Holding One's Breath For New Paris Designs

High fashion is a cinch - at the waist - for fall and winter

THE wasp waist has stung again. That's the buzz here as the fall-winter haute-couture collections for 1994 draw to a close.

So many designers here have been bitten by corseted waistlines with back lacings that the newest accessory will have to be someone at home to pull the strings. (Think Scarlett O'Hara at the bedpost, and you've got it.)

The real test of the waist cincher's staying power will be how many women are ready - or willing - to hold their breath for fashion's sake.

The major proponents of waist whittling are Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel, Valentino, and Christian Lacroix.

Versace's guepieres (that's French for wasp) are cut like long-line bras. One especially stunning version in pale-pink satin shows a glimpse of bare skin above a full moire taffeta ballgown skirt in the same color. Other versions in black or white show the navel above full satin skirts that stop above the knees.

Lagerfeld's homage to the wasp at Chanel features back-laced jackets or halter tops with taut, stay-in-place midriffs worn over charming ballgown-wide pants in moire taffeta or velvet.

Valentino's corsets and waist cinchers are built into the crinolined ballgowns they shape. Model Claudia Schiffer sent the cameras clicking in an hourglass gown with decollete black chiffon bodice, pink waist-cincher, and red taffeta skirt that whooshed into a big pouf over a pink petticoat covered in re-embroidered black lace. Lacroix's ``girdle dress'' with long slender matte jersey skirt has a hand-span waist shaped by a built-in waist-cincher of boned red satin. It's connected to a bodice of richly embroidered black velvet with tufted velvet puff sleeves - all very Glenn Close in ``Dangerous Liaisons.''

Other than swarming over wasp waistlines, the 20 Paris-based designers and four Italians who show here have given up such downtown causes as combat boots and Rollerblades and moved uptown, where women with spa-shaped bodies step to and from their limos in high heels. It's as if the entire haute couture has suddenly realized that women who spend four and five figures on one outfit have good figures, and want to show them.

And what comes after a wasp waist?

The bee's knees, of course. The so-called New Length ends anywhere from knee top to two inches above.

Even Versace, who last year was the first couturier to show an all-mini collection, now has a considerable number of suits that stop just short of the knees. The most directional are his pastel ``smokings'' - the French term for tuxedo suits.

Shorter skirts remain part of the hemline mix, but mid-calf lengths for day are a casualty of the season with major designers.

Toujours glamour

In addition to the snoods at Chanel and the glam-rock dresses made of see-through metal mesh at Versace, the glamour girls of couture wear movie-star red lipstick and Hollywood-starlet hairdos. The hautest hair was at Lacroix, where it was teased into leonine shags by Alexandre.

Of all the sequined numbers in Paris - and paillettes were popping on many runways - the two most glamourous are Oscar de la Renta's black bustier with black lace bodice and hem and Hubert de Givenchy's strapless jumpsuit in black lace spangled with black sequins.

The glamour gown of the season - a 10 on the ooh-la-la scale - is Gianfranco Ferre's spectacular high-neck black gown for Christian Dior. It grazes the body in a flow of opaque wool interrupted by flamelike flashes of see-through black chiffon.

Bare midriffs

In addition to making corsetry look new by showing a peep of bare skin around the waist, designers also use midriff-baring techniques to refresh pants. At Chanel, for example, snug jackets in shocking pink, green, or yellow stop just short of the waistline above black, zip-front pants with fullish legs.

Feathers and froufrou

From Balmain's black cocktail hats with plumes that dip to the waistline to Saint Laurent's long white ostrich-feather coat, Lacroix's feather sweaters and coats, and Dior's feather-trimmed gold lame skirts and gold lace blouses, new-age plumage is definitely a trend.

The thrill of the quill at Chanel includes a feathered hat on almost every outfit, including the white jumpsuit for the bride. Marabou muffs and colorful dyed-to-match hats are also Chanel feather dusters. The most inventive feather dress, by Maurizio Galante, is actually made with organza ribbons worked to look like a bird in flight.

The artful artisan

Galante has surpassed even the most famous Paris ateliers with his fabric artistry. Consider, for example, his new work based on an ancient Japanese process called Shibori, whereby a fabric is created by tying thousands and thousands of microscopic knots. One dress made of this fabric looks and feels exactly like the skin of a reptile. The young Italian designer's fabric magic also appears in patchwork mosaic made out of 1,000 squares of seven different materials, including vinyl, mohair, leather, and silk crepe.

The new orientation

Saint Laurent's ovation-inspiring Asian overtures include magnificent mandarin robes in silk matelasse, kimonos in satin faconne, cheongsams and Chinese pajamas in China blue and lacquer red. Ungaro also looks to the East, using exquisite Chinese-themed embroideries. One latter-day empress wore a white cape emblazoned with jewels. Hanae Mori salutes her native Japan in magnificent bronzed velvet evening dresses depicting golden scenes from Kyoto -

a city this year celebrating its 1,200th anniversary. La vie en rose

Paris is in the pink - from the palest blush to the most shocking fuchsia. One of the most distinguished jackets comes from Philippe Venet, who poses a purple mohair cutaway jacket over a twin in fuchsia mohair. Venet also includes an extraordinary double-breasted fuchsia coat with mandarin collar, and a three-tiered, ruffle-edge, side-draped gown of shocking pink organza.

Reshaping the silhouette

The question now remains - is the wasp a sting? Is it a ruse by demonic designers to get women back into the smelling-salts mode? Or is the corset going to reshape fashion at the end of the 20th century just as it did at the end of the 19th?

Stay tuned.

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