THROUGH the years, many famous foreign designers have opened their own houses in the French fashion capital. The late Cristobal Balenciaga and Antonio Castillo were both Spanish. Capt. Edward Molyneux was an Englishman. Contemporary creators include couturiers Per Spook, a Norwegian, and Karl Lagerfeld, a German. Valentino, who has a large salon here as well as in Rome, is Italian. But it is the Japanese contingent, two of whom have been established in Paris for a decade or more, that has made influential inroads.
This competition from the Land of the Rising Sun has made the chauvinistic French frequently feel slightly sunburned. The Japanese presence is seen by some as an attempt to overtake both France and Italy on the fashion scene. But others feel that it's better to have the wolves right in the chicken coop, where they can be watched.
So contrary to Kipling, East has met West, and several Oriental firms have chalked up unprecedented sales with professional buyers, who flock to Paris for the ready-to-wear shows each spring and fall. Kenzo Takada opened here 12 years ago, and his annual sales in the United States alone are somewhere around a half-billion dollars.
Hanae Mori, the most sophisticated and elegant of all the Japanese creators, is the only actual couturi`ere and member of the high-fashion syndicate. While all the others are a younger group showing only ready-to-wear, Hanae Mori's beautiful clothes are custom made in her Paris salons, which employ a staff of 50 people. Her genius evolves in combining magnificent Oriental silks (often with hand-painted designs such as traditional butterfly motifs) with totally European silhouettes. Her fabrics this seas on are wonderfully opulent: jacquards, metallics, cut velvets, and pannes starring in effects often evoking the 1940s and '50s and lavished with sparkling embroideries. Nearly every woman in the audience who was an adult during those decades was murmuring, ``I had a dress almost like that.''
In the overall ready-to-wear picture, innovators from the Far East are famed for ``far out'' silhouettes and unconventional fabrics. Rei Kawakubo, designer and owner of ``Comme des Garons,'' has elevated cheesecloth, potato sacking, and other ``distressed'' fabrics to both a high fashion and a high price range. Some critics have likened Ms. Kawakubo's approach to ``ragtime'' -- not a musical reference, to be sure. Her coats are often shown with buttons purposely misbuttoned through the wrong
holes, lending a rather lopsided effect, and the mannequin's hair is ever and always carefully styled by a cement mixer.
Generally speaking, most of the Japanese designers are highly intrigued by layering, which evolves in a play of lengths; short over long or worked in tiers. There is nothing indecisive or wishy-washy in their approach, and lengths range through the extremes -- from sawed-off minis to dreary effects dragging around the ankles. While silhouettes have generally moved closer to the body, many winter coats appear to have room enough for the entire family, with huge wraparounds that could double as a camping tent.
There are often traces of ethnic influence, but no echoes of Madame Butterfly. The latest intrigue is the American Wild West. Japanese designer Kimijima, a confirmed believer in the immortality of miniskirts, adds accessories such as 10-gallon hats, leather chaps, and sequined vests, presented by ``pistol-packing mamas'' astride wooden hobbyhorses. In another tableau, Kimijima, a superb showman, sent his team of mannequins down the runways with dozens of live dogs.
Hiroko Koshina has obviously been watching ``Dallas'' on television, but her cowboy coats for the coming winter are a strictly personal interpretation that no one west of the Hudson River could possibly recognize.
Yet despite all the jokes, the French consider that the Japanese force is something to reckon with. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was the guest of honor at the July 14 Bastille Day ceremonies and presided next to President Franois Mitterand on the platform at the Place de la Concorde. But his official visit appeared to do little to calm the European Community's worries over their enormous trade deficit with Japan.