The French elections and the Paris collections have a lot in common: Both have a distinctly conservative tilt at the moment.
The conservative vote didn't come as a great surprise to anyone, and neither did the conservative fashions. Even the young designers who did curtain-raiser shows before the main events got under way hinted at the trend, fiddling with familiar and salable shapes, borrowing a lot of their ideas from the designers they admire most, like Azzedine Alaia and Jean Paul Gaultier.
But the conservative mood was firmly established here today when Rei Kawakubo, one of the most avant-garde of the Japanese designers, opened the shows by starting her models down the runway with such identifiable elements as the turtleneck, the peplum, the Peter Pan collar and the pompadour.
Not that you could ever forget that these familiar details had been shaped by Kawakubo. Her peplum is either draped or ballooned like an Austrian shade, her Peter Pan collar askew and uneven, her turtleneck sweater ending in an asymmetrical hem, cut up on one side and worn over skinny leggings and with hiking boots.
Everything at Kawakubo's Commes des Garcons is skinnier than in past seasons. In fact, most of the clothes fit quite snugly over the top of the body. It is in the middle and lower portions of the garments that things get going -- jackets scrunch up, hems fly thanks to angular cuts, draping changes the silhouette. Colors remain characteristically Kawakubo, with black, blue and white clearly the designer's favorites though grouped in unexpectedly classic glen plaids, checks and thick tweeds.
Even the music for the show -- atonal, percussive and grating in other years -- was familiar and sometimes even almost hummable. Most of it was New Orleans jazz, and the finale that went with taffeta styles and little black dresses was the familiar refrain of "Hooray for Hollywood."
The first day of the Paris shows, which for buyers and the press is Round 3 after shows in Milan and London, has come to belong to the Japanese designers. Initially, it was assigned to the Japanese as sort of the time before anyone buckled down to the serious collections. But that has changed. The Japanese shows became so important that French designer Thierry Mugler got himself fitted into the same day's schedule. And this year Kenzo, the most western of the Japanese-born designers and one who normally showed at the end of the week of shows on the same day as Yves Saint Laurent, put himself on the front of the schedule with the other Japanese.
After the rather lackluster, clearly downbeat spirit of the Milan and London shows, Kenzo's boisterous and cheerful parade of clothes was greeted with great applause by the crowd of more than 1,700 press and 600 buyers, plus lots of groupies. No matter that the clothes were almost a rerun of favorite old Kenzo themes -- a worldwide tour of ethnic costumes reworked by the designer.
As appears to be the mood of the moment, everything was skinnier than before, clearly a challenge to Kenzo, who has always liked balloon-shaped pants and full-blown tops. He took the challenge well, and in a very conservative way.
As he has gotten older, so have some of his clothes. There were long coats worn over pants and turtlenecks that were obviously meant to go to the office since one group of models carried attache' cases. But don't think that means it's time to revive the old maxicoat. Designers are smarter than that. These coats, with their shoulder pads and soft construction, look quite different from the vintage maxi.
While the Kenzo show, as always, was a travelogue, with stops this year in China, Saudi Arabia, the Tyrol and Spain, it's clear he's having a new love affair, this one with the old West, the West of movieland, even country western. He likes fringed leather jackets, mini square-dance dresses, cowboy hats and boots and tiered ruffled and bustled dresses that looked like a love note to Dolly Parton.
Kenzo's flaunting of the familiar was done with humor, but in the hands of skillful designer Yohji Yamamoto, old shapes were given a new twist that verged on the impractical if not the ridiculous. Yamamoto, who can make clothes as sensible as slim coat dresses and wonderful black knit sweater dresses, also included coats that looked like men's coats in the front and waist-length blousons in the back.
It's not that Yamamoto doesn't know how to make a whole coat; he includes those as well. And he does normal jackets in addition to other ones, which start normally, then end with a peplum of split flying panels. Attached either to the jacket or to the skirt is a second peplum, this time padded to add extra inches so that even his skinny models look pudgy or pregnant. Often the models carried huge black shoulder bags with origami folds on the front, about the size of an artist's portfolio, slung across the chest.
Both Yamamoto and Kawakubo have used fake fur for fall. Kawakubo uses it in reasonably normal coats, Yamamoto in accessories. Among his inventions: a fur muff wrapped around a coat like a big tummy warmer -- as good a place to be warm, one supposes, as any. He also has made some fur hats that look like floppy fur sleeves.
But it is not Yamamoto's fur hats that are most notable; it's his head wraps. He calls them bandaging, which is fair since they look exactly like that, except they're black. He likes them so much he gives them a credit in his program: "Bandaging by Yannick et Julien."
And how do you dress up a little bandaging for evening? With a little white gauze poking out over the forehead, of course.
And how do you dress up a backless coat for evening? Yamamoto thinks a lace shawl does nicely. It won't keep you warm but, in truth, what would?
He's got another trick up his sleeve, too -- or more accurately under his jackets, for evening: the bustle. His bustles are a huge bundle of red organza or tulle that are sometimes poked into skirts and other times show up under jackets and coats. They are often trailing on the floor -- but isn't that what the bustle of old usually did?
One thing that no one has found conservative here -- even if they have just bought a baguette or a ball gown -- are the prices. Since a year ago, prices have risen only slightly due to inflation, but the value of the dollar has dropped 30 percent