Is This a Joke? : Fashion: The outlandish outfits on European runways are good for a few laughs. That's OK, designers say, they're meant to be seen, not worn.

TIMES FASHION EDITOR

A houndstooth-check mummy suit with matching purse at Jean-Paul Gaultier's show got people giggling, and a sequined bodysuit as thin as skin raised some eyebrows at Gianni Versace. But it took a fishnet top with gardenia pasties, at Chanel no less, to make members of the world's most fashion savvy audience admit they were mildly shocked.

Once again this spring, European designers--and even a few in New York--spun their most fantastic ideas down the runway. Again, fashion editors and retailers laughed at the weirdness and zeroed in on the news. But when word flashed back to the real world, indignant women everywhere demanded to know: Am I really supposed to wear that?

Most of the time the answer is no. The clothes that make the splashy magazine layouts, the television spots and even the daily newspapers tend to be the grabbers, the head-spinners and shockers. Not the wearable things.

And that is where the confusion begins. The average reader doesn't understand that runway is different from reality. For the most part, the fashion press doesn't do much to help, and designers, many of whom view their wildest creations as art, don't much care.

"When fashion presents itself, it's about theater," said Grace Mirabella, editor of Mirabella magazine, referring to runway shows. "But the story can get mixed up in the telling. You have to make a separation, and many in the world of fashion don't."

In an effort to keep things straight, Mirabella magazine covers runway shows in its clearly marked news section, printed on grainy, non-glossy stock. In contrast, clothes for real life are presented in glossy-page layouts. "We want to differentiate between runway and style," Mirabella explained.

"It's fun to look at," Rose Marie Bravo, CEO of I. Magnin, said of the wild runway get-ups that make it into print. "But there's a down side to it. Readers see one extreme outfit, not the entire 120 in the show. They might not realize they actually could wear something by that designer."

Gaultier's highly publicized mummy suit, for example, got all the publicity. Some very wearable stretch unitards, jackets and vests with fitted hoods that had the same body-wrap effect were ignored.

"Designers make their extreme outfits just to explain the theme of the show," a Gaultier spokesman said recently. "But they turn out to be what fashion editors want to shoot."

The result is enough to make at least some industry-watchers condemn the whole system. "Fashion shows are media stunts," scoffed Alan Millstein, New York publisher of the Fashion Network Report newsletter, for manufacturers and retailers.

But most people in the business contend there is a method to the madness. And it becomes increasingly apparent to those who watch fashion shows for a living. They learn how to read the runway, to separate inventions from gimmicks and affectations.

A model dressed in nothing but fishnet and pearls starts to make sense when seen against the Chanel logo plastered larger than life at the top of the runway. Accessories generate a considerable portion of annual sales at Chanel. The model is a walking ad for chains and pearls.

Some gimmicks spark fashion trends. The pearl pileup, for one, has definitely caught on. But not all the visual assaults are marketing ploys. Some of the wildest creations on the runway are meant to strike out against commerce.

"I'm not ashamed of clothes made just for the sake of fashion," said Christian Lacroix, who launched his career 10 years ago with coquettish evening dresses not seen since Marie Antoinette left the Louvre. His toned-down collection for fall '91 glimmers with simple, black silk dresses. But there are enough gold embroidered capes and the like to keep his flamboyant image intact.

"It is not so far from art," Lacroix said, defending the most fanciful of Paris fashions. "It is so American, not to understand something that has no practical purpose."

"I don't worry about being wrong, I don't even mind being wrong," Gianni Versace said before he showed his fall ready-to-wear collection in Milan last March. "If it's wrong today, chances are it will be right tomorrow." That is to say, designers use fashion shows to experiment, and some of their best ideas are too radical, at first, for the mainstream.

Bodysuits didn't go over big their first season, perhaps because so many designers showed them with nothing more than a pair of high heels. But now, plenty of women who swore they never would, wear them, particularly under everything from short skirts to very long jackets.

"People are too concerned about the commercial," complained Thierry Mugler after his most recent fashion show in Paris. He regularly takes artistic license to the outer limit with designs that never really make it into the mainstream. This season, his X-rated video featured topless sugar plum fairies dressed in blue and yellow fake fur. "Creativity is very important."

But if fantasy dominates Mugler's shows, practicality rules his showroom. It was crowded with utterly wearable gabardine dresses, tailored suits and pastel vinyl pantsuits--some with fake-fur collars or cuffs.

And store buyers didn't seem disappointed or even surprised by the switch. "Runway shows are about dreams," said Joan Kanner, fashion director for Neiman Marcus. "We all want to be stimulated and to stretch. A shock can provoke you, at best it contains the kernel of a new direction."

Mugler's most outrageous offerings usually make up about one-quarter of his show, and they don't sell in stores. He takes custom orders from such entertainers as Cher, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. French President Francois Mitterrand and his wife, Daniele, wear the designer's mainstream styles.

From time to time, Mugler and others who indulge in dream-wear donate their fantasies to costume institutes and school museums. But just as women reject runway extremes when considering what to buy, museum curators ignore them when adding to collections.

Jean Drusedow, head of the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, said she looks to the mainstream. This year, the Met acquired a Chanel couture outfit with beaded minidress, floor-length coat and thigh-high boots. It is from the fall '90 collection, and shows how the '60s is being reinterpreted today.

The museum also solicited recent work by Isaac Mizrahi, including a strapless tartan kilt-dress from his fall '89 collection. Curators rarely select from current seasons. "We need time to consider and evaluate, it can take five years," Drusedow said.

If not for the ages, what are the wildest runway creations for? It has been years since any designer has taken that question seriously. Artistes don't usually care to explain themselves. But just lately, at least a few seem willing to consider such neophyte noodling. Some are even asking the same question themselves.

"The '80s were right for outrageous fashion," said Lacroix, who certainly contributed his share. "The mood was of new, optimistic money. Fashion was close to theater. But now, we have to prove that it is part of real life."

New Yorker Isaac Mizrahi might agree. He showed an evening sheath that looked like a painted totem pole among his fall '91 evening gowns. But there were also suits in classic Scottish tweed. "We're on the brink, we're debating how we'll be dressing in the '90s," he said. "We can be extremely conservative, or we can go for it." Personally he'd rather go for it, but he offered both options.

"I do sometimes show what is not for people to wear," he said. But his latest self-imposed challenge is to bring the two together, make clothes that are "wacky and accessible."

But if mainstream fashion moves closer to the real world, for the next little while at least, things aren't about to change on fashion's outer edge.

"If we're in the most conservative time, if stores get completely into conservative thinking, there's still no reason for me to be conservative," Mizrahi said.

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