I am an actor. My work demands that I understand
something about costume and the manner in which costume identifies character. Once a
character is clear, he then defines the play. When Vogue Homme asked me to review the Fall
men's pret-a-porter fashion shows, it appeared a unique opportunity to observe the
"drama" of the present as it was being expressed by the French fashion industry.
I accepted immediately, despite a self-righteous conceit that fashion was a subject that
was not worth too much energy. The energy demanded of me during that week was
extraordinary, and by the end of it, my conceit had been humbled.
Roland Barthe said in
that "any material can be endowed with meaning." If the meaning of clothing was
only its practical function, we would all wear cotton swaddling and plastic garbage bags.
The meanings of clothing are coded in a language which is expressed as color, finish, and
style, which, along with personal aesthetics, expresses status and group identity. This
"language" is the weaponry for soft wars being fought between fashion Dynasties
for the spoils of revenues, stock value, and market shares. The various fashion designers
can be aligned with three relatively distinct groups, which
I have created as a means of ordering the bewildering impressions of a week of at the
THE EMPIRE CLAN
The Empire Clan relates its aesthetic and
political foundations to an earlier era of ordered hierarchies and social roles, a time
when power descended from the King and fashion from his Court. The great French fashion
houses like Chanel, Dior, and St. Laurent still announce new issue like royal decrees and
the clothing itself functions like heraldry to announce the caste and affiliations of the
wearer. A man could stand besides such clothes and they would signal his high stature
through rich materials, classic styling and labor-intensive finish.
THE PERSONALITY CLAN
The Personality Clan has direct affinities with
the multi-national corporation. Just as the spread of industry into diverse religious and
cultural environments demanded increased resourcefulness and creativity from corporate
executives, so too has the regimenting of daily life by industry placed commensurate
demands on citizens, with the result being a heightened appreciation and romanticization
of individuality as both a resource and an endangered species.
This clan's clothes are animated by the people in
them. They tend to be subtle and practical and would make no bold statement hanging on a
wall. They reflect global cultural influences, and like the power players who wear them,
tend to repress flamboyance in favor of understated authority.
THE FRONTIER CLAN
The Frontier Clan inhabits the imaginative edges
and seeks to define the future. Like an edge zone in nature, it is a rich area which
usually pioneers change. Because the future is only an idea, and since no one can predict
how geo-political spasms will alter definitions of status and power, it tends to be a
tabula rasa for the designers' idiosyncrasies, and latent themes of the present.
Competition is keen because successful definition of the future as a style will coin the
language all others will have to imitate.
The Frontier Clan can be divided into two sub-sets,
the Apocalyptic and the
Celestial. Apocalyptic designers are heirs
to Samuel Beckett. They inhabit an edge zone of no conventional law and values. These
designers mark the distance between the present and "tomorrow" by shredding
conventional ideas of form, color, and style..
The Celestial faction anticipates a computerized
future of space-craft and personal robots humming around pearlescent cities. They
anticipate fulfillment of the promise with which Science has always teased devotees of the
What follows are precis of the shows I attended and
my best efforts to translate their dialects and syntax according to these divisions.. I
have altered the order of events to group the designers within the most appropriate clans.
THE EMPIRE CLAN
S.T. Dupont has chosen the Druout Montaigne, a
fashionable auction gallery, to reveal its Fall line. It is appropriate to consider it a
battlefield, since Dupont is competing with Dunhill for the latter's sizable share of the
Jacqueline Degioanni and Bernard Chapuis arrive
with a bevy of international women from Vogue Homme, entering in a chic, communicative
cluster, like quail. Jaquelyn, the Editor in Chief, could have been a World War II
correspondent, with her cigarette dangling from her lip and her hooded, seen-it-all eyes.
Bernard, the director, is a self-effacing, gentle man with a sharp eye and subtle humor.
They are all good playmates.
The show begins with a short film. On two screens
flanking the runway, poetic young men walk Great Danes on tree-lined estates, then retire
to the fabulous chateaus to do push-ups in their underwear. After the film,living models
enter, in bathrobes we have just seen on-screen.
