Cut-out-and-keep frocks? It's the lastest idea from Japan's designers as recession looms. By Cayte Williams
sometimes you just have to feel sorry for the French. Okay, they won the World Cup and have some pretty feisty students, but in the area where they take the greatest pride - fashion - they are always upstaged.

First it was the invading Brits, with their Pocahontas specs and Guarani Indian chic. Now it's the Japanese who are getting the lion's share of praise. The spring/ summer 1999 ready-to-wear shows were all about wearability and femininity, and nobody did this better than Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons and Issey Miyake.

Yamamoto, in particular, was heralded by the press as returning to god- like form. According to Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune, his show "was one of those fashion moments that holds the audience spellbound, and that defined the European season...".

Oddly enough, this was to be the season of French fresh blood. Great things were expected of the off-schedule shows, where new designers were supposedly bringing originality to the Parisian shows. But they were left waiting in the wings while the Tokyo Three stole the show. According to Tamsin Blanchard in The Independent, they "have all grasped something that few others have: the secret of modernity..."

Miyake even went so far as to introduce 'cut-out-and-keep' clothes. You just buy the fabric, follow the directions and cut out a frock. "Hidden within each rectangular tube of stretch nylon," continued Blanchard, "is a dress, a shirt, a skirt, a pair of pants, a jumpsuit, socks, underwear, a cap, bags and a belt.... It is a whole wardrobe easy to travel with, washable and - get this - no ironing is necessary." Miyake's genius idea is the complete antithesis of Galliano's master cutting and million-dollar jackets.

So why has fashion swapped decadence for DIY? Asia's financial crises and the looming world recession have made the big fashion houses reconsider spending fortunes on fashion shows.

Dior-like extravaganzas have bitten the dust. As theatrical spectaculars, they encouraged us to buy perfume and accessories as if they were back- row seats to the best show in town. But ticket sales have dropped.

LVMH, the company behind Dior, Givenchy and Christian Lacroix, has watched its share price halve in the last year. Even the fashion press felt the pinch. "A single long-stemmed rose last week told the grandes dames of fashion all they needed to know about world economic meltdown," said Susannah Herbert in the Daily Telegraph. "Only a year ago, every editor worth her gilt chair at the pret-a-porter Paris shows would have expected at least a gross of orchids and lilies..."

Galliano's show this year was held in the Avenue Montaigne Dior show, austere in comparison to his previous venues. Fashion editors found it shocking - in its simplicity. "At Dior," said the Evening Standard's Mimi Spencer, "John Galliano even went so far as to put the most minimal white silk dresses on barefoot models." It must be like paying a house call to Imelda Marcos and finding her in carpet-slippers.

At Givenchy it was a similar story. "Out went the extreme styling," continued Mimi, "in came a troop of pretty models... They wore trouser suits that might have been designed by a Givenchy atelier-hand rather than the bumster king himself."

Even Vivienne Westwood's Gold Label shed some of its opulence. "In more traditional style," said Samantha Murray Greenway in the Express, "her signature corsets were worn with pencil skirts and slipped under suits for day."

Meanwhile, in Milan, nobody could agree on anything. Under the headline, "Pasta its prime?", Colin McDowell argued that the big Milanese fashion houses had had their day. During the shows "it became apparent that fashion design in Milan is a middle-aged-to-elderly person's occupation," he commented in the Sunday Times.

Not, so, argued Samantha Murray Greenway in the Express. "Want to know what fashions will be in the high street next summer?" she asked. "Then look to Milan. Once it was the centre of classicism and conservative tailoring. Now Milan is home to some of fashion's most influential designers.... because these are the designers the high-street scouts watch."

Regardless of who's right, out of the European fashion capitals, Milan is set to suffer least from the prophesies of gloom. Firstly, because Milanese fashion has always been conservative and secondly because Prada and Gucci are two of the most popular young brands in the world. As Menkes put it, "don't weep for Italian high fashion - yet.... the new Gucci store had taken $400,000 in a single day's trading on Saturday". Come the recession, it'll be the Italians who'll be smirking, if not laughing, all the way to the bank.

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