Acid Colors, Acid Rain in Paris

Spring brings bright fashions, outdoor art, and an attack on pollution

FORGET Paris if you're looking to buy a bolt of orange or anise green cloth.

"Those colors have been out of stock for two months all over Paris," says Rachel Benestry, a buyer for ready-to-wear wholesaler V Fortuna in Paris's garment district. "We've had seasons of dark colors, but they're just not selling now. People are fed up with moroseness."

"Fed up with moroseness" could be a theme for this year's April in Paris.

It's been a tough year. Last April's presidential campaign highlighted the need to close the gap between the nation's wealthy and poor, employed and "excluded." But the new government's promise to create 700,000 jobs this year has not yet materialized.

Instead, taxes soared, a series of subway bombings put Paris streets on security alert for almost half a year, and a month-long transit strike put millions of commuters on foot and brought thousands of businesses to the edge of bankruptcy.

Nowhere was the bad economic news felt more keenly than in the capital's garment district, where the December strike and cold, wet weather in February drove seasonal sales down by almost 50 percent. "A significant number of established houses will fail if there isn't a miracle by the month of May," reported the Journal du Textile last month.

Wholesalers in Paris's Sentier garment district are counting on acid greens and oranges to produce that miracle.

You can still find spring classics, such as black-and-white, navy-and-white, even beiges and a few pastels along the narrow streets of this fashion hothouse. But what what is in the shop windows are the acids: anise T-shirts, orange raincoats, anise-trimmed orange sweaters, and orange-trimmed anise suits.

In a city where black, very black, and blacker-still defined the color spectrum of cafe and gallery denizens for much of the 1990s, the new acids take getting used to.

"My girl friend came in the other day wearing a screaming-orange suit. She has never worn anything but black. I'd have to say, it came as a shock," says Stefan, who has watched Paris streets from behind the wheel of a cab for eight years.

A saleswoman on the Rue de Rivoli reluctantly concedes that it takes a "certain kind of woman" to wear these colors well - or at all - but insists they're selling anyway.

"It's just the mood, it's in the air," she explains.

City officials are striking their own blow against moroseness this week. The museums of Paris have moved more than 50 sculptures out of their galleries onto the sidewalks of the Champs-lysees. Nikki de Saint-Phalle's joyous "Nanas" lifts two lemon-yellow pasteboard arms to the sun across the avenue from Fernand Leger's "Walking Flower." Down the avenue stand two imposing bronzes by Auguste Rodin and a four-ton Picasso.

The open-air exhibition caps a five-year effort to revive the city's signature avenue. Parisians had given up the world's most famous avenue to tourists, teens from the suburbs, and parked cars.

Stylish places to see and be seen gave way to fast-food restaurants, souvenir shops, and cinema marquees touting American films.

The city broadened the sidewalks, planted new flowers and trees, and banished the cars to underground parking complexes.

The giant artistic masterworks of the 20th century on display here until June 9 add the weight of genius to the effort. Many sculptures are still sitting on crates at the end of the avenue, out of place and as yet unlit. But they still draw crowds.

The sculptures are sympa (nice), says Jerome, who rode his mountain bike in from the suburbs to practice new stunts along the sidewalk and on down the steep ramp of a new Champs-lysee parking garage. "They smoothed out the sidewalks, and now it's just perfect for us," he adds.

But the change in the air Parisians most welcome is the announcement last week that the government will tackle the city's pollution problem, which has darkened the city's monuments and created a public-health hazard.

The environment ministry pledges to measure pollution levels and inform the public of the risks in cities with a population greater than 250,000 by 1997.

Recent efforts to scrub the face of Notre Dame and the bridges along the Siene draw gasps from passersby. "Is that what it really looks like?" asks one tourist, pointing to a cream-colored angel amid the gray figures on the face of the cathedral.

But Stefan (still recovering from the orange suit) is not convinced the city is serious. "They're building parking garages all over the city," he says.

"When they stop doing that, I'll believe they're serious about cutting down on the numbers of cars and curbing pollution," he says.

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