The attitude of the models is arrogant,
authoritative. The music is African tom-toms, the costumes jodhpurs with cuffs and suede
caps. This is an Imperial Opera entitled, "Civilizing the Natives" and the
sub-text of the event suggests that these clothes possess the status of conquerors. Velour
car coats from the 40's, tweed jackets with raised lapels, Loden coats suggesting Capuchin
robes; nothing is exactly what it appears to be. These are clothes to suggest a life
rather than create one.
We arrive late to the studio on La Rue DU
Rivoli, which the French abbreviate as "Ravioli Street". I scoot down the runway
to a front-row seat which has been saved for me, where a large woman in purple shoves a
microphone into my face for an unexpected interview on live television.
The room is full of classically tailored people
with tasteful jewels,and well cared for skin. Randy Newman's soft, jaded ironies in the
background are as subtle as the muted roses and greys in a tweed jacket that passes on the
The clothes are undeniably lovely; salt and pepper
cord trousers, jackets with elegant piping, yokes and gathered waists. I care less for the
shirts and vests made of their trademark scarfs with curled hunting-horn motifs, but these
are clothes for people who could care less what I think. They are their own authority.
I am told that if one buys an Hermes article in
leather, it is made from start to finish by the same person. If it is returned for
repairs, the original artisan will repair it. This kind of stability and order is
expensive, but money is not the issue. The issue is to be bona fide elite, and Hermes
certifies that indisputably. They are an institution. Their building on Rue DU Faubourg St
Honore is topped by a painted statue of a horse and rider in 18th century livery,
suggesting the era with which they identify. Customers view the silver pill-boxes and
silks, the purses and wallets in their gleaming wood cabinets as respectfully as articles
in the Louvre. The stability of its grandeur reassures people that no re-constellations of
power will ever erode the orderly universe and French cultural dominance the firm
YVES ST. LAURENT
If the Empire Clan has a young Prince, it is
Yves St. Laurent. The firm's logo dominates the wall at the end of the runway in his cool
white chamber on Avenue George Cinq: an S pierced vertically by a Y and an L, much like a
The photographers wait stolidly. Their cameras
register without judgment, and they emulate their tools. It is all the same to them, even
the small flurry as Pierre Berger, the business director of YSL, and the central figure of
a current political scandal, enters the room, with the bluff joviality and guarded
alertness of a politician.
The show opens with a plaid kilt under a red jacket
and pale blue sweater, topped by a blue beret. It is a throwaway gesture toward Europe
1992, and not repeated. St. Laurent returns to his traditions with a dark wool 3/4 coat
over a plaid jacket in a soft palette of pale pinks, blues and browns. This is followed by
jackets in modern plaids - a red stripe against blues and brown; a yellow coat with blue
and white boxes. All are cool and unassertive as a modern aristocrat.
The models appear to be nice young men with no
inner life. Like their clothes, they have refined themselves as expressions
"taste". The palette is Autumnal cinnamons, siennas, rusts, greens, and yellows.
There is a great deal taking place, but it is harmonious and expertly handled.
St. Laurent once worked for Hermes. One can see the
influence, but his sensibilities are closer to a painter's. If he and Mondrian had shared
a studio, Mondrian would have stubbed out his Gauloises in a square porcelain ash-tray.
St. Laurent would prefer a rounded, smoky Lalique.
The show is in an immense, glass-roofed chamber
at Ecole des Beaux Arts. The walls are emblazoned with the names of dead emperors and
artists, and dominating the far wall, overshadowing the names of Tarquin and Pompeii,
large letters herald DIOR as successor to this august lineage.
The image is doubly appropriate, for Dior is not
only a transitional figure, between Empire and Personality sensibilities, but also a dead
emperor whose dynasty continues like a small state trying to assess a new leader.
The models emerge briskly, young men with important
business. The jackets feature four buttons, which, when closed, create a formidable
"front".They are worn under large belted overcoats in subtle purples, followed
by a series of unusual plaids - soft browns over yellows in graduated tones.
