Mais Oui, OSCAR!

The first American to head a Paris couture house, Oscar de la Renta scores in his debut show

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Twenty minutes after the show was supposed to begin, little white panel trucks carrying the clothes are still threading their way through traffic. The defile gets started nearly an hour late. By that time, the covered courtyard of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts is jammed with the press and the fashion faithful -- a tribute to the stir that de la Renta and Balmain are causing. On hand are a healthy number of designers and well-known customers: Valentino, Claude Pompidou, some major Agnellis and Rothschilds and a generous sprinkling of American celebrities, among them Marisa Berenson, Paloma Picasso, Mica Ertegun and Barbara Walters.

The clothes are just what they should be: exquisite but distinctly unfancy, rich but wearable. American insistence on the contemporary, the focus on the way we live now, is the spirit of the show. The daytime suits, several in navy, manage to be both impeccable and just sexy enough.

The assumption in France, though, is that while a designer makes daytime clothing, his real arena is the evening. In a very successful show, Christian Lacroix produced dazzling ball gowns, grand, inventive yet harmonious. Erik Mortensen, of Jean-Louis Scherrer, had a couple of extravaganzas worthy of an Edith Wharton parvenu. Compared with these flights into fairyland, the Balmain show is almost severe. De la Renta's gowns show the most exquisite materials and embroidery but are presented, as it were, in translation -- to a modern idiom. The last-minute bolts of georgette appear in a series of elegant sheaths, delicately layered, that have the cool beauty of a waterfall. One knockout skirt is of raffia -- the straw-hat material -- that looks amazingly like embroidery.

The week ended in triumph for de la Renta. After the defile, he and his assistants swept into Cafe de Flore for a celebratory lunch, and the whole room stood and cheered. Even better news awaited back at the atelier, where phones were jammed with clients ringing for fittings. The French press gave its blessing, predicting that the tasteful collection would ensure a steady clientele for Balmain. So the old house has been restored to life.

Still, its savior faces the daunting prospect of endless encores: four Paris collections (including ready-to-wear) a year, plus two more for New York City. The day after his show, he was busy ordering shoes for the fall couture collection. How is it all possible? De la Renta is blase: "If a tycoon can run several companies, so can I."

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