haute couture

Showings in Paris make clear that these ultraexpensive clothes still set the standard for fashion

THE lyrics in a song played during opening day of the Paris haute couture presentations asked, "Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?" By the end of these semiannual fashion showings of the world's most expensive clothes, it was clear that the fall-winter offerings are a bit of both.

Reality triumphed in the great hemline debate as most of the big-name designers remained pro-choice, showing both above and below the knee for day. The two exceptions were Gianni Versace and Christian Lacroix, who showed nothing above the knees.

As Kal Ruttenstein of Bloomingdale's remarked, "The only length that now looks wrong is very short." Ruttenstein and other Americans, 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 - meaning an inch or two above the knees, not mini.

By offering choice in lengths, including that all-time favorite, just-below-the-knee length sanctioned by Coco Chanel and now endorsed by her successor, Karl Lagerfeld - designers are literally going to all lengths to assure women that they no longer need worry about a hemline being in danger of becoming obsolete. At least not for the rest of this year.

Judging by the knee-baring skirts they wore to the opening shows and their applause for the short clothes on the runway, the women who actually wear these five-figure-priced clothes definitely prefer a daytime hem that rests somewhere around the knees. Nan Kempner, a longtime couture customer from New York - one of 3,000 worldwide, according to Jacques Mouclier of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne - says she is grateful for all the hemline options, because "no woman wants to walk around in a

hobble skirt in the afternoon."

Also on the real-life side of this season's fashion equation is the powerful endorsement of black. From the haute hippie bell-bottoms by Versace to the little black suits by Givenchy, black is basic to the season. It's also a symbol of the times. Fashion safe. Responsible. Recession reflective. Dry-cleaner proof.

Politically correct (used in this context within fashion circles, the phrase actually means economically practical) black suits hide black cashmere sweaters embroidered with surrealist red lips and blinking eyes on designs by Emanuel Ungaro. Long, lean black jackets shelter jet-beaded black bras by Yves Saint Laurent. Black corsets and black see-through pants tell the story at Chanel, Lacroix, and Thierry Mugler. Black-and-white movie-star gowns take center stage at Valentino. And black feathers luxuriat e in the Venetian-inspired dresses at Christian Dior.

On the fantasy side, it's d view time again as designers continue to see the future through the past. Probably because they were not literal translations of clothes from other decades, the look backs of this season seemed especially directional.

Versace's bell-bottoms and vests, for example, are rooted in the 1970s, but they may redefine the '90s. Especially the chic black versions with romantically veiled baseball caps.

Versace also makes news by omitting the brilliantly colored prints that have become his signature. Except for a satin ballgown skirt hand-painted with palm trees and Tahitian warriors and another printed with scenes of Miami's South Beach, the man who left his imprint on prints is tackling solids. His fluorescent wool sheaths, in both orange and green, look especially prophetic.

Other couturiers looking back at the '70s are Lacroix, whose patchworks inspired by that decade now include leather jumpsuits, and Karl Lagerfeld, whose hippies for Chanel are wispy, misty flower children of Woodstock memory, complete with dresses made of cobwebby mohairs and shiny panne velvets.

Valentino prefers to bring back the Hollywood heroines of the late '30s and early '40s. Not only did the Rome-based designer evoke the memory of Marlene Dietrich, whom he called "the Valentino woman" in his program notes, he also called up Greta Garbo's hats, Carole Lombard's snoods, and the perfectly metered, striped suits Adrian created for Joan Crawford.

The fantasy ideas also include corsetry. This trend, which started in ready-to-wear, is now literally and figuratively shaking the foundations of couture. At Chanel, it's Mae West meets Scarlett O'Hara in gowns with corseted basque bodices and big, drape-swagged skirts. For Lacroix, it's wasp-waist midriffer belts and jackets with trompe l'oeil girdles that lace in back. For Valentino, it's chiffon gowns with inlaid satin corselets. And for Mugler, it's laced-front, laced-back girdle-jackets and bustiers

in everything from wool and silk faille to metal and Plexiglas. Some are worn with laced-together girdle skirts, some with transparent black chiffon skirts with ribbed seams, and some with tulle tutus.

Like the collections themselves, pants range from real-life trousers for the man-tailored looks that first began in ready-to-wear to the fantasy see-through wool voiles worn over thigh-high stockings at Chanel and the sheer black chiffons at Mugler. Versace's hand-painted-silk gaucho pants and his bell-bottoms add to the season's "pantemonium," as do Saint Laurent's narrow-legged velvets.

Except for Ungaro's epauletted majorette jackets, most pants jackets are long and lean, and cut with lots of shape-defining seams. Except for Chanel's lug-soled oxford shoes, most pants are shown with high heels - some with safer-soled platforms, others with thick-heeled pumps or T-straps, and a few with sleek, high-heeled boots. The high-heeled wedge at Chanel looks like a sure sequel to last season's platforms.

While designers all say change is in the air, by the week's end that began to sound like hot air. Gianfranco 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 ballgowns. Philippe Venet's impeccably tailored suits and side-slit coats, Gerard Pipart's lacquered crocodile-print dresses, snakeskin pants for Nina Ricci, and Hanae Mori's tuxedo-style cocktail dresses and signature butterfly g owns all spoke volumes for the timeless tradition of French dressmaking but did little to further the cause of change.

Many say their customers do not want change and simply prefer 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 grande dames who only dress up in the privacy of their own - or a friend's - home, the reality of haute couture in the '90s is that most of the clothes shown in Paris this season will only be seen in photographs.

So why all the hoopla for fashion from an institution that even some of its members describe as archaic?

The designers all say that haute couture is a money-losing operation, but that it serves as a research and development laboratory for fashion ideas and provides a way to publicize designer labels and attract licensees for lucrative fragrance and accessory contracts.

Although American stores do not buy haute couture, their buyers attend the shows to watch for possible trends that will trickle down to ready-to-wear designs. As Ruttenstein explains:

"If you follow fashion, and fashion directors do follow as well as direct fashion, you need to follow all parts of fashion, from the runways to the streets. This summer, we went to Saint-Tropez and London as well as the Paris couture in order to cover the way women look at all levels."

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