Modern Living: Rags for the Richest

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After flirting tentatively with le peuple and their street fashions, after enthusiastically showcasing medium-priced looks for the boutiques, the Continent's top couturiers finally seem to have solved their identity crisis—solidly in favor of privilege and high prices. As the preview season reached its peak in Paris and Rome last week, designer after designer produced winter collections clearly intended for the monied private customer who can afford to come in out of the cold—or stay in it —wearing the best. Fabrics for the look of "sportive de luxe," as Women's Wear Daily approvingly named it, were lavish and inimitable. Fur (including that of the endangered jaguar and snow leopard) flew everywhere.

As always, hemline lengths "don't really matter" any more to the likes of Yves St. Laurent; as always, buyers and fashion writers looked first to the calf. The results were generally high-level (just below the knee), though midi-scarred U.S. buyers noted nervously that St. Laurent, Marc Bohan and others insisted on prolonging the scene in some of their models all the way down to mid-calf level. Ungaro even dipped to just-above-ankle, granny-style length for streetwear, to be worn over high-heeled boots. Still, there was much to applaud (if not to afford): daytime sportswear that emphasized soft, easy cardigan suits and jackets; fox-trimmed jackets and sweaters to go with classic sporty pleated skirts and big tentlike shelter coats. Gimmickry was no one's gimmick: even flights of fancy—veiled hats, ostrich-feather trims and dyed gold cobra coats—bespoke a hand of cool restraint.

Georgette Gowns. The loudest applause, joined by Actress Catherine Deneuve and Bianca Jagger, wife of Rock Star Mick, went to St. Laurent, who acknowledged it from somewhere in Outer Egoland: since "everyone was copying me," said the master, "I decided to copy myself." Still, the familiar long cardigans (including one bejeweled evening affair costing $3,000), belted jackets and floppy pants, and YSL trench coats—all further elongated by appearing over 4-in. heels—never looked better. For evening, St. Laurent recommended slinky ciré dresses and one-shouldered georgette gowns, many set off by gold and copper snakehead jewelry. The color emphasis was what might be called old-lady chic—gun-metal grays and faded prunes.

In a year that seems to be so devoted to the Chanel principles of simplicity and elegance, the late fashion empress's own line—by Balenciaga-trained Ramon Esparza—ironically fell flat. Though WWD Publisher John Fairchild found the collection "young and different," it was all but hooted out of Paris by local authorities. "An incredible pell-mell of belted raglans, monkey-trimmed redingotes, hippy waistcoats, red rainproofs and dollie-see-through dresses," Le Figaro concluded unbelievingly. "They look like bad copies of good originals."

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