DESIGNERS : Softer, Gentler Winter Lines

The French winter 1991-92 designer menswear collections were the first fashion casualties of the Gulf War. With only a handful of American buyers and press in the audience, plus many Japanese absent from the shows held the first week of February, most houses--including Claude Montana, Marithe and Francois Girbaud, Issey Miyake, Matsuda and Daniel Hechter--canceled runway shows to present in a smaller way.

What began as a disadvantage became an advantage: Clothes were much easier to see. And at several houses, the designers were on hand to explain their collections.

Clothes were more classic than in past seasons with the comforting look of old favorites. At Thierry Mugler, where suits often seem more apropos for a space mission than real life, silhouettes were slimmer, softer and less aggressive.

Claude Montana took a turn toward traditional with some gray flannel suits almost Brooks Brothers-ish. To keep them from looking too staid, he showed them with brightly colored or pastel turtleneck sweaters.

For Montana fans, the must-have for winter is the black leather bomber jacket fringed with what look like silver porcupine quills.

While color was used mainly as an accent in most collections, it was Romeo Gigli's leitmotif. A saffron and burgundy Harris tweed jacket was shown with a raspberry shirt, a high-buttoned vest hand-painted to resemble tribal art and narrow, burnt umber suede-like pants.

Color was important at Issey Miyake too, where some of the standouts are the long, quilted parkas in bittersweet silk on grape suede-like pants.

Jean Paul Gaultier attended Yohji Yamamoto's show (Gaultier will show his menswear with his women's collection in March) and joined in the applause for Yohji's fashion joke: orange leather jackets hand painted with World War II pinup poster girls.

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