Fashion: Young, lean and mean: A new wave of designers stunned Paris. Some big names should be topping up their pensions, says Roger Tredre

A NEW world order is emerging in fashion. The designers who have been making the news in Paris over the past 10 days were unknowns until recently. A new wave (which first emerged in the late Eighties) is moving to the forefront. What it lacks in financial capital is made up for with bags of creative energy and humour, streetwise attitude, and a strong sense of being in touch with the world beyond the rue du Faubourg Saint Honore.

So never mind what the house of Christian Dior has produced for spring '93. Take a look at Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang. And who wants to see the new collection from Givenchy when there is rather more of interest on offer from Marcel Marongiu, John Galliano and Jean Colonna?

With the exception of Chanel, which has the inestimable advantage of Karl Lagerfeld (a designer and publicist of genius), the luxury fashion houses are on the rack.

Is it the end of an era? Two announcements during the collections suggested as much. In London, Marc Bohan, design director of Hartnell, said he had resigned. 'It's not constructive any more to make dresses for the jet set, which is removed from reality. That life is a bit out.'

And in Paris this week the French government's announcement of plans to encourage new designers into haute couture confirmed what everyone has been saying for several seasons: that the couture market is in decline.

The couture and luxury fashion houses need to do some serious strategic rethinking. A brand with a famous history is no longer a good enough excuse to charge upwards of pounds 600 for a jacket. Younger customers, who are the lifeblood of fashion, are being tempted away from luxury for luxury's sake. They want to wear the new designers' clothes - clothes that look and feel indisputably modern.

These new designers made oblique references in Paris to the Seventies, but they did not join in the hippie trip that occasionally threatened to turn the collections into Woodstock revisited. They made clothes that were, for the most part, long, lean and mean. They also revelled in the sensuality of transparent fabrics that show off the body.

Even for enthusiasts, the Seventies theme will be best used judiciously next spring. A hint of flare in a shirt sleeve, perhaps, or wider trousers. Maybe wider lapels or a ruffled shirt.

The other strong Seventies themes are long floaty dresses, layers of fluid fabrics, and the return of the Seventies colour palette, from an array of dusty pastels to deepest Naomi Campbell-approved purple.

Much was expected of Lagerfeld's return to Chloe, a collection he used to design in the Seventies. In truth, it was pretty dreadful: rather too much chiffon and frizzy hair, too many dresses and long necklaces. Lagerfeld rarely gets it wrong, but when he does, he does so

spectacularly.

His touch was surer

at Chanel, where his

stretch black trousers (gilt buttoned and flared below the knee) and tweed corset-bodices made the ladies swoon in the front row (they were less sure about the new Chanel men's underpants for women). Lagerfeld was everywhere this week, designing three collections in total, including his own signature line. Maybe he should take on Dior, Balmain and Balenciaga: these companies could then quietly pension off their in-house

designers.

Time and time again, however, it was the new generation that seemed of rather more import than the efforts of the Paris houses to get groovy.

In creative terms, the centre of gravity in European fashion is moving northwards. The young designers put their energies into shapes and layers rather than colour and decoration (more typically associated with the designers of southern Europe).

Thus, Ann Demeulemeester, a Belgian, spends weeks crafting the perfect jacket or pair of trousers, while Helmut Lang, an Austrian, pays obsessive attention to proportion and new ways of working with hi-tech fabrics.

The significance of the new

designers may have more to do with attitude rather than the clothes they produce. A jacket is a jacket is a jacket and, given the limitations of the human body, there are only so many ways of reworking it.

Marcel Marongiu, the Franco- Swedish designer, believes attitude is the key: 'We don't want to use clothes as armour. Clothes should be an accessory to the wearer's personality, not a means of disguising it.'

Joseph Ettedgui, the London retailer and designer, noted that attitude, too. 'It's a new spirit of individuality. The timing is right for these designers, and timing is everything in fashion.'

They are heavily influenced by Japanese designers such as Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto, designer- technicians who are both still going strong more than a decade after they first arrived in Europe.

Rei Kawakubo's show for Comme went on a bit this season, but her restrained cream brocade long skirts and dresses fitted neatly with the mood of the times. Yamamoto was equally right for now: long shirts worn loose and layered over long pleated skirts and long skinny-rib sweaters. Issey Miyake, the other name in the Japanese Big Three, gave his followers a breezy celebration of fashion featuring ballet dancers and wobbly tiered dresses that just wouldn't keep still.

A new-generation wardrobe for next spring might include any of the three Japanese labels as well as the following pieces: a slim trouser suit by Helmut Lang, a pair of white leatherette jeans with front patch pockets by Jean Colonna, a grey pin-stripe waistcoat by Marcel Marongiu, a maxi leather waistcoat from Martine Sitbon and a long black bias-cut skirt by Martin Margiela.

It might also include a healthy representation of British designers. The irony is that at the very moment when everyone at home is questioning the future of British fashion, the creative impact of our designers on the international stage is at a 10-year peak. Rifat Ozbek was indisputably the hit of Milan, while both John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood were powerful presences in Paris (not forgetting Katharine Hamnett, who is the most commercially successful of the British designers).

The Westwood and Galliano collections were energetic rampages through history. Westwood showed classic blazers, Oxford bags, and Fifties-inspired tailoring, but then went delightfully loopy with her new shiny denim. The best of the outpourings from the Galliano sampling machine were frock coats with huge double cuffs worn with printed chiffon slip dresses.

By contrast, the fashion houses owned by the big conglomerates produced run-of-the-mill collections. Christian Lacroix showed rather too many prints for the morning after a Saturday night. Valentino's safari to Africa should have been cut short. And only Gianfranco Ferre's classic organza shirts for Christian Dior kept his show on the road.

Two French designers maintained momentum for spring. Jean Paul Gaultier's tailoring was a witty pin-stripe dream, particularly the trousers cut so high that they became empire-line dresses with shortened braces over the shoulders. Claude Montana softened up all round and showed the best trousers in Paris in wide soft cream crepe.

Both designers will play their part in the new world order. The other fashion houses have big money and lines of perfumes behind them, but, in creative terms at least, they are in danger of going the way of the dodo.

(Photograph omitted)

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