In an unusual turn of events, fashion journalists outnumbered fashion retailers by 3 1/2 to 1, as spring showings got under way here Wednesday. The usual ratio is the exact opposite, with an international galaxy of store representatives flooding the shows in search of "new direction" to present to customers in the seasons ahead.
It is too soon to know whether this sudden shrinkage of the buying audience presages hard times ahead for the French clothing industry, which relies heavily on these twice-yearly shows, presented at great cost to each designer.
But in recent years, interest in the shows themselves has been dwindling, with retailers complaining that too much time is wasted waiting in line for shows to begin, sitting through irrelevant theatrical productions and seeing the clothes from too far away, rather than in an up-close, showroom situation.
In any event, 2,000 members of the press are here and only 600 buyers from 38 countries. But the week got off to a happy start anyway, with Mississippi-born Patrick Kelly's razzle-dazzle show in the Louvre courtyard tents.
The show marked Kelly's arrival as a full-fledged member of the Chambre Sydicale du Pret a Porter, the first American to become a member of this prestigious organization of top couturiers.
Just a few years ago, the ebullient Kelly was stitching up dresses for model pals in a one-room Paris apartment, where he blew all the building's fuses every time he plugged in his electric sewing machine. He soon was discovered by Francoise Chassagnac, Paris boutique owner, and since July, 1987, has been backed by Warnco Corp., the giant New York-based apparel manufacturer. In September, Kelly showed his fall collection at Amen Wardy in Newport Beach, selling $40,000 worth of clothes in three days. "I even sold a pair of $900 gloves I'd just made for the runway show," he said.
In this new collection, Kelly's touch is even surer, without losing any of the wit his fans love. His humor is at its best in pinstriped denim suits buttoned with dice and worn with dice-printed chiffon blouses. Great looking too are the crisp pique suits, the jackets with wide portrait necklines and skirt lengths almost always just above the knee.
When Kelly goes long, it's right to the floor, in full cotton circle skirts or wide-legged pants in fluid printed silk crepes for summer.
"I like happy clothes, clothes that move," he said just before the show. "When I was on the road in the States in September, I realized my customer is chic and sophisticated and perhaps older than I had thought. The experience really helped me in working on this collection. I have to say, the excitement is overwhelming."
Other looks the crowd loved were what Kelly calls his "Grammy" group, with musical notes and piano keys printed or even knitted into a bare-back halter top to wear under suits; the safari theme with laced-front safari jackets in leopard prints over tan cotton jodhpurs and the tassel-fringed jackets in eye-opening hot pink and turquoise.
Earlier in the day, Lolita Lempicka, who sells at Ice in the Beverly Center, showed her version of summer, a strong suit story that is her forte. As in Milan and London, suit jackets were either not much more than boleros or they were stretched out and curved over the hips. The bottom half went from too-short short skirts to too-long long skirts, or else the obvious alternative: wide-legged pants.
Many of her suit jackets were banded with wide inserts of lace. Others were reembroidered with tiny gold anchors or buttoned with enough buttons to fasten several suits. Colors were dusty pales, from ivory to old rose to milky cocoa. As an alternative to the suit, Lempicka did some capelet-collared, printed georgette dresses that stopped low on the calf and would have looked more at home at a vicarage tea than on a runway in Paris.
Meanwhile, in front of the tents where the shows are held, French nurses were on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. They handed out leaflets, petitioned for signatures and sold (for $2) "Ras La Seringue' ' ("We're Fed Up") buttons. To make their point, many wore plastic hypodermic syringes as earrings. Other strikes, affecting transportation, have left many buyers stranded in Milan.