Reality Check : The Workaday World Just Doesn't Square With Masterful Entrance-Making Creations


It's a little bit difficult to be serious when contemplating Chanel pasties. But, seriously folks, let's think for a moment about how fashion-conscious American women buy their clothes. The end of the spring/summer ready-to-wear shows here would be stimulus enough for such reflection, but the lively, sometimes silly Chanel show also prompts it.

Because in addition to prim pastel double-breasted coat dresses and narrow tweed dresses that covered the body like extended cardigans, the collection by Karl Lagerfeld included black nipple covers printed with white C s, worn with baggy shorts (mining the old hip-hop vein again), stiff black or dark blue denim outfits, bright velour separates with diagonal lines of CHANEL plastered everywhere and even a navel ring charm engraved with the double C trademark. A woman who chooses to wear a Chanel bathing suit, Chanel short shorts, a Chanel Windbreaker and even Chanel jeans would seem to be in the grip of such logo lust that one might be tempted to suggest therapy.

Such devotion to a single designer not only flies in the face of current practice but ignores the best of what Paris has to offer. Independent, value-conscious American women assemble their wardrobes with a democratic appreciation of well-made, well-designed clothes. That gives them the freedom to combine Levi's, Gap T-shirts or J. Crew tank tops with designer suits. And what the artists of Paris have shown themselves to be masters of this season is special-occasion clothes. Drop-dead clothes. Missing from the action were clothes an executive woman would want to wear to work. So, may the Europeans continue to create entrance-making clothes brilliantly, and leave denim to the Americans.

Of course, when Lagerfeld shows a buttonless Chanel jacket open over a bare chest, paired with cropped, baggy khaki pants, he's communicating that a Chanel suit doesn't have to be stuffy. When he belts the pants with a simple leather strip fastened with a flat silver buckle, he's doing his own interpretation of the wildly popular Prada look, as well as inventing an alternative to the old Chanel gold chain.

The French socialites attending many of the runway presentations, duded up in their expensive suits, appear old-fashioned and fussy. Lagerfeld is giving them license to mix real clothes with his wares, in the kind of marriage of street and high fashion that has energized moribund design houses. All but the most slavish American Chanel lovers will undoubtedly take the message, and make it their own.

Earlier in the week, two other collections by Lagerfeld (and, who's he kidding, design studios brimming with young talents whose contributions go nameless) were presented. The light bulb was the theme at Chloe, (Lagerfeld has a bright idea?). Illuminated bulbs were appliqued in brilliants on silk faille evening dresses, trailing sparkly cords that plugged into faux sockets embroidered at the hem. Such gimmicks are money in the bank for a high-profile designer; a woman strutting out in one of the light-bulb gowns might as well be wearing a giant label. But Lagerfeld's real bright idea was color, on everything from lyrical, pastel flowered chiffon dresses to A-line dresses with a '60s feel.

The collection Lagerfeld does under his own name demonstrated an understanding of casual elegance that is shared by several other heavy hitters: Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent and Gianfranco Ferre designing for Christian Dior. They all style wonderful clothes for a particular way of life; before coming down the runway, the Dior models made the point by posing at a railing, as if on a ship's deck. Yes, these are the perfect things to wear on a private yacht.

Valentino is to designing what Cary Grant was to acting--a man who makes sophistication and charm look easy. He opened his show with snug navy and white French sailor sweaters pulled over navy chiffon skirts, some of which were tiered, or gently ruffled. He offered beautiful textured silk and linen twin sets and sequined T-shirts with satin skirts. The exuberant finale featured variations of a simple idea in black and white--long sweater tops joined at the hip to sheer, flowing full skirts. Sometimes, the top was black and the skirt white; in other versions, the colors were reversed. It's hard to imagine why a woman would want to wear anything else on a summer evening.

Yves Saint Laurent has evolved into a French Ralph Lauren of sorts, a designer who continually, and expertly, reinterprets the classics. When the 1967 movie "Belle de Jour" was re-released this year, its idea of a sexually provocative story seemed quaintly passe, but Catherine Deneuve's Saint Laurent wardrobe wasn't a bit dated. No one does safari jackets, or wrapped smoking jackets, better. Saint Laurent showed them over ankle-length straight silk skirts for day.

It might seem shortsighted to call Herve Leger's designs bimbo clothes of a high order. Such a judgment implies that practicing lawyers, bankers, even journalists couldn't be shapely enough to wear his clingy clothes. But everything Leger designs is so molded to the body, like paste, that it is as if whoever financed the liposuction, breast augmentation surgery and personal training sessions of the wearer wants to see the results publicly displayed. Leger makes mistress costumes, devoid of mystery. Especially in black, the stretchy gowns can be sensational. There are many highly accomplished women who have the figures for bandage dresses. But whether they choose to wear them depends on where on the babe-o-meter they want to score. Leger's backer, Edgar M. Bronfman Jr., viewed the show from the front row. He will be among those to decide whether Leger can continue as a designer for this special niche in need of evening dresses.

For a long time, Emanuel Ungaro had cornered the market on the hyper-feminine look. He has toned down and moved on, possibly under the influence of his Italian wife, and his passion for mixed prints has quieted. The result is clothes that seem less destined for a rarefied atmosphere and more at home beneath the ozone layer. Ungaro even offered a number of outfits a woman could wear to work, a category that was virtually absent in most collections.

Perhaps the New York shows of spring/summer clothes, which begin later this week, will provide what the European designers neglected--handsome, practical clothes for women who need something to put on every day. Last time we checked, Chanel pasties wouldn't pass most corporate dress codes.

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