Paris couture 'a laboratory of ideas'

An old French proverb insists that "You can imitate but you can seldom equal. . . ." That is the basic underlying idea of the Paris couture collections for the coming winter: opulence and luxury that impossible to duplicate at lower prices, and beautifully designed silhouettes that would lose half their impact if copied in less expensive fabrics.

At today's prices, even the fabled handful of international millionairesses who are faithful clients in the top Paris couture houses is shrinking. A tailored suit at Chanel now costs in the vicinity of $7,000. Ranking designers think nothing of using fabrics that cost $100 a yard, lavished with embroideries that require numberless hours of handwork. One model in the Louis Feraud collection required almost 200 hours of labor. Nina Ricci features a ball gown made of 50 yards of taffeta trimmed with 150 yards of ruching. No wonder prices tend to look like numbers in the telephone directory.

The couture is definitely a world apart, and it's meant to stay that way. Many people consider couture akin to the Louvre or other historical museums in Paris which house magnificent works of art to be appraised and admired, but are totally unrelated to our daily lives except for perhaps an inexpensive reproduction hanging on the living room wall.

One tends to view a couture collection the same way one spends an afternoon in the Louvre. The only difference is that seats at a top fashion show are free , whereas it costs a few francs to enter the museum and gape at the Mona Lisa or "Winged Victory." Any visitor in Paris can call a couture house (or have the concierge at the hotel arrange matters) to request one or two seats for an afternoon presentation, provided the house is actually showing on the specific dates of one's stay in town. The only people who are not welcome are those connected with fashion who try to sneak in and make illicit copies of the models. The professional buyers, manufacturers, and retailers who are carefully screened each season pay a hefty entrance fee for the privilege of seeing each collection, but anyone else can apply for an invitation simply by giving his name, passport number, and address in Paris.

The couture has often been called a "laboratory of ideas" and it remains just that for the average person. A few Arab princesses and OPEC heiresses can afford the prices, but otherwise these fashions seem as far away as the dark side of the moon. We obviously are not going to turn up in the office or the supermarket looking like one of Jean Louis Scherrer's Anna Karenina prototypes or Emanuel Ungaro's 18th-century damsels.Yet the experience of seeing a top-ranking couture collection is a very special experience. There are always dozens of ideas to glean and adapt; perhaps just a different way of tying a scarf or placing a bit of jewelry, an offbeat hairstyle or new trends in accessories that will help to "season" and update an existing wardrobe.

The important message from Paris this season is the emphasis on quality. With constantly rising prices in every phase of the fashion industry, including ready-to-wear as well as custom-made clothes, the classic pure silk blouse bought on sale at the end of the season will give longer-term value and greater satisfaction than two or three little fantasies purchased willy-nilly in the discount house. The finest-quality rabbit skin coat or jacket turns out to be a far better investment than poor-quality mink.

While fashion has advanced light-years from the 1940s when hemlines soared and dropped faster than the Eiffel Tower elevators, the question of length is still a salient factor bridging the gap between yesterday and tomorrow. While there are no absolute dictates, the wrong length can definitely ruin the right dress. Pierre Cardin's whimsical young mini-dresses with rigid hula hoops set in above the hemline would appear quite out of context if they were scaled to midcalf lengths. On the contrary, Scherrer's wonderfully elegant ensembles out of the history books from czarist Russia and Tolstoi novels would seem totally incongruous if they were sliced off short enough to reveal a pair of knobby knees.

A knowledge of perfect balance and proportion, training the eye for an unbiased self-appraisal after a lingering look in a full-length mirror is just one more lesson to be learned from the Paris couture.

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