The music is somber Gypsy violins. A young man
enters like a soldier walking toward a firing squad. He wears a purple suit with silk
vest, shiny purple tie with light petit-pois in the pattern, and a black coat. Three men
enter with Army-green coats featuring double rows of bone buttons. Perhaps they are his
A procession of solid colored suits and jackets
pass like falling leaves of yellow, green, and red, with one surprise in bold blue. The
models applaud and Dominic Morlotti, the head designer bows shyly and disappears.
THE PERSONALITY CLAN
Lanvin has established his show in the grand
amphitheater of the Sorbonne. His name, at the upper end of the T-shaped runway is flanked
by the names of heroes of French culture: Descartes, Richlieu, Pascal, Lavoisier,
inscribed on the walls above the stage. The audience sits in tiers, like students watching
the lecture of a master. On the ceiling, bare breasted nymphs painted by Galland, attend
as spirits of Science, Letters, Medicine and Law and attest that Lanvin is as significant
a part of French history as these august companions.
I am introduced to a petite beauty in blue silk
with dangerous decolletage. Looking remarkably like Maria Shriver, La Comtesse Cornette de
St. Cyr, works in the Ministry that attends the handicapped. Her husband a slender man
with a large handsome head and a sour smile looks at me as if I were a species of insect
(or my French beneath loathing) and leaves immediately after being introduced.
I am in a quandary because I am expected to dine
with a member of the government shortly and have been given strict instructions to be
prompt. The show is already 40 minutes late, sabotaging my plan to see half of it and
review the rest from photos. I have been seated near the very front, surrounded by
luminaries and don't want my leaving to be misinterpreted.
The Comtesse assures me such concerns are
over-scrupulous. A man behind us, hearing me mention the name of my host, tells me not to
rush because the government has just changed hands. Another man reprimands him and
instructs me that it is simply the representative of the government who has fallen. A
polite competition ensues, the goal of which is to demonstrate which has the most
privileged information. I leave,thoroughly confused, trusting Vogue Homme for photos at a
It is a risk to hazard judgment. having left early,
but I certainly understood the Theater for the event, and despite having met a Countess,
felt that if Hermes is the costumer for Royalty, Lanvin is his equivalent for the
Tarlazzi's drawing room is furnished with the
gold chairs and red velvet seats which are de rigeur for classic fashion shows, I am told
this by Bernard, who also says of Tarlazzi, "He is more austere for men. One feels an
old civilization behind him,." The room is jammed as a Roman street. Not only is
there an old civilization behind him, one feels that a large part of it is with him in the
1940's big band music alerts the audience to a
procession of graphite colored raincoats, cut like capes, with stylish flair. Tarlazzi
mines an imagined, bloodless, Harlem for his images. Stylish dudes parade by in woven
leopard sweaters and cuffless trousers in shades of grey-blue. "In these
clothes", he seems to say, "it could be fun to be black!".
A Gene Krupa drum accompanies a model dressed as
"Bad Bad Leroy Brown" in a pastel pink, wool trench coat with huge lapels. He is
wearing beautifully stitched suede shoes, and like all the other models, sports an obvious
false mustache reminiscent of old pornographic films.
The Harlem motif is replaced by Donegal cloth tweed
jackets and pastel hats, which in turn defer to plaid jackets and solid vests. Everything
is the kind of sun bleached blues and reds one finds on old churches in Guatemala. Walt
Disney and Hollywood greats of the 40's might have dressed in these comfortable pleated
pants, v-necked sweaters and loose shirts. The image of old Walt is eradicated by someone
in an enormous cape-cut coat with a Persian lamb collar. The coat is so large, that Gerald
Asario, director of Conde Nast in Europe, leans over and whispers wryly, "We don't
know if oversize is the style, or a problem." Gerald's calm and good-humored face
smiles easily. Only his languid eyes suggest his talents and depth.
The Auto Club on the Place de la Concorde looks
like what it is, an expensive private club, reputed to have the best pool in Paris. Its
elegant oiled-wood, and thick oriental rugs radiate solidity and comfort. On the rear
wall, above a wooden proscenium arch, the name Cerruti is written backwards and forwards,
in mirror image, separated by the numbers 1881. The perfect balance of this palindrome is
a clue to what follows - for some. An American girl with extraordinarily frizzy
shoulder-length hair and floor length mink appears deranged, screaming at a
companion," You tell Valerie I'll fucking kill her for this..". She storms off
while her audience, an open-faced girl in a fringed leather jacket smiles at me ruefully
then turns to trudge after her commandant.
