Paris -- If the gods who rule Paris fashion got it right this season we're all going to get into the black.
Haute hippie black at Gianni Versace. Corseted and see-through black at Chanel, Christian Lacroix and Thierry Mugler. Jet-beaded black bras at Yves Saint Laurent. Furred and feathered black at Christian Dior. And from Givenchy, the man who brought us Audrey Hepburn in the little black dress, the new mother-of-chic little black suit.
For U.S. retailers here looking for clear, new fashion direction that they will buy later in the form of the couturiers' less expensive ready-to-wear, the other big news of the season is the overall endorsement of many skirt lengths. With the exception of Versace, who showed only one above-the-knee skirt in a collection that was otherwise headed straight for the ankles, designers are definitely pro choice when it comes to hemlines.
As Kal Ruttenstein of Bloomingdale's remarked: "The only length that looks wrong is the very short."
Mr. Ruttenstein, Ellin Saltzman of Bergdorf Goodman, Nicole Fischelis of Saks Fifth Avenue and Joan Kaner of Neiman Marcus all said they came to Paris expecting the majority hemline to be at mid-calf or below and were surprised at the lasting power of short -- short meaning an inch or two above the knees. By offering choice in lengths -- including that all-time favorite just-below-the-knee length sanctioned by Coco Chanel and now endorsed as "nouvelle longueur" by her successor Karl Lagerfeld -- designers are literally going to all lengths to assure women that it's safe to buy something new and that they no longer need worry about a hemline that's obsolete.
"Even at these prices," says Ms. Kaner, referring to the $16,000 suits and $25,000 gowns of haute couture, "women want choices, and more and more designers realize it."
Here are the season's trends from the 20 couturiers sanctioned by the Chambre Syndicale, the governing body of Paris fashion, and the three de facto participants in the biannual fashion rites: Valentino, Mr. Versace and Mr. Mugler. The latter presented a collection that was part ready-to-wear clothes already seen by buyers at his March opening and part made-to-order.
From Mr. Saint Laurent's narrow, cigarette-leg velvets to the wide-legged see-through wool voiles worn over thigh-high stockings at Chanel and the sheer black chiffons at Mugler, there are pants in every collection. Mr. Versace even managed to make bell-bottoms look chic in black wool teamed with matching long, narrow jackets. Pants also continue as an expression of the mannish mode introduced earlier this year in ready-to-wear. Gianfranco Ferre, for example, continues his gray flannels and -- pinstripes with sable cuffs.
With the exception of Emanuel Ungaro's epauletted majorette jackets, most pants jackets are long and lean with lots of shape-defining seams. With the exception of Chanel's lug-soled oxfords, most pants are shown with high heels -- some with wafer-soled platforms, others with thick-heeled pumps or T-straps, and a few with sleek, high-heeled boots. The high-heel wedge at Chanel looks like it will be especially influential on future shoe designs.
Looking back at the future again
Mr. Versace's Cher-and-Cher-alike bell-bottoms and vests may be rooted in the '70s, but they may well redefine the '90s. Mr. Lagerfeld's hippies for Chanel are seeded in the more poetic, wispy, misty flower children of Woodstock memory.
The name-that-decade movement also features Valentino's re-makes of Hollywood heroines of the late '30s and early '40s, complete with Marlene Dietrich pantsuits, Greta Garbo hats and Carol Lombard snoods. Mr. Ungaro salutes '30s surrealism with red lip and eyelashed eye embroideries on cashmere sweaters and strapless gowns.
While designers all say change is in the air, by week's end that began to sound like a lot of hot air. Mr. Ferre's collection for Dior gave a lot of oxygen to the tradition of grand couture by way of inflated jacket peplums and blown-up sleeves that breathed new life into old ball gowns, thereby pleasing customers who prefer the status of the status quo.
Considering the fact that some of the couture's best customers are Saudi women who wear the clothes behind the closed doors of the seraglio, where they are seen only by other women, and the Western world's grand dames who only dress up in the privacy of their own -- or someone else's -- homes, the reality of haute couture of the '90s is that most of the clothes shown here this week will be seen only in photographs.
The cinched waist looks like a cinch to succeed, thanks to the staying power of the corset. This trend that started in ready-to-wear is now literally and figuratively shaking the foundations of couture.