It has become painfully clear, based on what has come swiveling up the runways here, that a few ground rules need to be laid down:

1. Designers must refrain from borrowing too liberally from the iconography of the American West. Rare is the cowgirl who buys Paris pret-a-porter and rarer still is the designer who can put fringe on a pair of jeans and make them worth their princely sum.

2. Life is not a disco, so designers should cease attempting to dress women as if they were on their way to one. The only derrieres cute enough for hot pants are on the runway or in third grade.

The runways have taken a turn for the worse here. While high marks go to Givenchy and Comme des Garcons, everyone else should head to detention. In this season of flamboyance, designers who have always done ostentation well have no reason to exercise restraint. They crank up their soundtracks, which, if the truth be known, often are the best part of the 20-minute shows. Donna Summer, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott are the women on designers' minds these days, although one has to wonder if they've ever laid eyes on these songstresses. Summer is bearing down on that age when a woman decides it's time that some things were better left to the imagination. Elliott is a strong, voluptuous woman and one whose style is not exactly in sync with hot pants and micro miniskirts. And like the other two, Hill is black. But based on the majority of models stalking the runway, most designers have embraced all the color they can handle in the form of floral prints.

It's exhausting to watch these splashy productions and realize that so much of what is coming down the runway has little bearing on anyone's life. But then, it's hard to blame the designer when the poor creative soul generally doesn't have anyone who's willing to be a voice of reason. Instead, French fashion houses are chock full of folks pumped up on so much delirious pretentiousness that they come across like they're safeguarding the pope. It's just clothes, folks. If the industry could keep itself focused on that fact, the runways would be filled with inspiring garments rather than insipid costumes.

Consider, for example, veteran designer Emanuel Ungaro. When he is on target, he can create a collection evoking romantic gardens, murky ponds and starry nights. Indeed, his collection for fall '99 was one of his best in a very long time. It was filled with luscious sweaters and jackets trimmed in marabou. There were breathtaking prints and luxurious embroidery and beading. That couldn't have been a mere fluke, could it?

The collection he put on the runway today looked as if it had been pulled from the wardrobe trunk of "The Last Days of Disco." There were slinky ruffled dresses with asymmetrical hemlines and hanging strings. Short dance dresses in fuchsia and other bright colors had the same head-pounding effect as flicking on a 300-watt bulb after a night of cheap wine and secondhand smoke.

And he clearly had informed the models to writhe like overheated adolescents whenever the soundtrack blasted Donna Summer's orgasmic moaning. It was a ridiculous sight, especially with Ungaro customers in their tasteful suits scattered throughout the audience. It's hard to imagine Ivana--who sat in the front row, in her signature French twist and tight suit, like a time traveler from the '80s--getting enthused about Solid Gold dancer dresses. The show also was not helped by its opening: a cadre of black models prancing and slithering down the runway like some exotic sideshow.

Christian Dior

The Christian Dior customer didn't fare much better. Designer John Galliano put on a show that sent the mind reeling to rappers, Asian princesses, horseback riders, fencers and any other iconography that has influenced his collection in the past.

There were denim skirts and jackets twisted around the body and hung at lopsided angles. The models wore white satin blouses tucked into full pants that mimicked a skirt and laced up the back on a cockeyed angle. He took three-dimensional images--a saddle for instance--and seemingly pounded it flat and then wrapped it around the body to create a leather hip belt. There was a breathless quality to the collection as the models stalked out full of haughty attitude and turned, like annoyed lionesses, toward the waiting photographers.

All of this prowling about offered a stunning display of Galliano's imagination and his skill as a dressmaker, but what it had to do with clothes, customers and good business is a mystery. Indeed, he sent out a model wearing a denim skirt trailing strings and yarn from a frayed hem. How ridiculous! How ugly!

The models' hair was done up in faux naps and dreadlocks. They wore over-the-thigh boots with heels of a dizzying height, and some brandished glistening whips. There was a time when such styling and props would have been a titillating delight. Now, they stir up about as much excitement as a mid-length skirt and a pair of ballet flats.