A Bulgarian choir insinuates eerie quarter-tone
harmonies over the loudspeakers and the models enter. They are loose and without
affectation, like their clothes: charcoal velour pants, knit jackets with an easy drape,
cut with a sure eye. All the models wear scarfs at their throats, which are the same color
as the rear wall. While this frames their faces, it also effectively severs their heads
from the clothing, which appears to float down the runway insulated from any attitudes we
may have about the models.
The clothes seem to dance. Shimmery grey pants in
crepe de leine and a fabulous red overcoat make good partners. The secret revelation of
Cerruti's clothes, is his the body, which they always enhance. With the sole exception of
leather, where he somehow reduces rather than exploits the quality of the skin, he is as
sure with line as Caraveggio.
The show closes as Cerruti emerges. He is a tall
ruggedly handsome man with a pleasantly seasoned face radiating warmth. Jacqueline
explains that the yellow sweater thrown over his shoulder is the sweater he wore to his
first show and now wears to each year's offering as a talisman. The crowd leaps to its
feet and roars its appreciation.
The Hotel Intercontinental on the rue de
Castiglione is total chaos. The world of fashion has decided that this is the event to
attend, and has fought and elbowed its way into this tiny room. Yoji is happening.
"Happy glamor", as Bernard describes it.
A woman squeezes by in front of me and her beauty
is totally arresting. She has the thick curls, dark sloe-eyes, and olive skin, of a
Persian miniature. She is dressed after the fashion of the 60's -leather pants,and fringed
jacket over a Burgundy crushed velvet pull-over which outlines breasts that must be
swollen with honey. Such beauty is what "fashion" is meant to replace. A woman
like this has no need for fashion, which is the consolation the rest of us offer ourselves
for being slighted by Creation.
A drill-sergeant begins counting off over the
loudspeaker and the models march out in an un-militarily merry manner. Each jacket
features a stripe of gros-grain ribbon in a contrasting color, around the cuff, or above
the notch of the lapel, a simple, effective stroke, which continues, with permutations,
throughout the show.
Black, in Garbardines and crepes, surrenders to
soft avocados, watermelon rind, ivy-leaf and grass greens all with some variety of this
same accent. A strange song begins with the singer trying to find the right pitch. A
parade of elegant knits in white, red and black passes in review and while we have seen
approximations of this elsewhere,Yoji's pitch is perfect.
Yoji emerges to sustained applause, bearded and
intense as Rasputin. He grins like a halogen lamp, and ducks out. Champagne corks pop, and
the conversations froths over the applause, like the excitement after a good play.
FRONTIER CLAN - CELESTIAL FACTION
I glance through the catalog at Kenzo's showroom
on the Place de Victoire. Every photo is blurred and in motion, almost nothing is still
and fixed. These clothes are about action not attitudes.
Sharp Chicago style blues piano announces the
models who strut onstage in parodies of Harlem fashions: hard finished jackets with mink
collars covering shirts in bright, Blue-Greens, Roses, and a Yellow that requires
sunglasses. The music gets brassier for a grass-green suit with black and white saddle
shoes; then another in thick orange cord under a yellow coat, striped shirt, bold
patterned tie, topped with a black fedora. It would be
impossible to cram more color and contrast into so small a space.
Gerald points out Kenzo , watching intently along
the far wall. He has thick greying black hair worn in a page-boy over his ears, and
aviator glasses, and is dressed elegantly in knit beige sweater and slacks. I wonder (as I
do several times during the week) about the relationship between a designer's personal
style and their work, for instance between Kenzo's personal clothing and the parody of a
cowboy who appears next in a trench coat with a fur collar, and black boots worn outside
his shiny pants.
Things become radical now in a rather geometrical
way. Kenzo uses the seams of his jackets to divide color sections--a sleeve might be black
on the outside green on the inside; the front of a jacket might be red and the back blue.
It is fun and bright stuff.
