Grand Scenery : Galliano mined art, old movies. Gaultier explored a country off the map--his imagination.


The invitation to John Galliano's extravaganza came wrapped around a small red satin toe shoe tucked into a wooden box dusted with ballerina's talc. Who'd a thunk it? A dreadlocked Englishman the toast of Paris! Next spring will truly be Galliano's moment, when he takes over as designer of the couture and ready-to-wear lines of the venerable house of Givenchy. For now, he has earned the spotlight by exercising a flair for showmanship.

His small but tasty collection for spring/summer 1996, presented in a theater usually reserved for ballet and classical music, was as much a spectacle as a fashion show. Half the audience sat on the stage, yards away from young dancers practicing at a barre. The music switched inexplicably from classical to gospel and back, while fanciful runway confections (satin corsets with torpedo cups over tulle skirts) were interspersed with real clothes-- exquisite bias-cut chiffon dresses, Toulouse-Lautrec evening gowns and narrow- legged pants with small, fitted jackets.

There's no point in trying to explain why a bare-chested Nijinsky creature followed a model in a shapely black cocktail suit as she wandered through the orchestra. Galliano doesn't seem to be a linear thinker. He jumps from period to period, his influences a mishmash of art history and old movie references. But he knows how to make dramatic, wonderfully cut clothes, and he understands the crucial relationship between fashion and theater. The epic he staged was a triumph because the same creativity infuses his designs. He showed only 34 outfits, but more day wear was on view in his Paris showroom.

"A few months ago Melanie Griffith bought a very glamorous Galliano evening dress that she wore to the opening of 'Desperado,' " said Los Angeles boutique owner Charles Gallay, in Paris for the presentations of more than 80 designer collections over nine days. "He makes wonderful fantasy clothes."

Whatever costumey eras Galliano neglected, Vivienne Westwood saluted. To please the extremists, she brought out the bustled skirts again (this time paired with heavily textured sweaters), the Edwardian tart get-ups, "Dangerous Liaisons" corset dresses and Victorian lace bloomers under fancy waistcoats and peplum jackets.

In the extravagant '80s, Christian Lacroix was viewed as the great white hope of couture. His love of grandeur initially brought him attention; now, it threatens to be his undoing. His clothes are undeniably romantic and luxurious, but when they look matronly on models barely out of their teens, something's not working. He continues to try to keep the world safe for pattern mixing, and he's fearless, and peerless, in piling numerous elements onto a single outfit--embroidery, lace, collages of sumptuous fabric. Sometimes, as the Emperor said to Amadeus, "There are too many notes."

Westwood has said, "Minimalism is for people who can't make a commitment." For Lacroix, one of the surest hands with historical references, simplicity is not a virtue either. But just when you think he's amazingly overdone and irrelevant to life as we know it, out parade several of the most poetic black lace and ruffled cocktail dresses of this, or any other, season.

Lovers of a more modern baroque style gathered for the Jean Paul Gaultier show, including a number of men and women who had voluntarily pierced body parts too sensitive to contemplate. For the past few years, Gaultier has made it unnecessary for many of them to acquire tattoos (or more tattoos, in some cases), because tattoo patterns on skin-tight jersey have become his signature. This season, he gilded some of the swirling pullovers and put them under flocked velvet coats. The riotous effect was brilliant, enhanced by such startling color mixes as dark green, lime, orange and wine.

The look owed allegiance to no specific ethnic origin; Gaultier was in the country of his imagination. He paired printed caftans with coolie shoes and demented cowboy hats, combined patchwork bandeaux of kimono prints with the long scarf-like sarong skirts of some mythical island paradise. The designs were beautiful, and though it may offend the outlaw sensibility of many of his followers, cheerful.

Fabric cut up like doilies made for interesting leggings, but the tops with models' nipples poking through the holes weren't the most attractive variations of that idea. Take away the punk details, and Gaultier is still one of the best tailors in the world. True to form, he showed several outstanding jackets.

There is something in the exaggerated styling of Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana that brings to mind cartoon women. At her scariest, Mugler's dream girl could have sprung from the pen of R. Crumb. She is big of shoulders and bust, with the sort of round-hipped, large-tushed silhouette the underground cartoonist celebrates. Nevertheless, Mugler's distinctively sculpted suits looked uncharacteristically tender in pastel florals. Perhaps the delicious vanilla scent of Mugler's perfume, Angel, had a softening effect on the designer.

Montana could be costuming Betty Flintstone and Judy Jetson. His futuristic numbers--hard white leather suits and dresses detailed with zippers--seemed more at home in the impressive modern architecture of the new Cite de la Musique than long, sleeveless suede cave woman dresses. There's a lot of lightweight, pale-colored suede and leather being shown in Paris. Montana used deep red for a suede bra and shorts outfit that sported an attitude as casual as if it were made of terry cloth.

Another cartoon heroine, Brenda Starr, would be the perfect model for the fabulous burgundy and black '40s pantsuits Montana presented with ankle-wrapped wedgie sandals. Instead of tuxedos, he offered evening suits with narrow pants and cropped matador jackets, subtly decorated with beading. Wonder what Cathy, the perennial fashion critic of the comics, would think of the nearly black lipstick all the models wore?

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