High Status of Couture No Longer All Sewn Up

Paris fashion is in the throes of change as the industry struggles over its direction

IN the aftermath of the 1993 spring and summer haute couture showings in Paris last month, industry watchers are wondering: Will we be here next year? The couture houses are still reeling over a number of dismissals and changes.

Last Thursday Pierre Berge was ousted as president of the Chambre Syndicale, the governing board of French fashion, after 20 years. He announced that he would take the House of Saint Laurent (in which he is a business partner) out of the Chambre Syndicale entirely and start a rival organization. In January, Saint Laurent was sold for $645 million to the government-owned Elf Sanofi (the house will continue at least to the year 2001 under the control of the designer and Berge).

In the past year, one couturier was kicked out of his own house (Jean-Louis Scherrer) and replaced by another (Erik Mortensen) who had been dismissed from Pierre Balmain. Pierre Cardin has announced he will only show once a year, in July, from now on. Emanuel Ungaro has been searching for a way to show couture and ready-to-wear at the same time, and an ex-couturier (Claude Montana, who was let go one year ago as the Lanvin couturier) is telling insiders that couture will be replaced by deluxe ready-to-we ar. And Thierry Mugler, a ready-to-wear star, is trying to merge the two fashion disciplines.

And Oscar de la Renta made fashion history by becoming the first American designer to create a Paris haute-couture collection since Chicago-born Mainbocher closed his Paris salon in 1940.

In breaking through the glass ceiling of haute couture with his designs for the House of Pierre Balmain, the Santo Domingo-born De la Renta said he was "happy to be in Paris, happy to realize a dream, and especially happy that those last 25 outfits finally arrived 15 minutes after the show was scheduled to begin."

The smoothly presented, stylish clothes - all well within the loop of Paris chic - didn't break any new fashion ground, but neither did most of the clothes by the other 19 Paris-based couture houses showing here. As the New York designer said before the show, he hoped the collection would "bring reality back to fashion and bring Balmain back as a bastion of luxury."

He is definitely off to a good start.

Opening with an ivory silk faille double-breasted coat - a tip of the chapeau to Balmain's Ivoire perfume - and white gabardine pants, De la Renta proceeded to show a lineup of tailored pantsuits and suits that were praised backstage after the show by Rome's premier couturier, Valentino.

The first skirt - a double-faced ivory tweed to match the double-breasted, lightly fitted jacket - ended at the top of the calf. Other daytime skirts stopped somewhere around the knees. The Balmain dinner suits combining waist-length wool jackets with fluid chiffon skirts looked especially modern.

The designer who may prove to be the prototype for tomorrow's couture is Philippe Venet. Now in his 32nd year as a designer, Venet is widely acknowledged as the only couturier to support his house entirely through the sale of his clothes. Venet has no perfume to sweeten the pot (only a men's cologne) and no ready-to-wear. His secret is service. Venet travels to New York every two weeks, where he shows private customers, by appointment, in the Carlisle Hotel, then returns to Paris to make the clothes in h is own ateliers, returning to deliver them in person.

THIS season, Venet gave up his traditional opening in one of the city's large hotels in favor of a small show in his own salon. His rationale: "When you make a dress for the podium [the runway], it has to be dramatic. For the real life, it's too much. I prefer the real life." His designs for spring include long, double-faced wool jackets in pastel pinks and limes worn with easy white pants, impeccably-cut raglan-sleeve gabardine coats in white and red, and delicate chiffon and organza evening dresses.

Here are the overall trends for haute couture, spring-summer 1993:

* The New Romantics. The softer, paler, prettier woman who seemed so inevitable as a fashion role model at the end of the spring ready-to-wear collections just a few months ago did not really materialize here, except at Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld continues to probe the fashion cosmos for a truly directional new look.

The man who has shown Chanel jackets with jeans, tights, ballgown skirts and jockey shorts put his imprimatur on the season by posing his longer, softer, sugar-plummier tweed jackets above floating, ankle-length chiffon dresses, many of them styled with either hip-stitched pleats or asymmetric hemlines that sometimes ended in small trains.

There's a flea-market, vintage- clothing aura to many of the new clothes, and a distinct 18th-century tilt to the sleeves, many of which end in cuffs drifting in fronds of chiffon. The French call them manchettes, and they were the big look for men in the days of Louis XVI. Lagerfeld even showed them as separate chiffon "bracelets" for Chanel, and Yves Saint Laurent interpreted the look as pleated extensions on the sleeves of otherwise simple silk T-shirts.

The frock coats at Christian Lacroix, Gianni Versace, and Chanel also echoed the romanticism of the 18th century.

* Hemming and Hawing. Short, long, and in-between. That's the spring hemline menu here, as designers continue to be split in their decisions on length. Versace defied the laws of fashion gravity that seemed to be pulling hems down again by showing only short skirts for day. Lagerfeld showed only long and/or handkerchief points and fluttering asymmetrics that ended somewhere between the calf and the ankle.

Between those ups and downs, the hemline ranged from just above the knees - the prevailing length at Saint Laurent, Givenchy, and Christian Dior - to just below the knees and mid-calf at Valentino and Emanuel Ungaro, to both above and below the knees at most other houses. In other words, length as you like it.

* The Pants in France. There was only one pair of pants in the Chanel lineup, a lightweight gray and white wool worn with a red jacket, but every other designer in Paris seems to be panting for pants.

Lacroix, for example, shows only pants for day - not one single skirt - most of them cut with easy wide pantlegs and shown with both matching and contrasting jackets. Valentino's daytime offerings are also predominantly pants. They range from creamy silks paired with contrasting wool jackets that are gently fitted with built-in self belts to the most feminine pants in Paris - perfectly proportioned mid widths that end in a ruffle of bias-cut chiffon. The bell bottoms of fall are a little less belled for spring, even those by Versace, who started the sailor-pant trend last season.

Gianfranco Ferre has relaxed the pant fit at Dior, Saint Laurent shows a lot of high-rise pants with short jackets, Ungaro likes pajamas with midriff-baring bra tops, Gerard Pipart of Nina Ricci prefers striped silk beach pajamas with matching jackets, and Erik Mortensen endorses knitted biker-length unitards for Jean-Louis Scherrer. Only narrow pants are gone from favor.

* Reaffirmations. Ready-to-wear trends confirmed by the couturiers include transparencies, with see-through chiffon the overwhelming fabric favorite, bustiers, bras, corselettes, bare midriffs - now encased in see-through plastic waist-cinchers at Chanel - and aprons.

* All at sea. The sea theme runs through the collections - sailor stripes, starfish appliques, sea anemones as beading motifs, coral jewelry, bell bottoms, sea-captain jackets, and pea coats, and seems especially appropriate for an industry clearly at sea over its future.

* Accessories. From the Chanel boater, swathed in chiffon for the '90s, to starched raffia tie-around turbans at Saint Laurent, and visored caps with giant orb-like crowns at Versace, hats make headlines for spring.

Except for high-top granny shoes at Versace and Chanel, sandals and sling-back with high, high heels prevail. The cross continues as a major jewelry theme, especially at Lacroix and Chanel.

* No-Makeup Makeup. The face of the season is pale and plain, and the hair ranges from flat pin curls held with hair clips at Chanel to crimped free-falls at Valentino with a lot of French twists in between.

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