Through the week I am to feel often as I do now
about Kenzo, that there is a step many Japanese designers are trembling to take. One feels
them pressed against the expectations of an alien culture and responding to that pressure
in different manners--playfully like Yamamoto; with residual hostility like Matsuda, or
with an intense intellectuality like Rei Kawakuba, of Commes de Garcon. My feeling
persists through the week that they have reached a limit of experimentation within Western
Nikos is a Greek (at least two people rolled
their eyes when mentioning this to me) who founded an empire on men's underwear, made a
fortune in it and expanded to include women's fashions, jeans and swim suits. The word
"excellent" is used often about his work.
People must like his shows, because the door to
Beaux Arts is jammed and the steps are impassable. As usual, the sight of Jacqueline's
imperturbable, sunglassed face is all the pass we need.
The cameraman squabble for position like ravens on
a pole. The crowd is young.The loud- speakers offer some French river-boat music and the
stage is claimed by the first woman model I have seen to date, a tall, Slavic killer with
high cheekbones, and an attitude that suggests very dirty pleasures. She wears a bold red
over-coat, and marches with a young man in a matching garment.
They are followed by models in combinations of bold
plaid jackets over subtle plaid pants. All sport zippered gauntlets. They carry bunches of
Heather accompanied by the sound track from "Wuthering Heights". A series of
pastel long coats follow this reminiscent display, worn over a profusion of brocade vests,
polka-dot shirts, and striped pants. The future, according to Nikos, will be an excess of
familiar consumer delights.
I am about to snore through what appears to be a
tedious fantasy about debauched-looking young men dressed as English boarding-school
aristo-fags, when Iman, the internationally famous model appears, sparking cheers and
whistles of the paparazzi. Whatever she was wearing is obliterated by her charisma. Secure
in her elegant flesh, she looks neither right nor left, ignoring the desperate entreaties
of the photographers. Her walk is an offering of body parts, each surrendering to the
next--shoulders, chest, belly, hips, knees and finally bare feet which stroke the floor as
if it were a cheek. Just before she leaves the stage, she deigns to offer the subtlest
smile, which draws applause.
She is followed by the tall Slav who struggles to
obliterate Iman's residual aura, by generating, if possible,an even more lascivious energy
then she had earlier. On this sortie, she indicates perilous proximity to sexual rapture,
as if she were wearing Ben-Wa balls. She is dressed in a brown, skin-tight suit with a fur
collar framing her blonde and exotic face with cheeks, flat as an axe blade.
"Bulgaria in the 30's as seen by Hollywood", Gerald suggests. He is exactly
A column of men procession in wool bolero jackets
and tight pants, in colors ranging from orange to rose, bustle in like ushers at a
drive-in restaurant for Rolls-Royces. They are elegant and impersonal as logos.
Just as Jaqueline remarks how tame this years' show
is, the first underwear model strides out in a bizarre black garment, half-leotard and
half body-stocking, but which displays all sorts of his physique to good advantage. He is
followed by equally Romanesque companions wearing variations-on-the-theme with and without
cut outs; padded cod-pieces and single-shoulder straps. They pose, "a la Greque"
for an instant and disappear.
Nikos himself emerges, and his squarish face,
cropped hair and mustache support the impression of an elfish German brew-master. He wears
bizarre leiderhosen with one angled suspender crossing his chest. He appears shy and
slightly befuddled by the attention.
The "Porte de Lilas" is an ordinary
metro station located between the Avenue Gambetta and Boulevard Mortier in the 20th
arrondisement. One enters the white-tiled station like a commuter and descends to the
crowded platform, where people jostle for a look at the other platform which will be the
A lone violinist, hair covered by a bandanna and
wearing a complex black and white knit sweater, black pants and black cowboy boots, plays
a poignant tune which hushes the crowd. He plays his way across the platform, and up the
stairs, leaving an pregnant silence behind him.
Futuristic commuters appear in grey and black pants
with knit cuffs, jackets gathered at the waist, and ovoid aluminum attache cases. Miyake
pushes our sense of the ordinary just enough to suggest another time, but not far enough
to make us uneasy.
