The Paris fashion industry, like Paris itself, is in the midst of troubled times.
While the city tries to cope with a shaky economy and the ongoing threat of terrorist bombs, the industry is attempting to regain its place as the world's fashion leader.
Many of the most important recent new trends in women's wear have arisen from Gucci and Prada in Milan and from Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren in New York.
But evidence of a promising renaissance ap- peared last week in the opening days of the Paris women's collections, thanks to John Galliano for Dior and Alexander McQueen for Givenchy. Both produced sleek, slick collections that managed to combine top-quality fabrics and tailoring with a more modern point of view.
That both Galliano and McQueen would turn out appealing collections was not a sure thing when they were appointed to their design posts last fall. Both designers are British, with a bit of the bad boy about them. That, of course, caused rumblings among Paris' most provincial fashion watchers.
But these guys know how to generate buzz, and that's just what a first collection needs. If the buzz is there, buyers and the fashion press will take note.
In his typical, decorative style, Galliano dressed the room in Chinese screens, flowers and even a little bridge. Then he dressed his models like China dolls, complete with heavily rouged cheeks and sweetheart mouths.
Though the clothes on the runway were much too short and tight for Dior's typical client, they were saucy, feminine and luxuriously made, with kimono sleeves, obi belts, pearl-edged Mandarin collars, Ming vase prints and embroidery that resembled bamboo.
Galliano's feel for fabrics and tailoring wasn't lost amid the decorative touches, however.
His portrait-collared wool suits, in shades of lilac and yellow, will appeal to the ladies who lunch -- once thigh-high skirts are lengthened. His high-necked red crepe gowns, held together with three golden clips, were sleekly sexy, with side slits that could be made more conservative with a few well-placed stitches.
For Galliano, such flights of fantasy are business as usual,
though to some fashion insiders, his highly decorated clothes have no place in a world that has come to view the austere black suit as a 24-hour-a-day uniform. But some women want color and creativity in their wardrobes. At Dior, thanks to Galliano, they'll continue to get it.
The women who associate Givenchy with the gamine style of Audrey Hepburn will not find much of that in the debut collection from McQueen.
McQueen said he was determined to bring fine tailoring to the label, and he did just that. The sharply cut wool suits with square shoulders and slim pants were sleek and strong -- the highlight of McQueen's effort. Coatdresses cut like blazers also looked smart.
Leather made a strong showing too, in slim strapless dresses, skirts with asymmetrical hems and tight-fitting jackets made for the woman who likes to strut her stuff. Perforations in the leather gave it a distinctive look.
McQueen tried hard to give the show an edge. The models wore huge, frizzled wigs. They strode along a cobblestone runway -- not an easy task, considering their spike-heeled shoes -- and posed provocatively at the pillars set throughout the room. There was ear-splitting music and white spotlights swirled.
But those distractions couldn't hide the fact that the collection was a bit thin. The perforated leathers came out in endless versions -- black, then purple, then cream. The suits, while beautifully tailored, were also repetitive.
In the imaginative collection he designs under his own name, McQueen has shown he has talent to burn and a deep pool of ideas. Next time, let's hope he brings more of that to Givenchy.
As designer for Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld understands how hard that can be. For fall, he said, he is building a bridge to the 21st century, setting out a big steel bridge on his runway and, yes, pirating Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign theme as well. But he is also making a connection between East and West, past and present. And he is making it very well.
Gone are the gaudy Chanel buttons, the piles of gold chains, the camellias at every collar. Instead, there are boxy boucle suits worn over sweaters done in folkloric patterns. There are perfect little zip-front dresses with flared skirts and round collars. Best of all, there are fitted jackets with pagoda shoulders -- that little peak at the shoulder seam that gives a suit a powerful stance.
For evening, Lagerfeld refers to the East with kimono coats edged in fur, and to the West with short-sleeved gowns trimmed with colorful embroidery taken from the paintings of Kandinsky and other European artists.
Lagerfeld stumbled badly with his signature collection and the one he designs for Chloe, filling them with ugly suits and hippy-dippy dresses that recalled nearly every bad trend from the 1970s.
But his hand remains sure at Chanel, which ought to please that label's legions of ardent fans.
Pub Date: 3/20/97