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    New York
Flashes of Brilliance
In the City of Light

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 19, 1998


    Paris From Franco Sorbier's 1999 spring/summer ready-to-wear collection. (Photo by Pierre Verdy/AFP)
PARIS, Oct. 18 – As the spring '99 womenswear shows here came to a close, Jean-Paul Gaultier's collection made a powerful argument that the beauty of the future lies within the richness of cultures – as they increasingly become interwoven – rather than with the cool detachment of technology.

On Friday night, Gaultier showed a low-tech collection that merged traditional Asian style with ancient Roman history for an oddly compelling dolce geisha. For the last several seasons, Gaultier has displayed his gift for using one culture to embellish another in particularly dynamic ways. His African diaspora collection, in which Lady Harlem met a Senegalese woman in a Parisian bistro, was brilliantly realized. And now, Gaultier uses colors and shapes of Asia and the sensual draping techniques of ancient Rome as the tools to construct his splendid spring wardrobe.

To be sure, there were many problems with this collection: Some of the layering is far too elaborate, some ensembles aren't really clothes at all but rather flamboyant flourishes, and there is much repetition. But what this line offered that so many this season failed to is a breathtaking range of original ideas.

Gaultier's work reminded one of the breadth, depth and power of the imagination. And he had to do nothing more than look at the changing face of the people – and the history – that surround him.

For spring, there are roomy and well-tailored chalky white pantsuits. Gaultier offers a traditional peak-lapel style, but there also are collarless versions that hang just off the shoulders like a loose-fitting peasant blouse. But the signature jacket of this collection is cut with kimono sleeves – long and wide. A tuxedo-style suit has peak lapels and kimono sleeves lined in crimson.

Paris From Hanae Mori's 1999 spring/summer ready-to-wear collection.
There are opaque shirts that twist and drape, and sheer blouses with a swallowtail hemline and narrow tiers of ruffles. There are cropped shirts with modest kimono sleeves. There is a ruby red poet's blouse, delicate and sheer, with ruffled sleeves that flutter as the model walks.

His dresses are almost indecipherable layers of bright yellow slips, floral print kimonos and a long, sheer duster over that. There are short dresses that are virtually nothing more than an elaborately tied sash.

The collection was a constant revelation of possibilities. As each model stepped up onto a bright red pie-shaped platform, it was as if another idea, another way of thinking, was presented for appraisal. Some ideas were dismissed almost as quickly as the model turned and slunk away. Others, however, lingered and made one wonder how each of us will in some way influence how our neighbors will dress, live and ultimately think.

The finale to this rich presentation was a short violin solo by the tiny young Vanessa Mai, who also had modeled in the show. The audience, which included hip-hop artist Sean "Puffy" Combs, fell silent as Mai began to play. Her soaring notes were a fitting end to a fashion collection that at its core had been as much about the art of creating a cultural mosaic as it had been about clothes.

Yohji Yamamoto
The presentation by designer Yohji Yamamoto on Saturday night took place at the famous Moulin Rouge in this city's red-light district of Pigalle. In this neighborhood of XXX-rated movie houses, Yamamoto showed a collection of voluminous circle skirts, long coats, sleek dresses and flamboyant hats.

Yamamoto's clothes reflected all of the trends that have emerged this season. There are long, slim skirts. There are skirts with volume and a romantic sensibility. There are graphic combinations of black and white. And there is a ladylike elegance to the blouses and dresses. But what made Yamamoto's work so special was the way in which it was presented. To the strains of music ranging from the Wedding March to "Clair de Lune," a model walked into an empty, square space. There, staring directly into the cameras, she began to strip. Gloves would drop to the ground. A coat would slide off her shoulders. One layer of her multilayered dress would puddle at her feet. And she would be transformed from prim lady into chic woman.

Sometimes two models would appear – one dressed as a man, the other as a woman (upon occasion, one would actually be a man) and they would exchange clothes. One might hand off a jacket, for instance. Or slip off a skirt. Sometimes, the point was to underscore the androgyny of garments. At other times, the message was that something as simple as a necklace can differentiate male from female.

There were beautiful clothes in this presentation, but Yamamoto's elegant lesson was that clothes can be used in the same manner as words and hand-painted images to communicate thoughtful, emotional and humorous messages.

Over the weekend, presentations from designers Valentino, Michael Kors for Celine, Peter Speliopoulos at Cerruti and Jean Colonna also used artistic gestures in an attempt to elevate their collections.

At Valentino on Saturday afternoon, the veteran designer was at his best when he practiced the often underappreciated art of restraint. For a designer known for his frothy creations of lace and embroidery, this collection was distinctive for simple white blouses that were utterly breathtaking. There was a peasant blouse of white eyelet, another with white embroidery, still another with white sequins. There were bed-jacket-style coats in white. Slim skirts slid flirtatiously over the hips; trousers were cropped at the ankle, and often topped with featherweight dusters in pale gray or ivory knit.

For evening, when Valentino usually shines, there were several terrible lapses in color sense and proportion. The fluffy peasant skirts would have been better off left on the farm. A lace poncho lost all delicacy because of its bold coral color. And worst, a voluminous white dress adorned with splashes of red conjured up uncomfortable visions of "Carrie."

Colonna, Cerruti, Kors, Balenciaga
Even more surprising than Valentino's butcher-shop chic was Colonna's delicate hand with simple suit jackets with inside-out darts, pale pink trim on black shells and a dusty rose sheath with an open back. There is an undeniable element of prettiness in this designer's signature night-crawler style. Colonna, like many of his counterparts who established their reputations by creating a sort of raw, flawed style, are having to find their way as fashion tires of clothes that fight against a woman's natural beauty. This Saturday night collection offered a fine balance of cleaned-up rebel elegance.

Speliopoulos has been struggling to imprint the Cerruti women's line with his personality. This collection moves him a step closer toward that goal, but it is not a fait accompli. In his Saturday afternoon collection, he showed starched white jackets with industrial zippers, a cream shift with bronze and silver matte sequin embroidery, leather jackets and pants with lace-up seams, white shells adorned with cinnamon-colored zigzag stitching and tan dresses with silver ball-bearing trim. While the clothes are beautifully constructed, one keeps feeling that many look like craft projects rather than elegant garments.

Kors perfectly applied today's buzzwords of elegant, easy, luxurious and youthful to the collection he presented Saturday evening for Celine. His hand-knit cotton sweaters are slightly imperfect; they are relaxed and inviting. He pairs them with knee-length and mid-calf-length skirts covered with ribbon embroidery. There are horsehair – who knew this was good for anything beyond hats? – skirts covered in rock crystals. And for evening, there are long, A-line organza shifts in creamy white or lilac that are covered in rock crystals.

The presentation by Nicholas Ghesquiere, newly hired at Balenciaga to revive the house, was not just a flub; it was a disaster. Ghesquiere, who includes stints at Gaultier and Trussardi on his resume, had only three ideas. All were bad. On Saturday afternoon, he showed waist-length tunics that flopped around the models' shoulders. A long skirt had an unflattering box pleat that sticks out along the hip. And a sheer, gathered dropped waist dress was a horror of unfathomable dimensions. This collection's fatal flaw is simple: The clothes are ugly.

Mostly, however, the clothes for spring '99 shown here shun pretentiousness, studied ugliness and harshness. The closing weekend was filled with designers who are full of confidence in their craft but firm in their belief that, if they desire, their fashion can transcend the constraints of retail and narrow minds to become eloquent commentary.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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