These are 21st century workingmen, looking at us,
the audience, as if we were a diorama of the 20th century. The suede suits in dusty
colors, and the leather trench coats with gathered cuffs, form a consistent vision. These
are clothes designed for human environments. Even the ski-wear seems more appropriate to
apres ski than the slopes themselves.
On an invisible signal, the models don full face
masks. There is pronounced applause as they create a frieze of Miyake's not too future
citizen. A real subway train pulls up and the human ciphers enter.
As the train pulls away, seven musicians, dressed
like the first, enter with violins, violas and cellos, and begin an enchanting melody in
three-four time. There is something sweet about it which generates an ineffable longing.
The train carries its cargo of souls into the dark tunnel and it becomes clear that the
music is a poignant salute, not only to the twilight of the century, but to the brevity of
all life. I am moved by the only authentic theater I have seen this week which has
transformed the event from displays of coded signals to the bedrock reality of memento
The Espace Wagram on the Avenue de Wagram was
conceived as a boxing hall, transformed into a theater, then a disco, and must have been
used hard in each incarnation. The runway is centered in the old dance floor, which is
surrounded by a balcony, and like the floor, is jammed. Red light colors the room like a
brothel, and "Mantana" in blue neon script dominates the wall at the end of the
runway. The ceiling is a faded trompe l'oiel of curtains and heavy braids, sooty and
without glamor.The walls are full of mirrors. Mantana's frontiers are for rough trade.
A young blonde man enters, wearing a wool and
leather athletic jacket, and silver-capped cowboy boots over silvery pants. He is followed
by a delicate man in black hat, black jacket and gloves in elegant brown silk pants. Their
clothes are sexy, perfectly finished, and quite beautiful. Others follow, in cowboy garb
with collar points ten or eleven inches long, and range-rider dusters. The whole clique
poses under the Mantana neon like actors in a gay Western..
A series of young "noblemen" enter, in
chocolate browns, pearl-grey woven turtlenecks, hats with scarfs for hat-bands, collars
that flare into small capes. The models swagger like punks. One can feel Mantana's
competitive pleasure as he recombines the idioms and genres of Western clothing.
Arabic voices and wind on the speakers announce.
Mantana's fitted suits, featuring beaded collars and lapels, wonderfully finished in
subtle monochromes, as perfect in their way as Hermes. He is dressing 21st century
Montagues and Capulets who will swagger future avenues with laser rapiers at their sides.
Mantana likes warriors, sees them as royalty and favors them with laurel-leaf crowns of
He appears suddenly, without fanfare, sporting long
blonde hair and mustache, wearing pink, shimmery sweats. Martine Enno, from Figaro tells
me this is the first time he has ever appeared at his show dressed in anything but black.
I am led backstage to meet him and asked to wait
while he prepares for our audience. When he is ready, he greets Jacqueline with a kiss, me
with a tip of his head and downcast eyes which I accept as an opportunity to study his
newly powdered, lip-glossed face. Through the artifice of the makeup, one can see that his
effeminate behavior is a calculated masquerade for a tough street guy who likes the rough
and tumble of the fashion wars.
The wide steps,of the Theatre National de
Chaillot (as in madwoman of) at the Place Trocadero, deliver us to the grand entrance
chamber and a bizarre mural which proves to be prophetic. God is weeping at the top; below
him, Justice, eyes open, is balancing Michaelangelo's David and Botticelli's Venus on her
scales, while a dog-headed man vanquishes a prisoner below her.
Silver scaffolding supporting large, clunky stage
lights chokes the classical columns like robotic ivy. At the rear of the room,
immense,dusty windows reveal the Eiffel Tower with "100 An" spelled out
vertically on its surface in light bulbs, until the final "s" disappears into
The models are uniformly tall, skinny and
charmless. They slouch along the runway with ill-concealed hostility, wearing aprons over
ankle-length trousers, long, elbow length gloves and berets large enough to hide a sizable
ham. All appear to wear glasses. The accompaniment is electronic beeps and warbles.
