The best training for the Paris pret-a-porter season, which ended yesterday, is a few New Year's Eves in New York's Times Square, just before the ball drops.
As fashion's elite corps of writers, buyers, hair dressers, makeup artists, consultants, and social notables surge past blue-blazered security guards toward the catwalks, the key is to keep up with the pack and avoid tilting left or right when lifted off your feet. The elite of the elite -- fashion photographers -- had already staked out prized positions at the end of the runway hours earlier.
At issue: an unobstructed view of the colors, shapes, textures, hemlines -- the ''look,'' if look there be - of the fall-winter season. Some 89 fashion houses presented collections in Paris this year, at costs topping $500,000 for putting on shows in the most prestigious salon in the Carrousel du Louvre. Thirty others presented their lines by appointment and hundreds more in venues off the official calendar. Together, these designers are competing for a female ready-to-wear market now breaking $6 billion a year.
Fashion's biggest growth markets are Japan and the so-called emerging nations in Asia. One year after the French government launched an ''Asian initiative'' to redress deep trade deficits, its ''most spectacular'' successes have been in the pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) industry.
A report released this month by the Ministry of Industry cites 52 percent growth rates in pret-a-porter sales in Hong Kong, and 100-percent growth in Korea.
''In Japan, wealthy women move in a rigid society and have to think about the impression they make. Correct clothes are important, and the right label is the most important of all,'' says Hiromi Kobayashi, a Tokyo makeup artist who has come to the Paris shows to look for trends for her clients. "Many grew up wearing kimonos, and don't have confidence in their taste in Western clothes. They let the label coordinate their jewelry, handbags, scarves, and shoes.''
But as she and the fashion press moved from the soft, ultrafeminine lines of Chloe to the stark, minimalist lines of Mariot Chanet, overall trends were not easy to spot. This year, wafer-thin baby dolls competed with dark, androgynous figures with blank stares or leather fetishists with looks to kill. Belgian designer Margiela wrapped models' faces in opaque veils, and asked them to negotiate up and down stairs in pinpoint heels.
What was in evidence was a wide range of new faces and fabrics in this 10-day season's collections, including a stronger presence of British and Asian designers. Also featured was a model who laughingly gave her age as 19 but could have grandchildren that age.
Alongside traditional silks, woolens, crepes, and cashmeres were high-tech fabrics such as hologram plastic, stretch satins, metallized or iridescent lurex, and cosa, a ''crease-proof'' polyester made in Japan, cut by laser and assembled by thermal collage instead of hems and seams.
But the age of all-powerful fashion editors with the clout to decree a ''new look'' has disappeared along with an elegant haute couture clientele, now numbering less than 2,000 in the world. Terms like ''chic'' and ''class'' that used to pepper fashion commentary yielded to this year's term, ''air de temps,'' or ''spirit of the times.''
For many who closely follow Paris fashion, the spirit of these times is troubling.
''Look at contemporary painting. What it's showing us is often a catastrophic vision,'' says Catherine Join-Dieterle, curator of Paris's Museum of Mode and Costume. ''To the extent that designers take themselves for artists, they're living in the same mental atmosphere, sad and dark. They're not looking for harmony in art any more.''
Last year, the pret-a-porter season was colored by the presence of crews filming Robert Altman's ''Ready to Wear,'' which opened in Paris to coincide with this season's shows. Fans of Altman classics like the movie ''Nashville'' were expecting a biting, satirical look at the inner-workings of an industry that has been treated very gently by a specialized press that rarely asks hard questions, such as: Are the labels worth the price? And why do so many of these clothes make women look unlovely?