A new mood is sweeping through the city that is now the undisputed world centre of fashion. New names that are not new at all, but have been working at the sidelines for years, have come to prominence. People are peeking at each other's notebooks to get the spellings of Ann Demeulemeester, Marcel Marongiu and Xuly Bet .
The big guns - Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro - will show their collections later today and tomorrow. But there are clear signs that the tide has ebbed away from one man who has been so strong for so long. Karl Lagerfeld, who designs Chanel, has already shown his eponymous line and the one he designs for Chloe. For the first time, fashion's fastest magpie - who up to now has been able to assimilate any trend into his work - has been way off the mark. As Women's Wear Daily, the trade bible, put it on Tuesday, 'the Lagerfeld juggernaut has stalled'.
Rei Kawakubo, whose Comme des Garcons fashion show opened the Paris season, is the leader of the new wave. Although the Japanese designer has been in business for 20 years, her vision, often described as post-apocalyptic, remains at the cutting edge.
Models with tin-foil wigs on their heads wore what looked like worn nightdresses of mismatched, faded pieces. In fact, it was Madras checked cloth chemically decoloured. The shrunken, wrinkled effect was also the fruit of high technology.
Kawakubo's way with the current layered look meant men's jackets with six inches of lingerie lace attached or the bottom of a woman's cardigan sewn on beneath. In the current way of combining existing clothes into new pieces, Kawakubo took a child's blazer and fused the over-sized sleeves of a man's sweater on to it to make a shirt for a woman; she took the front of a man's tweed jacket and married it with synthetic chiffon sleeves.
But, I asked one of her disciples, would one need the warmth of tweed and the breeziness of chiffon in the same garment? Would one not be too hot, or a touch chilly? 'If you want practical, go to Gap,' she replied.
In the new-wave shows there is no music, no brash lights, and as often as not, no convenient venue. Limos are disgorging smart press and buyers at out-of-the-way studios where a show means a few feet of floor space and a sheet models can change behind.
What they are coming to see are collections of schoolboys' sweaters, blankets, aprons and petticoats worn with biker boots or men's shoes. Skirts are languid and cut so long that they trail through mud. Shirts are not ironed. Trousers are mannish, in thick woolly fabrics, and go with navy pea coats or shrunken sweaters. Everything looks either much too big or way too small; nothing looks pristine.
Designers are using technology to produce fabrics that look old, reworking traditional cloths with surface details or reusing old clothes, which are boiled up, cut and slashed and reformed in new shapes. 'Recup', or recycling, is the buzz word in Paris fashion now. The trailing hemline - once the worst criticism one could make of a designer - has become a compliment.
Xuly Bet, alias Mali-born Lamine Kouyate, is one hot recup designer. He buys up the cheapest clothes in Paris from Tati, the bargain chain store, as well as from street markets, and remakes them into colourful clothes that delight in their woolly whip- stitched rawness.
Meanwhile Tati is itself becoming chic. Fashion first heard of it when Azzedine Alaia, an immigrant from North Africa, turned its pink dogs- tooth bags into a print for clothing. Now three French designers, trained in haute couture and designer salons, have come up with Tati's first fashion collection, which is cheap enough for just about everyone. It is called 'La Rue Est a Nous'.
What Xuly Bet reconstructs from standard Tati garments is not expensive either. A Xuly dress is born out of a pile of old man's cardigans, sliced below the necklines and stitched together so that a band of patch-pocketed sections forms the back panel. Nothing is wasted - discarded sleeves turn up as wool patches in a waistcoat or a pair of trousers. Even the accessories must be cheap for his show, last time at a bus stop, this time on a disused floor of a department store. He took Elastoplasts, wrote doodles and words on them, and stuck them across eyebrows and on to arms.
Martin Margiela's deconstructions do not come as cheap. Neither does his intricate tailoring, for which think Savile Row skill put through a hot wash and a food mixer. Margiela searches markets for the perfect fabrics for one-off dresses, which are made to order and posted to each customer in return for a fat cheque. Veterans of Margiela's past 10 collections declared his boiled smoking jacket and quilted fencing tunic, each with a piece of tape in place of any label, his best so far. Anna Wintour turned up to see what the fuss was about, while American buyers with blonde power-helmet hairdos and spiked shoes fingered Margiela's frayed edges and convinced themselves these were absolutely fabulous.
If Margiela's tailoring looked as though it has lived a tough life, Helmut Lang's is meant to look as if you have slept in it. His suits come in the heavy wools of the army surplus store, while his velvet dresses are bias cut like Thirties long petticoats and are worn with skinny rib sweaters underneath. Francoise Tessier, of Browns, predicted after a packed show that a sage-green velvet sheath, just the colour of old armchairs in draughty houses, would be a hot seller.
Evening wear this season is not obvious any more. Instead its appeal is spiritual. In Demeulemeester's sombre collection, skirts were black, floor- length and of bulky mohair. Waistcoats trailed on the ground and the only accessories were tiny macrame crosses hung on thread. At Marcel Marongiu, evenings meant the opposite of revelation. To clothes that were already Amish in their purity, Marongiu added an apron of honey coloured lame, or unbuttoned a novice's dress over a homely patchwork skirt.
With all this going on, Jean Paul Gaultier seemed a very old enfant terrible indeed. But his new layered line was at once in keeping with the spirit of the times and full of quirky, clever ideas. Satin jackets flared from under the armpits, cropped mannish double-breasted jackets went over chiffon skirts, argyle sweaters were cut right away between the diamonds of the pattern to reveal not bare flesh, as might be expected of Gaultier in the past, but other layers beneath.
Where in the past he took his inspiration from Rome and had nuns popping out from under the floor of his catwalk, he has now turned to orthodox Judaism: he gave models Hassidic-style sidelocks made of telephone wire and exaggerations of the shtreimel fur hat and with prayer fringes peeping out below skinny suits. Clearly he had no intention of ceding his place out on a limb to any of the new breed - several of whom trained in his studios.
This has been a pretty mixed week. At their best, the new looks have a purity of line and intention that comes as a great relief for thinking women perplexed by years of knicker-grazing offerings. At their worst, they are wraparound gloom.
Sometimes the new mood of experimentation worked wonderfully. Andre Walker read a poem and then sent out 10 outfits, which were in turn exquisite, like his tiny tops with scoop backs, or awful, like his version of Capri pants that stopped short just below the knee with a three-inch turn- up. Andre Leon Talley and Polly Allen Mellon, both mighty members of the American limo set, loved the angular flared skirts and hooded bunny coats and made sure the handful of other people there knew about it. 'Polly, Polly, look] Tweed wellingtons]' shouted Andre.
But his were not the only comments shouted at shows. There is interaction. Even the models are beginning to defrost and stop to talk to friends in the audience or answer heckling photographers. Maybe Paris is about to get down off its pedestal.
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