Thrills 'n' Frills in Paris

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This fall, it's all about Paris. karl Lagerfeld's Chanel collection, John Galliano's for Christian Dior, and Valentino's were all the best in years. And the designs Alexander McQueen bestowed on Givenchy may have been his best yet. Over and over again, the Paris shows were exceptional — from the heart-racing and vulgar to the serene and romantic. Why were the Paris designers so darn good this time around? It could be that they were spun into a creative froth by the anticipation of the debut of Tom Ford's collection for Yves Saint Laurent — his first since Gucci Group acquired the house. Or perhaps that expectations had been lowered by a dismal fashion week in Milan. Or a bit of both.

Whatever the reason, the Spring-Summer 2001 ready-to-wear collections shown in Paris last week gave everyone attending something they were looking for. The fashionitsia reveled in deconstructing the meaning behind the taped-together suits and dresses that designer Rei Kawakubo created for Comme des Garηons — not to mention the origins of her Pop Art-like prints: "Who influenced her more, Bridget Riley or Yayoi Kusama?" They lauded McQueen's take on the Victor/Victoria interplay of masculine and feminine in his collection for Givenchy. "How pretty, but yet how butch." And they argued among themselves as to whether John Galliano's "Trailer Trash" collection for Christian Dior was genius or just trash.

For store buyers and fashion editors there was an array of simply stunning clothes to photograph and to sell: delicate slip dresses and blouses at AF Vandervorst; a floral 1920s revival at Dries van Noten with drop-waisted chiffon dresses, pleated skirts and flowing scarves; and at Valentino, the elegance that has enabled him to last 40 years in this business — beaded jackets, graceful suits and an array of ponchos made of wool, silk and linen and shown over crisp cotton shirts for day, and beautiful beaded sheer versions over camisoles for evening.

To cap it all there was the excitement of Tom Ford's collection for Yves Saint Laurent. Everything preceding the show heightened the drama: it was one of the last shows, presented late on Friday, six days into fashion week and, unusually, buyers were asked to pick up their tickets in person. Even the tickets themselves — glossy purple and black squares, with just a seat number and a barely legible address — were a dramatic gesture. Could the designer who revived Gucci carry the show for the house of YSL?

The answer was clear. Tom Ford did what Ford does best — create stunningly sexy clothes that, not incidentally, will sell well. The best items of the show — done completely in black or white — were suits, dresses and blouses with tight binding around the waist. Less appealing were skirts, long in back, short in front, and oversized jackets carried over from his Gucci collection. "Tom Ford did what he had to do," said Bloomingdale's fashion director Kal Ruttenstein after the show. Gucci group ceo Domenico De Sole seemed to agree. He waited in line to offer congratulaions and received a hug from Ford that elicited applause from the crowd.

Next to, "What will Tom do?" the most frequently asked question of the week was, "What will Nicolas do?" Last March, Nicolas Ghesquiere, the designer at Balenciaga, kicked off the return to the 1980s that dominated runways this fall. The skinny pants, the belted coats, the decorated shoulders on most everything captured the imagination of fashion editors, who have descended on the Balenciaga store here like so many locusts to snap up those fall offerings. But what would Ghesquiere do now? In the face of a full-blown revival that has influenced everything from Fendi to Costume National, would he stick with the decade he breathed new life into or launch a new trend which designers would be scrambling to copy next time around?

He did a bit of both. His collection was a romantic one, more Molly Ringwald than Grace Jones. He started simple, with basic miniskirts and jumpers made of utilitarian fabric that looked as if it came off the backs of railroad conductors. But then, slowly, Ghesquiere added a ruffle here, a fringed hem there and ended up in full bridal mode with ruffles and lace and pearls atop everything from tank tops to dresses.

Ruffles filled the air at Chanel as well. This was the debut of Chanel's new sport collection, but the sport was hard to find beneath the layers of lace and fluff that Lagerfeld piled on. Wedding-cake skirts and ropes of pearls were matched with the new stretch tops and sneakers. Bathing suits were wrapped under shawls of lace. The rest of the collection was equally amusing: tweed classic Chanel suits, this time with three-quarter-length sleeves and box pleat skirts and worn with the arms of a long-sleeve blouse sticking out at the wrists. There were fantastic colored prints on blouses and dresses and everything was awash in accessories — pearl necklaces, chain belts and veils that spelled out the name of the company's founder: Coco.

If things were simpler at Givenchy, it was only by comparison. Alexander McQueen didn't layer on the lace, but packed ruffles under the skirts of '50s style dresses, and matched pin-striped pants with sparkling camisoles. The collection of Veronique Branquinho was simpler still. But simple doesn't mean dull. Her collection came in the colors of the modern rainbow — beige to gray to black — and featured dresses of intricate folds and pleats, sharply tailored trousers and distinctive sweaters. Some people called it their favorite show of the week. And in a week like this, that's saying something.