic black-and-white print is encircled with a wide belt that resembles a cummerbund.

He keeps the trouser suits for which Saint Laurent has always been famous, but he cuts narrower pants, keeps the front clean and adds a matching vest and a buttoned-up shirt so the suit becomes more of a statement on gender-based dressing than simply clothes for the boardroom.

Elbaz's inspiration this season was the tropical rain forest, and from that image he took colors, snakeskin, flowers and an attitude of unrushed elegance. There are sexy python trench coats and splendid bodysuits with plunging cowl necklines and halter backs. Low-slung A-line leather skirts come in caramel brown. Black waterproof silk sack dresses are emblazoned with enormous white flowers. And brightly colored organza suits recall the hues of exotic flora.

The beauty of what Elbaz has accomplished is particularly stunning because virtually every garment that came down his runway respected the needs and wishes of mature women while giving a nod to the desires of young ladies. Much care was given to whether a silhouette would be flattering and comfortable. The designer kept his ego in check, refraining from indulgences that might highlight his skill as a dressmaker but leave women in the lurch.

There is still work to be done at Saint Laurent. Some dresses on the runway, particularly the satin slip dresses with vertical pleats, hung awkwardly on the models. And the company lacks an image that reflects its current sensibilities rather than its historic grandeur. But what Elbaz accomplished for spring 2000 is astonishing, and has given this venerable fashion house the greatest gift of all: hope.

Josephus Thimister

The difference between what designer Josephus Thimister crafted for the Genny collection in Milan and what he put on the runway here under his own name exemplifies the distinctions between Paris and the rest of fashion.

In Milan, his solid presentation focused on slim trousers in materials like leather topped with filmy silk and organza blouses. The line was wearable, artfully realized and beautifully crafted. But his own collection, simply called Thimister, was awash in experimentation with fabrics and construction techniques. Presented in an anonymous warehouse space--its floor covered with black plastic, industrial lamps providing the only light--the collection was a reverie on shadows and fire and the romance of both.

His white trench coats--already a trend here--were accessorized with brown leather belts hung loosely around the waist. Many of his long A-line skirts had trains that trailed along the floor, their hemlines charred a smoky brown. Blouses and dresses often laced up the front or snaked up the back in an intricate twist of fabric. There were trousers and jackets seemingly constructed out of sheets of delicate vellum turned sepia with the passage of time.

Long dresses were given texture and heft with a thick coating of white wax that occasionally flaked as the model walked, leaving a trail of white dust in her wake. It was a reminder that most of these pieces were created with more attention to looks than to practicality or suitability for mass production.

But somehow it didn't matter that these completely unrealistic garments were mixed into the collection. There was so much that could be manufactured and welcomed into a wardrobe. Thimister has the ability to provide both clothes for the moment and clothes that suggest possibilities. It is rare that both are seen on the same runway.

Yohji Yamamoto

That is one reason why the work of Yohji Yamamoto is so startling. From one season to the next, it is relentless in its ability to bridge the gap between what is and what may be. No wonder other designers come to his presentations in such enormous numbers. It doesn't matter what their own style may be; Yamamoto is a designer's designer, single-minded in his intellectual aesthetic. So on Sunday, there sat Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan, Alexander McQueen, Azzedine Alaia and Narciso Rodriguez, their attention focused on the white square that awaited the first model's entrance.

She arrived in a cream-colored sheath with dressmaker's markings as its only adornment. Soon came other uncomplicated notions: a long skirt, a crisp shell. The fabric reminded one of the muslin used to make a pattern. The collection pushed one to think about construction. And one couldn't help but think about nature, simplicity and a pre-high-tech world thanks to a soundtrack consisting almost solely of twittering birds and chirping crickets.

Yamamoto exploited the hourglass shape not only with his sheath dresses but also with full skirts and shaped jackets that blossomed above voluminous ruffles. There were long jackets constructed like a Hollywood set--a captivating front with no back, only a single belt of fabric that kept it attached to the body.

There is always a lesson in a Yamamoto presentation. This time it was that so much can be said with the simplest strokes and an old-fashioned vocabulary. There were times when the message was repeated again and again, as when a schoolmarm refuses to believe that her point has been made.

Indeed, as models continued to somnambulate out and that infernal bird kept squawking away, the enlightening lecture slowly transformed into punitive detention. But after being so enchanted by nothing but the clothes themselves--no drama, no elaborate themes, no swivel-hipped models--one quickly understood why so many designers are attracted to this man and his clothes.

Balmain

While the success of Yamamoto's presentation was based solely on the strength of the clothes, the sizzle of the Balmain showing on Sunday came from the music and styling. The garments could not compare. The collection, designed by Gilles Dufour, was dominated by sweater sets and knit halters in striped pastels, flouncing chiffon dresses covered with bright polka dots and torn skirts splatter-dyed in the entire spectrum. Indeed, the skirts with their streaks and specks of color often looked like pieces of a shredded dropcloth.

The models--led by Claudia Schiffer--marched out to the dance beats of Donna Summer. The soundtrack included screaming fans and loud applause--perhaps to make up for the live audience, including a smattering of duchesses, which was somber and noncommittal.

What the models wore on top--the sweaters, a few dramatic blouses with puffy, inflated sleeves--outshone what they wore on the bottom. In addition to the Jackson Pollock-influenced dropcloths, there were lace-up suede capris and brightly colored bikini bottoms.

The collection was dotted with some strong pieces, from cropped jackets in rainbow brights to matte sequined skirts in a watercolor wash of hues. But mostly it was the tricks of styling--a blouse knotted at the waist, a sweater worn open to the navel, a jacket tossed over a swim dress--that gave the collection its pizazz.

And while that is good news for the runway, it's bad news for a woman trying to re-create that spark in the fitting room or at home.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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