WITH a low bow to the high-waisted Directoire gowns of Madame Recamier and a nod to the sensuous bias cuts of Madeleine Vionnet, Paris designers have reshaped the woman of 1994 into a softer, prettier fashion being.
Picture Eve Salvail, the in-your-face model with the scroll-tattooed shaved head, transformed into a demure re-creation from the 18th century, her body lightly veiled in low-cut, high-waisted, flower-strewn chiffon, her feet perched on delicate high heels. No Doc Martens. No sneakers. Not even a Chanel Rollerblade in sight.
For many designers here, the spring-summer haute couture collections are lovely, if faded, remembrances of times past, when women with wasp waistlines wore damask ball gowns (Yves Saint Laurent) or embroidered silk dresses that swooshed into back bustles and trains (Gianfranco Ferre for Christian Dior.)
For others, it's a case of go-for-baroque, indulgent luxury (Christian Lacroix) versus the simplicity of establishment chic (Hubert de Givenchy, Philippe Venet, and Oscar de la Renta for Pierre Balmain.)
Like haute couture itself, where the 144-year-old idea of creating one dress for one woman still has currency (and commands a lot of it), the 20 Paris designers and the three Italians who show here have completely disparate views of dressing for the '90s. About the only thing they agree on this season is the pursuit of pretty and the conviction that couture must not be confused with ready-to-wear if it is to survive. Couture must be unique and easily recognizable for its hand-bound buttonholes and hand-sewn zippers.
Karl Lagerfeld, who kicked off the week for Chanel, showed the first collection in the new $100 million underground complex at the Louvre, fashion's new home here with four auditoriums seating 1,500; 1,200; 550; and 500, respectively. Both Chanel and the Carrousel du Louvre look modern and functional.
The newest Chanel jackets are like body-skimming coats that end just a smidgen longer than matching short skirts. Or they stop at the waistline, where they perform like snug sweaters above man-tailored pants. Or they fit and flare, opening below a row of tiny buttons.
Lagerfeld, who said last season that couture workers do not know how to make pants, has obviously been teaching the craft, as his new Chanel trousers are tailored to a T. The Chanel designer apologized to Muslims for his three dresses printed with Arabic writing taken from the Koran after clerics in Indonesia protested.
``In our haute couture collection,'' said Lagerfeld, ``we used embroideries believed to have been taken from a love poem in memory of a maharani. We have since been informed that we have unknowingly reproduced verses from the Koran. We have destroyed the dresses thus embroidered.'' (Chanel personnel also called journalists and photographers, asking them not to print photographs of the three offending evening dresses.)
Lacroix got the only standing ovation of the season for his singular ability to mix periods such as the high-waisted Directoire with the snooded '40s and make them both look modern. Picture a pair of shorts with a handwoven, candy-stripe silk frock coat and midriff-baring antique gold metallic sweater, and you have some idea of his mix mastering.
The weightless fabrics in Valentino's masterly collection seemed to waft over the body. Even the double-faced woolens he uses in his dresslike tunics with matching short skirts look - and behave - more like chiffon than worsted. Like Lacroix, Valentino lifts the waistline via bustline seaming that gives a new swing to jackets and coats as well as dresses.
For those weary of suits, Valentino's flaring dresses over matching skirts look like sure-fire replacements. The collection is totally feminine in a modern, effortless way, the colors mainly in the palest pastels and beiges. Some of the knock-out evening looks include peignoir-like chiffon gowns. One, in a mousseline that ombres from peach to gray, is worn over a lace-banded, silver-beaded teddy.
The most poetic collection of the season comes from Maurizio Galante. This young Italian designer, now in his second couture season, has a rare gift with fabrics and a color sense comparable to Saint Laurent's. A simple chemise dress is made of 4-inch squares of pale gray organza. Each ravioli-like square encloses three or four loose pearls. When the model walks, the pearls move in a kind of magical mystery tour of the body. A dramatic stole is made of origami-like folds of organ-za strung together like a Japanese lantern.
A simple T-shirt takes one woman three weeks to knit because the size of the needle is changed seven times to form different stitch patterns. One applique motif includes six different fabrics cut and placed, collage-like, to form a flower, then sewn by hand to silk crepe dresses and pants. One dress has a sleeve embroidered with real coral. A jacket of loosely crocheted cotton is beaded with small onyx stones.
Emanuel Ungaro, who electrified the fashion community last season with his new take on soft dressing, continues his bias-cut silk tunics, many with flowering scarves and tassels, and liquid, bias-cut pants, now worn under easy cashmere coat-jackets, often with embroidery. There's a 1910-ish, Orientalist edge to the collection, with references to Leon Bakst and Paul Poiret, but the execution is Ungaro's own.
De la Renta, now in his third season at Balmain, showed the favorite jacket style of the season: long and curvy with matching skirt. His deft assemblage of hat, blouse, jacket, skirt, hose, and shoes in the same delicate pastels may well bring back the matching suit. His draped silk evening dresses were the most glamorous of the season, evoking memories of Rita Hayworth.
The ready-to-wear designer Michel Klein made his couture debut at Guy Laroche with a sleek, modern, minimalist collection featuring crisp tunics, lots of capes, caftans, and narrow pants. His frog-closing Mao jacket in black georgette was completely beaded in black pearls.
IF the words refined and ladylike ever make it back into the language of fashion, it will be due to the efforts of Hubert de Givenchy and Philippe Venet, who, between them, have more couture customers than most of the other couturiers combined. Givency introduces reversible think-pink jackets for day, and Venet reinvents the chemise with intricate welt seaming. Their discreet evening gowns, mainly in organza or chiffon, are statements in understatement.
* High hems/high waistlines. Or, fashion gets a lift. This season's fashion highs are just that, with the Empire or Directoire waistline giving everything a new, more feminine proportion. Long skirts are reserved for late day or evening.
* The pants factor. There are more pants in these collections than at any time since Andre Courreges and Saint Laurent first couture-ized them in the '60s. Most are man-tailored with front pleats, but because they are worn with short, soft jackets they do not look mannish.
* Pale pastels. The pinks, corals, sea-foam greens, and peaches of spring are in delicate tones so barely there it's as if they were caught at that instant just before color. De la Renta's pinks, Galante's sea-foam greens, Chanel's corals, Givenchy's sky blues, and Valentino's peaches are all painterly perfect.
* Admittedly biased. This sinuous cut invented by Vionnet is giving a new slant to minimalist dressing. Gerard Pipart of Nina Ricci's bias-cut silks and Versace's satins are true examples of couture dressmaking at its finest. So are those by Valentino, Lagerfeld, Ungaro, Lacroix, and Givenchy.
Joan Kaner of Neiman-Marcus summed up the season by saying it ``marks the return to real clothes with beautiful detail - clothes that will not be obsolete at the end of the season.'' At their prices ($4,000 for a blouse, $10,000 for a daytime dress, $18,000 to $23,000 for a suit and upwards of $30,000 or more for embroidered evening gowns) the 400 or so women who buy them undoubtedly hope she is right.