What new clothes] What emperors]

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The Independent Online
'DO YOU have any spare invites?' Last week a gaggle of young men and women stood at the gate to the Palais du Louvre, begging from the fashion press and buyers going in and out.

The Pret a Porter spring collections are currently being shown in Paris - not that the term ready-to-wear should be taken literally. One of the begging gaggle was being at that moment photographed, dressed as he was in a 'directional' black stocking hat with a large white star upon it. Stephen Collier, 22, however, beneath this headgear, was going nowhere.

They were, said he and his friends, poor and unhappy MA students from St Martin's College of Art in London. 'We didn't want to come. They make us come and do this as part of our degree course. We're here to be humiliated,' they said.

Humiliation is a necessary part of La Mode. Without it, how could there be superiority, preference, distinction, or rank? The invited chosen were glorious for a moment as they walked past the students through the gates, and then the glory departed, and they became mere sheep and goats. The sheep were sent, one by one, through a gate into reserved seats in a tent where Karl Lagerfeld was preparing to show a collection designed under the label Chloe. The goats were herded into a corner labelled 'Standing' and left to bleat outside.

Now and then, as animals do, one or two would try to break through the fence, only to be sharply shooed back by large security men. 'Oooo la la]' a woman cried, after one of these incidents. 'Comme le Gestapo]' It is the greatest coup of top fashion designers to have managed to convince the press and even the buyers that they are doing them a favour by admitting them.

The hapless goats waited. And waited. Fashion shows choose to be late. It instils in the audience a sense of its unimportance. After 35 minutes, the goats were allowed to crowd in, and the music roared.

Up and down the catwalk went giant baby dolls in droopy dresses, skinny knits and Flowerpot Men hats. The beautiful supermodel faces were, on the whole, expressionless. But then, what expression would be appropriate for an adult woman six feet tall, wearing three feet of false hair, a lollipop necklace, and a pixie hat?

Mr Lagerfeld's collection was pure 1971, retro-Biba, bias cut crepe de Chine, complete with bell-bottom trousers, angel sleeves and see-thru crochetwork. It was worse than derivative. It looked like necrophilia.

Stephen Collier, who had got in on an invitation found in a bin, gazed at it, his black stocking hat quivering with astonishment. He pushed forward to see and within seconds he was quivering with other emotions as two Chloe security men pounced on him and marched him out.

'Just as well. It was awful. It could all just have been ripped off from old fashion magazines,' he said outside, neatly binning his chances of ever working in the immense Lagerfeld empire along with his shredded invitation. 'That's supposed to be directional?'

The problem is that fashion is up a blind alley. Having spent most of the 1980s on variations of the T-shape - broad, padded shoulders, narrower hem - it has now retreated to an I-shape - narrow shoulders, narrow hem. Little can be done with a pencil silhouette: the Empire waist, an Edwardian look, the 1920s/30s and the early 1970s. On this aged carousel designers are at present revolving. Yohji Yamamoto had bravely had a go at innovation earlier in the day with a succession of draped black sheets, some of them shrouding a party-goer's arm entirely, preventing it from reaching the canapes in a new kind of 'diet by design', but Mr Lagerfeld, perhaps wisely, attempted nothing new.

At the end he came out, a fairy tale figure, small, plump, and frog-like, surrounded by tall, applauding princesses. The crowd rushed out of the Louvre. The models followed, stalking through, high above the dull masses, on their yards of thin black legs, with faraway eyes, like exotic giraffes. By 9pm all these had reassembled not far from the Arc de Triomphe to view the rise from the dead of John Galliano, a British designer revived by a new French backer. And at 10pm they were still there, patiently waiting on Mr Galliano's pleasure.

No humiliation is, apparently, too much for a fashion audience to take. Years of begging for tickets and being crushed at the door has eroded all sense of self-esteem. Only two walked out. The rest sat and gossiped mournfully. 'Hello]' said one fashion editor to another with barely concealed malice. 'You're looking very Chloe]'

Almost two hours late came a wail calling the faithful to prayer, or perhaps to jihad, a holy war against the shell suit. Mr Galliano, it soon appeared, had gone back 200 years to the Incroyable-period of post-revolutionary France, to jackets cut away high at the front and long at the back, over Empire-line frocks and mini-slips.

The giraffe girls made angry faces under great puffs of false hair in blue and green, decorated with cobwebs. This angriness was possibly not all faked: 'The girls were being pinched back-stage]' said one afterwards. Then Mr Galliano moved on to great 1820 puff sleeves and threw in a little 1630 drollery with swords and doublets, livened by the occasional nipple and his habit of sending out the girls with big fabric bows over their otherwise unclothed nether regions.

But the audience had seen so much that was depressing and dismal that day that Mr Galliano's largely unwearable costume tomfoolery, his jokes on the theme of the I-line, his theatrical ragbag, came as a great relief. They applauded. They smiled.

They surged towards a death-trap of an exit (the entire fashion world will certainly be burnt to death in Paris one season) to congratulate the former student of St Martin's College of Art. No doubt the small punk-haired figure who appeared on stage in a Union Flag frock coat to accept adulation had once, too, pleaded for tickets on the edge of the crowd. What is now lowly will tomorrow float up in fashion's bubble world, what is at present glittering will shortly burst. On fear - the fear of seeming out of date, poor, excluded - fashion feeds.

(Photograph omitted)