Fashion's Spring Song: `I Feel Pretty'

Ready-to-wear designers unveil softer, more feminine looks

EUROPE'S new fashion wave for spring is washing up everything from pinned and pierced punks with Technicolor hair to chiton-draped Greek goddesses in Platonic sandals.

If you can't imagine yourself with a ring in your nose or dragging your drapes to Mount Olympus, you can also get into the new fashion loop with a hoop - a real Scarlett O'Hara hooped skirt made from the draperies, curtains, and bedspreads at Tara.

Whether it's some kind of madness or a turn-of-the-century turning point, the first clothes of 1994 are as chaotic as the 6 o'clock news. The one new wave both the avant-garde and the old guard are riding is the foamy, frothy, vaporous surge of soft. Fabrics are softer. Colors are softer. The deconstructivists have won. They've torn down the strict structures provided by hard-edge tailoring and replaced the sharp angles with rounded columns and curves.

Deep in the core of these soft clothes for hard times is a denial of new. You see it in the wrinkled and crumpled fabrics, the faded, bleached, and dyed-to-look-old colors and the bits and pieces of recycled clothing salvaged from the flea market to live again as pre-worn, post-thrift shop patchworks.

This is especially true of the young avant-garde designers, led by Martin Margiela, who this season expressed his own denial of new by resuscitating 70 of his favorite designs from the past five years, dating back to his first tattoo-printed T-shirts of 1989. Margiela gave the remakes a second life by dying them all gray.

Another recycler, Lamine Kouyate, is also in a kind of holding pattern this season, recontemplating the $10 tank tops and $50 shirt dresses he brought to life last year, and the castoffs he dismembered, rearranged, and stitched together with such artistry and passion.

John Richmond is also reissuing some of his old favorites. Both Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester have softened and sweetened their cutting-edge clothes, using more diaphanous fabrics in poetic prints.

The two women who inspired France's new avant-garde are Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Vivienne Westwood. Kawakubo's inside-out, upside-down, deconstructivist clothes with asymmetric hemlines have triggered an entire school of fashion here, and Westwood's corsets, crinolines, and platforms are now common in many collections.

Kawakubo's spring clothes are the most romantic of her career, starring sheer apron dresses and bias cuts that flow over the body, touching it tenderly at the curves. Bubble-like tops are new here, as are transparent jackets that show through to the shoulder-padded infrastructure.

Westwood, who first became famous as the mother of punk fashion in the early 1970s, leaves that path for others to follow, turning her attention to what she calls a ``cafe society'' look of Victorian times. There's a distinct Eliza Doolittle spin to the bustled skirts and Ascot-ready hats and a kind of bawdy naughtiness to the lingerie.

The two designers who bridge the gap between the avant-garde and the established couturiers are John Galliano and Claude Montana. The London-born Galliano's respect and mastery of such French fashion inventions as the bias-cut combine with his British-bent sense of the eccentric to produce clothes that are at once beautiful and romantic (his dazzling bias-cut dresses in slithering satin, for example).

Montana, who helped carve out the '80s with his glacial ice goddesses, has let them melt for spring, creating a softer, lovelier, more approachable woman. His totally unconstructed jackets glide over the body in liquid silks, some of them softening into bias flares from hipline seaming.

In Milan, the message is Kaos (the name of Franco Moschino's 10-year retrospective collection starring the wittiest see-through of the decade - a white cotton shirt worn in its own plastic bag and a hat shaped like a hanger) and anti-chaos (the ``out-with-destruction-and-desecration'' theme of Valentino's all-navy-and-white Oliver collection.)

With Gianni Versace's latter-day punks all spiffed up in nightgowns held together with jeweled safety pins and Giorgio Armani's serene and pale pantsuits and soft dresses held together with a color palette of whites, grays, beiges, and bronzes, the yin and yang of Milan's two designer superpowers continues.

Versace's new baby-doll dresses are nursed with diaper pins for a kind of lost-innocence look, and his bias-cut nighties of lace and wrinkled silk are given the punk touch with strategically placed jeweled safety pins.

Contrasted with Versace's short and staccato look is Armani's long, languid, adagio mood. He offers only pants or long dresses over pants for day, ignoring short completely. His newest, sure-to-be-copied jacket flows softly from a one-button band collar, and his pants are feminized with side panels that are knotted at the waistline like sarongs.

Soft tailoring is also the Jil Sander signature for spring. Her long, three-armhole dresses with outside seaming wrap the body without confining it, and her amazing new tissue-weight lame brings gold to an entirely new standard.

Within the general framework of soft, here are the seasonal trends:

Getting centered. Skirts are both short and long, but it's the in-between that interests designers this season. Instead of focusing on the bosom or the hem, designers are drawing attention to the center of the torso by exposing it, wrapping it, and tying it. Bare midriffs are in almost every collection, pants rest on the hips, and the navel is bellying up everywhere.

The new ethnicities. From Karl Lagerfeld's Ode to a Grecian Yearn for Chloe to Jean Paul Gaultier's piercing nose jewelry and sari send-ups, designers seem to long for other cultures, other times.

The travelogue includes ancient Rome (any designer with Roman sandals and toga draping) India (Gaultier, Tykeil), Morocco (Emanuel Ungaro, Yves Saint Laurent, and Claude Montana), Romania (Dolce & Gabbana), Africa (Christian Lacroix, Saint Laurent, and Complice), China (Krizia), and Greece (Chloe, Romeo Gigli, Thierry Mugler, and Herve Leger.)

Underwear. It's peeking above the waistlines of pants and the necklines of dresses. It's showing right through sheer dresses, and it's the latest way to make anything old look new. The essentials include bras, panties, jockey shorts, waist cinchers, camisoles, slips, teddies, and the quintessential item of the season - a ribbed-knit tank top like Clark Gable's undervest. For night, it's the nightie, the peignoir, and the dressing gown.

She's so transparent. For spring, the new sheers can show through to another layer of fabric beneath as well as to skin.

Lagerfeld's new ``skindress'' is a stocking-sheer stretch that covers bras, panties, miniskirts, and swimwear. It comes in black and white and can be rolled down to the waist or up to the hips for instant sun-bathing or shading. The tulles, chiffons, and georgettes that abound in many collections most often provide a filter for brief bikinis or a veil for plain cotton-knit T-shirts and tanks.

Color. White is the new black. The ivory/bone/bisque/ecru family is major. And the pastels of spring are not the acid pastels produced by American dyestuffs, but the faded pastels of antiquity, especially those associated with ancient frescoes.

Pleats please. Issey Miyake's amazing corrugated pleats have inspired look-a-likes this season, as in Gigli's Grecian chitons. Pleats also show up as mini-kilts at Galliano, where they get tartan panties.

Bare legs. Except for Valentino's lace legs and his printed pantyhose with matching skirts, legs for spring are mainly nude, sometimes shown with anklets for the baby look or knee-highs for little-girl dressing.

For a punk touch, Lagerfeld drew a center seam on one leg in his signature collection. Sandals are a shoe-in for the season, looking right with all the Roman and Grecian clothes as well as the simple modern shapes, as at Helmut Lang.

Sweet, poetic florals are the predominant prints of the season, all evidence of the pretty look that prevails in many quarters.

But there is also a tougher side to the print story, as in Gaultier's tattoo prints and his graffiti scribblings and Lagerfeld's hieroglyphics.

New, too, are Gigli's print motifs taken from Grecian urns - the perfect theme for all the neoclassical design ideas.

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