HAUTE hems are the big haute couture surprise for fall as the world's highest-priced clothes reach new highs on the thighs.
From dangerously short "micro skirts" at Chanel to Mod-inspired minis with lace-and-ribbon lavished pantyhose at Gianni Versace and lace-banded thigh-highs at Yves Saint Laurent, hems are on the rise - again.
Given the fact that a tiny number of women in the world who can afford such outfits will choose their own favorite lengths (one of the perks of made-to-order clothes), the rising hemline is really more of an option than an edict. But in a season lacking in real change-the-course-of-fashion news, it's the talk of the town.
Obviously concerned that the new minis might scare or confuse customers now looking at windows back home filled with new fall clothes that cover much of the leg, the American retailers here are quick to downplay the new short skirts.
"Length is not an issue," says Joan Kaner, fashion director for Neiman Marcus. "The real message of the season - one that will affect ready-to-wear - is the luxe fabrics."
On that score, it's a let-'em-eat-cake season of plush velvets, delicate laces, opulent brocades, and satins. Surface textures give the clothes a touch-me appeal, as the cut-outs, burn-outs and slashes the French call decoupage form delicate openworks. Versace uses them as graphic cutworks in shapes ranging from spiderwebs and slashes to Swiss- cheese holes - most of them embroidered in jewels or silk floss.
The most exquisite embroideries of the season are at Valentino, where Chinese dragons and other Oriental motifs inspired by his recent trip to China embellish jackets, tunics, and velvet gowns. Quilted charmeuse skirts edged in silk fringe also evoke the Mandarins.
Here in the land of four-figure blouses and five-figure suits and gowns, the figure itself remains curvy, and mannish tailoring has all but disappeared. The newest jackets, such as those at Chanel and Oscar de la Renta for Pierre Balmain, have curving seams.
The whaleboned corselet pushes the bosom up and out and the bustle rustles at the rear of Christian Lacroix's elaborate Sarah Bernhardt ballgowns. Intricate gold embroidery and hidden underpinnings provide the perfectly cleaved poitrine at Christian Dior.
Sometimes during the passing parade of boringly beautiful daytime suits, sable-edged coats, Elizabethan corsets, turn-of-the-century bustles, and heavy gold embroideries, the entire haute couture proceedings seemed like one gigantic Jurassic Park. And then special collections and special moments turned a dinosaur world into the place to be for 1993.
Emanuel Ungaro's jewel of a collection earned him a standing ovation for leading couture out of its baroque past into a lighter, more modern future. His amazing bias-cut crepes and delicate lace-strewn velvet gowns with traceries of beadwork stood out like beacons.
In his first haute couture collection, 30-year-old Maurizio Galante, of Italy, left even the old pros by the wayside with his virtuosity, which included one whisper-weight ballgown that consists of 20 layers of silk organza hand-painted by the designer in 20 shades of violet.
Not to mention a coat of triple organza cut into 200 layers, which Galante designed to look like the inside pleatwork of a mushroom. Or a magical black coat that looks like fur but is actually created from silk velvet.
New York couture customer Jan Chipman called Galante "a true artist ... pure genius. His clothes will remain in your wardrobe forever."
In a season of few coats, (remember, couture customers have limos), the standouts are at Philippe Venet, whose mohair alpaca cape-coat in emerald green and a double-collared fuchsia model are at once works of art and wearability personified. Both are knee length.
In a season shy on wearability, De la Renta won kudos for his easy daytime suits, especially the tweeds with the long, figure-following jackets. United States Ambassador to France Pamela Harriman, sitting in the front row next to the designer's wife, Annette, said the collection was "beautiful and wearable, and proves he is a great artist. It makes me very proud to have an American designer showing here at Paris haute couture."
In a season of pants, including everything from Karl Lagerfeld's new silk and cashmere jerseys that wind around the ankles like modern harems to Valentino's flaring pleated pants that end above the ankles, jumpsuits starred both day and night at Hubert de Givenchy and Nina Ricci.
At Givenchy, where elegance prevails, one of the daytime versions was teamed with a short jacket collared in sable, and a black-tie look appeared in black gabardine teamed with a satin-collared short black jacket.
While short skirts grabbed headlines, most designers showed daytime skirts just above the knees. Calf lengths were fewer than during the fall ready-to-wear shows. Versace's wondrous lace and ribboned pantyhose and Chanel's panne velvet leggings look directional, as do the brown and beige families, greens of every shade, and the jewel colors of Titian.
The best hats of the season are by Valentino, who recreated the domes of the Temple of Heaven, the walls of the Forbidden City, the golden columns of the Empress Tsetse's rooms, and the feathers of the Cossack-style hats of the Imperial servants as haute headgear for the '90s.
SALES last year from the 21 couturiers accredited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, the governing body of Paris fashion, were about $200 million.
To understand why the 20 Paris designers and three Italians who showed last week spent roughly $100,000 each (some much more) to show a minimum of 50 new designs to an audience of 1,000 who cannot afford them (the press) plus 50 or so women who can (the private customers) is to understand the lucrative spinoffs the shows create: French ready-to-wear is a $500 million business and the French perfume industry generates $1.6 billion annually.