The French designers are having an identity crisis.
The British designers are mad for Lady Di and the Americans have Nancy Reagan to inspire them. But the French are caught short without any romantic heroines for the moment.
There are no political heroines. The theater and opera are flat in terms of fashion ideas. The Realism Show at the Beaubourg Museum didn't help much and the Gainsborough exhibit at the Grand Palais opened too recently to turn on fashion. The cover of the newsmagazine Le Point asks, "Why are the French yawning?"
And so the Paris designers have had to dip into literature and history for ideas for their shows. And down the runways have come the costumes of shephers and chatelaines (mistresses of chateaux), peasants and poor monks, military heroes and movie stars, cowboys and conquerers.
This week, French designers will be presenting their clothes for next fall, stop No. 3 after Milan and London on a whirlwind tour by store buyers, fashion press and groupies. The windup comes in New York at the end of the month.
Unlike in Italy, where the newcomers in this ready-to-wear Olympics try harder to make the collections easier to view (and the clothes easier to wear), covering the shows in Paris requires a triumph of energy. They are held in quonset hut-style tents in the center of the Les Halles section -- the old market area. The most popular shows so far have been Montana, Mugler and Kenzo featuring mad crowd scenes resembling, say, the NCAA basketball play-offs.
There are 1,000 buyers and at least as many press with credentials for the shows and another several hundred friends of designers, models, punks and groupies who join the push to be part of the scene.
At the Mugler and the Montana shows Saturday, in the tent Saint Eustache with its 1,200 seats, there were easily 800 more people standing jammed into the aisles. Designers, fearing they won't have a sufficiently enthusiastic crowd for their big theatrical event, pass out tickets among friends while legitimate buyers and even store presidents are cut out because of lack of space.
If a show isn't crowded, it's usually because a slip-up put two shows on the calendar at the same moment. But others, like the Kansai Yamamoto show, are closed by fire marshals as overcrowded even before ticket holders arrive from the previous show.
The huge crowds and late starts serve to hype the shows. Many designers play to the back row with oversized accessories, including huge crowns, tiaras and sculptured headpieces, and overscaled and overlayered clothes to exaggerate the fashion premise they wish to state. The booming operatic overtures, big-band sounds and loud marches mixed with New Wave add to the presentations which are more like pageants or coronations than fashion shows.
"When times are bad," says Karl Lagerfeld, the imaginative designer who creates for Chloe, "we have to try harder." His clothes are clearly taken from the richest times in French history, with lots of gold, rich embroidery and full sweeping shapes. "Embroideries, along with lace and wool, are the few things the French can still do well," says Lagerfeld.
Lagerfeld's capes are huge double circles, Ungaro's smashing Hapsburg jackets are white cashmere or quilted silk piped in gold worn over silk prints. Thierry Mugler's joke is a smoking jacket worn by a Greta Garbo type over a see-through skirt. Claude Montana's cowboy is wearing four layers of leather including leather gauchos, plus a leather cowboy hat. "They'll love it in Houston, even at $4,000 minimum," insists Bob Sakowitz of the Houston-based Sakowitz stores.
So what has come sweeping down the runway has been huge capes, babushkas and shawls, jodhpurs and knickers, leather and metallic glitter and lots of boots, all shapes and fabrics that are very familiar and, in fact, almost classic. And while it is far more costumey, more overdone in its presentation, the French clothing is not all that different in actual style from that of the Italians, whose shows got rave notices from buyers in Milan last week. The surprising message, just as American women have begun to scale down their clothes, is that the French styles nevertheless are longer, fuller and more layered once again.
"If you wore all of these outfits in Washington just as they are shown on the runway in Paris, you'd be laughed out of town," says Nancy Chistolini of Woodward & Lothrop. When Chistolini went to check out the France Andrevie styles -- skirts that were shown in the show were slit up the sides to show the pants worn underneath -- they were sewn up for sale to the stores.
And while Lagerfeld showed what he called his two-step -- a skirt or dress over pants -- throughout the collection, Benita Downing of Neiman-Marcus is convinced that many of her customers will simply adore the lightweight, long, tight-waisted, full-skirted dresses to wear without the pants underneath.
As for all the capes, they pose usual problems. Unless you're tall, they don't look good. Carrying a purse when wearing a cape isn't an easy maneuver, and heaven forbid you should have to carry a bundle home from the Safeway. It's hardly possible.
"It won't be a problem any longer," assures Ernest Marx of Saks-Jandel. "After you buy these clothes, there won't be any money left for the groceries."