Designer Stella McCartney loaded her runway with ideas. One could almost hear the gold metallic catwalk cracking under the weight of so much inspiration. Before the first garment emerged, one knew she was fully committed to the glitz movement. Entering her show today at the Musee du Petit Palais, one was greeted with the Chloe name spelled out in a sea of metallic paillettes. Glitter no longer is for after dusk.

The collection began on a romantic note, with handkerchief dresses that had deep V necklines and butterfly sleeves. They were cut to fit tight across the derriere--the better to show off the embroidered posy dancing across the rear end. But the more the collection turned in the direction of sexpot, Vegas and the electric cowboy, the more it lost its way. And the more energy it tried to draw from skimpy shorts--one should really just call them thongs--and strands of gold chains masquerading as a top, the more the presentation lumbered along.

While McCartney offered some of the sexiest jeans in the industry last season, this time, her white jeans were either decorated with needlepoint dragons and faces--with strings hanging down the leg like strands of straggly hair--or they were trimmed with fringe along the hem or around the curve of the rear end.

McCartney was strongest with ideas that she has offered before. Her dresses had grace and elegance. Her trouser suits, with their fitted bodice and flared pants, are sexy and stylish and some of the best-looking suits of the season. And when McCartney came onstage to take her bows, several rows of friends and family, including the designer Tom Ford and her father, Paul, held up flash cards inscribed with the number 10.

One hates to quibble with friends and family, but if truth be told, the collection soared to a 10 only for bravery. Those ideas need a bit more time, a bit more thought; for this season, they were only half-baked.


Praise be to designer Alexander McQueen, who in the midst of his athletic-wear-inspired collection for Givenchy made a little room for clothes. (It just so happens that Givenchy's new president came to the fashion house from Nike.) Some were revealing; others were daring; plenty of them didn't work.

With a basketball court as his runway, the models walked out in reptile pumps, the sharp points of their heels following the circular lines of the court. As they approached the place where the basket would be, they stepped up on a platform that hid a powerful fan and, with the wind blowing their hair, they had their moment for the cameras.

They vamped and preened in clothes that were made for just such silliness. There were track pants with elastic hems, knit dresses with athletic stripes, net running shorts worn over opaque hot pants, full trousers with box pleats, satin pleated tennis skirts and long jackets with zip-away hems. The collection showed off McQueen's tailoring skill and his penchant for sharp edges and strong silhouettes. But this time, there was enough softness to keep that in balance.

The sports imagery worked well, allowing McQueen a way into the hipster vocabulary of the day without having to go down the road of sexy glamour and frothy femininity, which are not his forte. And while his leather work, particularly his patchwork tunic, seemed too heavy and cumbersome for spring, they showed off a splendid bit of workmanship of the sort that McQueen too often hides behind unnecessary theatrics.

Comme des Garcons

Designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons never hides behind drama or props. Her presentations are purely about the frocks. The bright lights click on and the models walk out in silence. The only way one knows that the show has ended is when it seems like a rather long time since the last model passed through. That kind of atmosphere, in which a sneeze sounds like cannon fire, can lend a suffocating seriousness to the clothes. There is the sense that if the clothes require this sort of undistracted focus, well, they must be important indeed. And in fashion, "important" can be code for indecipherable, unwearable, unbearable.

Happily, that is not the case for Kawakubo. Indeed, spring 2000 is one of her most accessible collections, filled with dainty walking shorts in fabric as fine as a linen hankie. There are pink trousers that sweep the floor and pink blouses with sleeves that hang over the knuckles. But mostly, there are ruffles. They are thick, dense ruffles, more like exploding blossoms than anything else. They burst forth from under body suits. Ruffles pop from blouses and jackets and nearly envelop the model's head. They flow down the front of a shirt or wind around the collar of a jacket or the cuff of a sleeve.

Like a garden in full bloom, the ruffles filled the stark white show space with color: pink, aubergine, violet and red. At times, the blossoms had a choking effect, as if one had been given a bouquet so fragrant that it induces a headache.

At a moment when fashion has gone berserk for frills and party favors, Kawakubo's collection offered a subtle warning in its mad jungle of flora. After the debauchery comes the hangover.