My first time covering the Paris menswear collections. Act One: a briefing from my editor, who tells me which shows I should go to. She does not, however, inform me of a couple of essential items every catwalk watcher should have.
First, a pair of dark glasses. Like me, you probably imagined that fashion folk hide behind shades because they think they look cool and glam. I can now reveal, however, that it is so they can fall asleep without anyone noticing. The eyelids of one famous editor (who shall be nameless) were shut for a good 20 seconds during one particularly boring show and I discovered that this is not an infrequent phenomenon. Two other friends admitted to nodding off during shows. Italian designer, Ilario Mori, astutely made sure it did not happen during his. His models paraded around with ghettoblasters, which sporadically blared out the ringing of alarm clocks.
Second, a pair of trainers. As the collections are scattered in various different locations around Paris, the French fashion people who coordinate them lay on buses to shuttle you about. However, for particularly popular shows, there are not always enough seats for everyone. The only way to guarantee you get one is to sprint. Hence, the almighty stampedes at the end of every show. Women who insist on tottering about in stilettos end up getting firmly acquainted with the Paris Metro system.
As the shows go along, there are also various other things you pick up. For example, a certain number of freebies. This season, designers decided that pocket lamps embossed with their logo were the thing to give. I am now very stylishly armed for the eventuality of a power cut courtesy of Dries Van Noten and W<. Then, you soon realise that the shows are as much about the spectacle as the clothes.
At Lanvin, there was a bit of unscheduled animation when a group of French unemployed protested by throwing bits of paper from a balcony. A live Celtic band provided the music for John Rocha's show and Yohji Yamamoto caused a stir by sending out women to model his menswear collection. Vivienne Westwood (below left) stomped around in ever-increasingly high platform shoes. Her husband Andreas watched Ms Westwood's modelling debut dressed in orange leather jacket and matching pedal pushers. Charlotte Rampling looked heavenly and as Ines de la Fressange swept by, a couple of her besotted compatriots groaned breathlessly: "Ooooh ... She doesn't walk. She glides!" The clothes themselves were slouchy and surprisingly plain.
However, the best entertainment - as always - was provided by Belgian designer, Walter van Beirendonck for his label W< (Wild and Lethal Thrash). In a huge hangar, he sent out nearly 200 models, the youngest of whom must have been four years old. After they had all weaved their way through 15 long lines of benches, the large yellow curtain at the front was drawn back to reveal a decor worthy of the best fairly tale. The models were perched on clouds, glistening branches and flowers whose petals burst open. The effect was magical, as were many of the designer's clothes.
If Van Beirendonck's show was the most fun, the most hyped was that of his former assistant Raf Simons. A year ago, Simons had the fashion world reaching for superlatives with a collection inspired by school uniforms, which was original, hip and exquisitely cut. This time, as a few hundred people jostled each other outside the Moulin Rouge to get into his show, a couple of friends said it reminded them of the frenzy around Jean-Paul Gaultier's shows in the Eighties. At one of those, a dog was apparently trampled to death. I suppose that's what you would call a canine fashion victim.
Unfortunately, this time round, Simon's show proved unconvincing. The plain black shirts and trousers, endless three-quarter-length woollen coats and cobweb knits looked decidedly retro and it was a shame to see such an undeniable talent being wasted. Lesser-known names which did impress were the American label, Arckitoure, which showed tight-fitting ribbed knits and the most exquisite trousers of the week, featuring fine detailing - bias-cut pockets and narrow legged trousers with slits at the back of the hems - in a show set in the sumptuous salons of an 18th- century townhouse. Another success was the Dutch label So by Alexander van Slobbe, whose subdued collection included T-shirts with barely visible maps of Holland appliqued on to them and impeccably tailored jackets.
Sharp tailoring was one of the themes which ran throughout the collections, along with fur collars and murky colours. This May, Paul Smith plans to open a bespoke service in his new store on Westbourne Grove and in Paris; he showed a collection which oozed quality. Entitled "Memories of a more Gracious Time", it was inspired by the Edwardian period and featured tweeds, rich velvets and bird prints. There was also some wonderful attention to detail, with hand-stitching, intricate linings and elaborate embroideries.
Dries Van Noten's collection was as usual informed by ethnic influences and included lots of layering - quilted jackets under knits, knee-length zipped cardigans and coats whose fabrics changed colour at the edges. He showed in a former market, but the three finest collections were all presented in artistic venues. There was one word for the collection Hermes showed in the Jeu de Paume museum - impeccable. The colours were a subtle mix of browns, greys and navies, the fabrics divine and the cut of the clothes irreproachable. Kenzo's collection was his best in ages. He took his inspiration from the Middle East and covered his models' faces with Arabic calligraphy. There were some sublime colour combinations of deep burgundies, dark aubergines and rich purples. Long shirts were layered under rich knits and jackets, and the designer also tried his hand at simple wraparound skirts worn over trousers.
Skirts were also revived at Comme des Garcons, whose collection was in a class of its own. The theme was "Outside/Inside" and designer Rei Kawakubo put the inner seams on the outside of thick wool and felt suits to beautiful effect. Collars were stitched into the inside of shirts and khaki cotton trousers rolled up to the calves were worn over longer salmon pants. As for the skirts, they came in two varieties - long draped apron skirts worn over pants and short pleated minis, which were actually a panel of fabric attached to the trousers.
Final act: my editor asks me to write my dream shopping list for autumn/winter 98. Up there near the top would be a pair of flat-fronted pants with bias pockets from Arckitoure, a 100 per cent chenille pullover in brown, petrol blue, khaki, Bordeaux and mustard from Kenzo and just about everything in the Comme des Garcons collection ... mmm, well maybe not the skirts.
Corporate clones, City+