THE FALL COLLECTIONS / PARIS : Au Revoir to Those Simpler Times


Don't cry for me, Neiman Marcus. The truth is, I've always loved you. Months before Madonna's musical screen biography will be released, John Galliano reincarnated Eva Peron in the wowser collection he designed for Givenchy.

With the showmanship he has already demonstrated in the unique spectacles staged for his own ready-to-wear line, the designer presented glamorous outfits on which Evita would have been happy to lavish her misbegotten millions.

The ultimate political wife did come here often in the early '50s, spending liberally and carting trunks of elaborate clothes home to Argentina. Galliano's high-waisted gray pants with white ruffled blouses would have pleased her, or a broad-shouldered jumpsuit with one fringed shoulder ornament and an asymmetrical closing. A lavender wool crepe suit with a shaped jacket and circle skirt or a plum dress with pleated front would have been perfect for balcony appearances, a long-sleeved, high-necked claret satin gown modest enough for state dinners, yet sly in the sinuous way it defined every curve of the body.

The venerable House of Givenchy hired Galliano to do for them what Lagerfeld did for Chanel--bring them business and plenty of it. Whatever they're paying him, he's worth it. The British designer, born in Gibraltar, piles on the details, making clear that there's a master chef in charge of the kitchen, adding spice to the broth.

When extremely simple clothes are in style, as they have been the past few seasons, it can be difficult to distinguish the work of one designer from another. A sleeveless sheath is not a feat of engineering to construct and, especially in black, can have a seen one, seen 'em all appearance.

Karl Lagerfeld knows how to cut such a dress so the armholes, waist and rear fit. So does Calvin Klein and the design team at Ann Taylor. The artistic nuances an experienced craftsman brings to an uncomplicated silhouette aren't always apparent on the surface. So a shopper could look at a plain dress and ask, "Someone designed this?" much the way a museum visitor who sees a Jackson Pollock splatter painting says, "My 6-year-old could do that."

Signaling a shift to more intricate clothes, a number of designers showing their fall collections this month in Paris, including Galliano, Yves Saint Laurent, Vivienne Westwood, Helmut Lang and Jean Paul Gaultier, announce themselves in their work, displaying that they've passed the advanced course, be it in the classics or the avant-garde. They symbolically sew their labels on a garment's exterior, declaring to the world, "Designer at work." There is some measure of designer job security in this approach. And it results in some very clever and beautiful clothes for women interested in style.

Galliano's own fanciful collection was presented at the Paris Polo Club in the Bois de Boulogne. It takes a designer registering high on the season's buzz meter to lure the fashion crowd to the woods late on a chilly night. They were rewarded with sexy Native American dresses made from strings of suede. In a jumble of mixed metaphors, flapper dresses were decorated with Indian beading, Navajo blankets cut into huge Kabuki coats, and 18th century poet's shirts served as romantic short dresses.

The white dots on a gray-flecked tweed used for curvy dresses, a fur-trimmed coat and Galliano's signature short-jacketed suit were more dense on the shoulders, as if snow had settled there. The snow drifts were actually mounds of tiny seed pearls, typical of the exquisite and very expensive tricks Galliano plays.

When it looks as if a model has grown three inches and found time for some quick liposuction since she last strode down the runway, you know she's wearing well-cut clothes. Claudia Schiffer doesn't really look bad in any designer's clothes, but she's amazing when dressed by Yves Saint Laurent. There were rich plaids and tweeds at Saint Laurent in bottomless tones of wine, red, green and brown. He used them for suits that gained a sporty feel from being composed of mismatched pieces. An emerald boucle jacket with gold buttons, for example, was thrown over a black turtleneck and gray pants. For day and evening, Saint Laurent showed the shortest skirts in Paris, more daring paired with his high-heeled ankle boots. A very skimpy long-sleeved T-shirt dress poured over the body like liquid gold was absolutely fabulous (in the best sense) with the short boots and sheer black tights.

A designer like Vivienne Westwood is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't: If she goes to extremes, showing torpedo bras under woolen jackets and a black vinyl skirt pulled tight with laces that run from the hem to just under the butt (as she did), then her clothes are called ridiculous and unwearable. If she offers nice, double-breasted striped wool pantsuits (as she also did), her fans complain that she's lost her sense of the outrageous.

Those Westwood followers, a passionate bunch, will be delighted by her familiar short, pinched-waist jackets of British country tweeds and some new jackets of mixed tartans. The latter, which might have been the work of an inebriated seamstress, featured a sleeve of one plaid, the left front of another, the right side a different pattern again.

Miniature bottles of Irish whiskey and little boxes of candy were the welcoming gifts on the seats at Westwood's show. It's not surprising that a woman who appreciates good booze and chocolate can also create an extravagantly nutty coffee and black ruffled ball gown with a big bow on one shoulder.

Helmut Lang, by contrast, doesn't look like he ever has any fun. His stark, deconstructed clothes, capable of eliciting swoons from serious minimalists, often have the same dreary aspect as their creator. So undeniable prettiness was the surprise in his fall collection, present in the form of clingy, sheer, floral cashmere lace dresses in black, camel and ivory. Slits at the elbow transcended their punk origins. Lang also layered sequined tank tops under wool gauze T-shirts, making slices of skin another texture in the mix. A rip just below the shoulder created the effect of a cap sleeve joined to a long glove.

Just as Lang takes inspiration from the street and the clubs, then refines those looks, Jean Paul Gaultier interprets a trend like no one else. There were hints of the '60s in some of his graphic knits, but an ankle-length cheongsam with short sleeves was just a terrific dress, and would be if Op Art had never existed. Camille Paglia, who has written of the explosive caldron of clout that%s contained in feminine attractiveness, would approve of that dress, as commanding in its own way as Galliano's flirtatious Evita outfits. Just what we need in the '90s. Clothes powerful enough to topple a government.

* Next: Valentino, Chanel, Emanuel Ungaro.

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