Paris Fashion Skin Deep

Fashion has fallen on difficult times. A stagnant economy has weakened European women’s purchasing power. The more affluent American is no longer investing heavily in her wardrobe, and designers in markets from New York to Seoul are inching the French out of their own stylish ball game. With all this working against her, Madame Mode has done what any self-centered diva would do in a time of crisis: strip naked, get her picture taken and call it a return to femininity.

Last month’s fashion week in Paris seemed more like a glut of girlie shows than a series of style presentations. After retro outfits inspired by the 1970s (tunics over trousers, Nehru jackets, bare-midriff outfits, acid-tone prints and the like), the second most important trend to emerge was the birthday suit covered with a hope, a prayer and a bit of transparent cloth. There were diaphanous navy ankle-length dresses worn over panty thongs at Dike Kayek; sheer pareos over bikini panties worn with nothing more than a necklace at Popi Moreni; a whisper-thin black lace evening gown with a rose over the butt at Sonia Rykiel; a see-thru fishnet bra and sarong worn over panties at Corinne Cobson; a short-sleeved spiderweb-lace flared dress over ’40s-cut panty briefs at Lolita Lempicka; and a backless wedding gown with the bouquet tucked above the model’s backside at Jean-Paul Gaultier. Journalists saw so much T&A, even some of the photographers were yawning by the week’s end.

This “barely there” trend did not skip even the more ladylike houses. Céline sent out a straightforward collection of clean-cut tunic tops, trousers and coats, then suddenly shifted into the flesh mode by adding an unlined chiffon overcoat thrown over the shoulders of a bare-breasted model wearing hip-hugger trousers. Though Valentino’s show remained faithful to his customer, he sent out a classy version of the transparent look with dresses cut from several layers of filmy chiffon that showed a hint of the figure underneath. Then there were those who had probably not intended to include nudity but at the last minute felt the need to participate in some way. Enter tailored blazers opened over nude breasts, or jackets buttoned over panties. The Belgian designer Dirk Bikkembergs went so far as to dress his models in 10-gallon hats, waist-length jackets and leather panties. Even Christian Lacroix, who steered clear of sheer, succumbed to the moment and sent out an 18th-century-inspired brocade jacket complete with matching vest and … white ruffled panties.

Considering that most of the journalists and buyers at these shows are women, who may or may not have not correctly deciphered the designers’ message, and given that the shows are photographed for scrutiny by the public, it seemed absurd to present what looked like wardrobes for streetwalkers. Reactions have ranged from concern on the part of some buyers, through a blasé attitude by some fashion journalists, to disgust on the part of many prospective customers.

“The nude looks we saw on the runways are frankly unsalable as presented,” Roberto Deverick – an entrepreneur who owns five prestigious designer stores in London – told Le Figaro. “Designers are wrong to forget the customer who wants to wear clothes and not to masquerade in them. We have very important customers, including women ambassadors, and it is not always easy to find clothing that suits their lifestyles.”

Katcha Horlaville, a vendor for Condé Nast magazines, agrees. “I don’t see what these styles have to do with women today. There is nothing sexy or romantic when a woman dresses to reveal everything. An element of mystery is missing.” Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, shrugged the whole matter off, writing: “As for the naked breasts beneath chiffon and fine gauze sweaters, for fashion professionals who sit for days on end gazing at the same lanky models passing to and fro, that’s another ‘so what.’ … Anyone who came in fresh from the outside could well be astonished and appalled at the proximity of the display, but fashion people take very different readings.”

What Menkes means is that seasoned professionals have learned to fill in the blanks. They’ve been to enough provocative Gaultier shows to know that once the clothes get off the catwalk and back to the showroom, they become respectable, very wearable garments. By the time these dresses get to the stores, they will hardly be recognizable as the controversial items splashed all over the papers last month. At the insistence of buyers, the designers’ sheer looks will either be recut in the same silhouettes but opaque fabrics, or delivered with underslips. No matter what happens to the sales of next season’s clothes, the real winners stand to be lingerie companies, which expect women to hit the stores in search of camisoles, bras and slips to wear under filmy fashions.

Whatever is worn underneath transparent chiffons, organzas or other fluid fabrics, the message of the season is the return to softer, lighter, more feminine styles. The designer, in fact, never intended women to flash lots of skin on big city streets. All the nudity is a ploy by vain Lady Fashion to call attention to herself and to seduce you, the apathetic public, into thinking about clothes once again.


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