The nice girls have been dominating fashion. This fall’s return to classic, ungimmicky clothes inspired by such icons of good taste as Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn brought some sanity to what had been a crazy, confusing and unappealing scene, a marketplace full of garments that were at their best, silly, and at their worst, unwearable.

Many more elegant, classy clothes will be on view at the 1996 spring/summer collections here, but the nine days of more than 80 designer presentations that began Thursday promise to be a mix of naughty and nice.

The old guard, such big names as Valentino and Emanuel Ungaro, can be depended on to show the kind of luxurious, impeccable clothes for which the great design houses of Paris are known. But the city has been invaded in recent years by an international crowd of carpetbaggers--designers from countries ranging from Brazil, Italy, and England to Korea, Belgium and Japan. These new talents, as well as such perennial provocateurs as Vivienne Westwood and Rei Kawakubo, offer enough innovation, wit and vulgarity to keep things interesting.


Several of the less traditional designers showed early this year. Ann Demeulemeester proved that spare, sleek and sophisticated doesn’t have to be dull. Her simple, black pantsuits--the kind that many professional women live in--dwell in the murky territory where creativity encounters commercial reality. With meticulously tailored jackets and vests the models wore hip-slung skirts or pants that gently gathered across the stomach and exposed inches of skin below the waist. The pants looked as if they were falling down, or hadn’t quite been pulled up, creating an oddly sexy, deshabille effect.

It’s questionable how many women want to look as if they’ve just been interrupted, mid-assignation, so many stores will substitute Demeulemeester’s “normal” pants. On the other hand, women want to acquire something they don’t already own in some form. “Ann’s clothes don’t look like everybody else’s, and a lot of customers are drawn to that,” said Herb Fink of the Theodore boutiques.

There’s a sort of cultural poetic justice in Belgians such as Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten achieving both critical and commercial success by presenting their collections in Paris. The French, known for being xenophobic, are particularly condescending to their neighbors. They consider Antwerp as a source of fashion as amusing a concept as California producing wine.

The Belgians don’t show in the exhibit halls beneath the Louvre as most designers do, either out of sheer orneriness or because they can’t afford to. We followed the crowds to the Dries Van Noten show, staged in a public indoor swimming pool on the Left Bank. The normally grumpy fashion press seemed to enjoy entering through the men’s locker room, passing by fit male swimmers wearing damp Speedos, then being ushered to their seats by friendly lifeguards in tank tops and shorts.

The pool had been drained for the occasion, the aisles of its tiled floor serving as a sloped runway (beware the deep end). The collection was enormous, employing 72 grinning, real people models wearing easygoing sportswear. A lot of the loosely-fitting dresses and pants were just ugly enough to feel very hip, but good-looking tailored jackets emerged too, amid the sheer layers and shiny fabrics.

When a designer shows an entire collection, even evening gowns, with flat, clumsy, laced black shoes, the point is clear: pretty not spoken here. In case the shoes at Yohji Yamamoto didn’t tip you off, brown lipstick, tortured ponytails and eyelids smeared with angry slashes of black would do it.

The designer’s expressions are idiomatic, as if he were constantly reinventing the grammar of design. The lining of a pocket hangs below a jacket’s edge. A hem is left unsewn, uneven, with its edge finished with pinking shears. A jacket seems to wrap across the front of the body, but actually zips up the back. Pant legs are folded up, nearly to the knees, to create jumbo cuffs. There are those who enjoy advertising that they’re wearing avant-garde design. They are Yamamoto’s women.


And Rei Kawakubo’s. The Commes des Garcons designer, who virtually pioneered the all-black collection, offered bright knitted outfits in clown colors on models wearing Technicolor Bride of Frankenstein wigs and pale, powdered faces. It was a collection of goofy summer play clothes.