The mural in the entrance, though bizarre was
recognizable, the same cannot be said for the clothes: jackets which lace up the front
like shoes; cuffs with random threads tacked to them; ties truncated four inches below the
knot. Fringed blankets are wrapped around canvas trousers which only partially cover
striped slacks below them. Some models wear tall pointed hats like witches in a child's
Individual pieces may be shown off to good
advantage against the collective bizarreness-- some lovely caped coats, pastel jackets
worn one buttoned into one another; ski-sweaters with complex, patterns in black, red and
white, some tufted with colored borders and cuffs.
Besides these exceptions, Matsuda is consistently
dismissive of classic traditions . He envisions freedom as liberation of whim. Buried
within his evident hostility to convention however, one senses a deep ambivalence about
Western fashion. One suspects that he dislikes the audience's expectations yet feels bound
to them; feels that he is chained even as he struggles to free his imagination from these
impositions of a foreign culture.
Gaulthier's frontier, is "A Clockwork
Orange." Les Villettes is a barren, glass-roofed amphitheater supported by a riveted
iron skeleton. Tiered seats surround a boxing ring on a raised platform decorated in
bas-relief of stylized Aztec boxers with bird heads. A moat separates the ring from the
audience and four plank walks cross it at the corners.Vendors hawk international trend
magazines like peanut salesmen at the ball-game.
The platform begins to revolve. Men dressed like
cartoon characters in white body stockings, false mustaches, huge plastic collars, girdles
and felt derby hats invade the arena from the corners. There is one woman disguised as a
man among them. They are followed by a melange of Edwardian 3/4 length coats; WWI soldiers
uniforms with laces to the knees in plastic helmets. They remind me of butchers cheerfully
dismembering the corpse of fashion.
Huge baggy pants like sacks of offal, hang from
suspenders on one fellow and someone else enters with yellow plaid chaps over black jeans
which evolve, on subsequent models, into loincloths below the knees.
It is hard to imagine anyone wanting an orange
juice colored fitted suit with necklaces made from large chromed scissors, but one is
offered. Extraneous shoelaces flap from knees, shoulders, and backs as anemic fringe
perfect for tying bottles of wine to one's clothing. Occasionally an attractive effect
appears, like discovering the body of a beautiful woman bobbing by in a flood, but in such
cases Gaulthier appears to judge such conventionality as weakness, and scourges himself
with something truly ghastly, like his jackets with airbrushed seams.
Sustaining a vision this anarchic demands refusal
to admit the order and harmonies of nature into one's consciousness. Gaulthier should be
the costumer for Samuel Beckett, but he works instead for a Japanese-Italian conglomerate.
The Italian half, a man named Zuccoli, sits across from me, looking like a bored and
disconsolate South American general with a beetle-browed face. He is wearing a
conservative grey suit and sitting besides a frosted blonde in
basic-black-with-string-of-pearls. There is no relationship except commerce between their
personal styles and Gaulthier's Holocaust recital. It is the same unrepentant opportunism
which transforms tropical rainforests into chopped meat. I am depressed to conceive of my
children inheriting a world dominated by such people.
(A month later, visiting a friend's clothing store in San Francisco, I see racks of
lovely clothes by Gaulthier, which bear no relationship to this event. I remain puzzled by
the relationship between his Parisian theater and these clothes.)
COMMES DES GARCONS
The Jardin des Plantes is an old Natural History
Museum. Strings of tiny lights are woven through the trees which line the path, leading us
towards a broad stone staircase, where the strings converge and are piled on the
bannister, like glistening pearls.
As soon as I find my seat, two Japanese women
approach me. The younger speaks perfect English, is from L.A. and is the friend of a
friend of mine there. Her name is Jan Kawata, the publicist for Commes des Garcon.
We chat a bit about her employer, and she offers
that Commes' thinking is "still Western, but looking back from Asia."
"Non-satirically?" I ask, still fresh
from Matsuda's assault. She likes that word and agrees emphatically.
Electronic music signals the start of things.
The vision of chief designer Rei Kawakubo is post-civilization apocalyptic. Her early work
evoked war orphans and refugees in ripped and tattered shards, wandering the fringes.
People sense her intelligence and commitment as a serious artist and attend her work
One notices details first: a rectangular insert
around a cuff button; a short, stuffed tie shaped like a leg of turkey; a graceful green
velour shirt; Mao jacket with red collar; a taupe jacket with black piping worn over green
The models appear determined. They walk to percussive music, as if they were struggling
against a stiff wind. The contrasting linings of their jackets hang below the hem like
A black jacket with gathered waist and quilted
sleeves. More ankle-length pants. (What is this fascination with the ankle?.) She produces
a profusion of ideas: insouciant yoked bolero jackets, ties with huge dots, shirts with
detached collars, jackets with lapels in the shape of folded paper airplanes. The music is
disco and the explosions of photographers' flashbulbs mimic a discotheque strobe-light. If
she anticipated this, it is very clever.
There is a flurry of stamp-clapping as designer Rei
Kawakubo, a small, intense woman in black, with thick hair in a Cleopatra cut, enters and
exits with the barest acknowledgment of the audience.
I am taken to meet her
in a large dressing room lined with racks of clothes, tagged with
the names of the models
who will wear them. Models are dressing,
calling out to one another, making plans,as if they were students
and school just ended.
introduced to Kawakubo. She stares at me without blinking or
invitation as Jan, the publicist from L.A., speaks to her about me
in Japanese. She refuses to sell herself to me in any manner and I
find it restful in this milieu where charm is often used as
wearing the single most beautiful garment I've seen during my stay
Paris, a simple black dress which appears to be shaped out of points
at the sleeves and hem. All the edges are impeccably trimmed in
black thread and each shoulder has a fastidiously tiny triangle of
black embroidery as an accent. The style appears a perfect union of
Western and Asian influences with the Asian half pulling its partner
into exciting territory.
is a dichotomy between Kawakubo's personal and public aesthetics;
between the insistence of an artist whose pride insists that her
work break new ground and the elegance and restraint borne of her
respect for her fashion forebears. It is an uneasy truce, but it is
her personal style which gives me the deepest intimation of the ways
in which cultural strains might cross-pollinate one another to
create vigorous offspring of great beauty.
On the flight back to America, I chance to
sit next to a man named Corky Newman the ex-President of Calvin
Kline Inc., who now presides over a clothing company called
bit like Yasser Arafat, he offers good humored insights into the
industrial side of the garment business. He explains how a
computerized pattern machine can save enough cloth to pay back its
investment in 90 days. He explains how clothes are normally sewn in
8 week cycles, first all patterned, then all cut, then all stitched
to optimize use of the various machines in a plant, but how the
newest, computerized ETON system, could move pieces overhead from
station to station, allowing one to cut in the morning and ship by
Trying to integrate this information with the
dramatic presentations of the previews, I am struck by the observation that just as in a
war, the cause of all combatants is supported by the makers of the technology and that
this technology inevitably impresses demands on them.
The tension between the designer's will and the
requirements of the machinery, is like the tension between freedom of mind and the limits
of the body. Perceiving this, I am forced to re-estimate my preconceptions about the
fashion shows and their significance.
The struggle between freedom and form is archaic
and common to us all. I can understand now that it is fully expressed in every dimension
of human experience, even the design and choice of clothes. Perceiving fashion in this
way, links it, in my mind, to the fundamental tension within each of us which constantly
impels us toward the impossible option of choosing one and abandoning the other. Today I
see that even the choice of color, cut, and texture of clothing is an expression of that
struggle, an act, which without denying the validity of the social coding it transmits,
can also be read as one possible solution to this tension; the map of a compromise.
On some level, we intuitively understand that Mind,
Body, and the glimmering Present in which they are expressed, are inseparable partners in
an eternal round. But besides being partners in the Great Dance, they are also the
templates to which all human factions trace primary allegiance, and the three clans of
fashion are no exception. Frontier Clan members identify primarily with Freedom; Empire
members primarily with Form and the Personality Clan with the particular expression of the
present. It is as true for Politics as it is for any other human realm.
The private and public dynamics reflect one
another. Each Clan can be understood as an aspect of the psyche attempting to be spokesman
for the whole. This perception of their deep commonalties, liberates me from any
compulsion to judge, and as I return to California, an exhausted veteran, I am pleased to
announce that the combatants have declared a temporary truce.
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