Originally created 07/08/06

Paris couture shows reflect uncertain times



PARIS - While many designers tapped into today's times of uncertainty with armor-like clothing fit for an urban warrior, Jean Paul Gaultier escaped to a fantasy world peopled with princesses, witches and animals in his haute couture show on Friday.

It was a fitting finale to the fight-or-flight battle that played out in Paris this season, as designers responded to the world's climate of unease in two ways: tough battle-ready outfits versus a starry-eyed status quo.

Models breezed past in layers of feather-light mousseline or sweeping fur coats with raised collars. Dramatic details included chandelier crystal embroidery on a nude chiffon corset and a rooster's head crowing from the feathered sleeve of a black coat.

"You must not look into my eyes," intoned the soundtrack from French director Jean Cocteau's classic "Beauty and the Beast."

Perhaps Gaultier was inspired by front row guest Catherine Deneuve, who played a princess in the 1970 film adaptation of the French fable "Donkey Skin."

"I think it's marvelous," the actress told The Associated Press after the show. "They are perfectly wearable clothes but clothes that make you dream, nonetheless."

While thoroughly accomplished, the collection lacked the wild bravado of Gaultier at his risk-taking best. Then again, precious few designers have ventured from the trodden path this season.

Lebanese designers Zuhair Murad and Elie Saab both played it safe with glamorous collections focused on evening wear, which proved that Beirut has become a major player in the couture field.

Though Saab is the better known of the two - he designed the dress Halle Berry wore to accept her Oscar for best actress - Murad is catching up fast.

His upbeat collection of Jazz Age flapper dresses and slinky mermaid gowns was peppered with stand-out pieces.

Murad will soon be available to high street shoppers in the Middle East, having been tapped by Spanish retailer Mango to design a capsule collection that will go on sale in September.

In a week of few surprises, relative newcomer Riccardo Tisci dazzled and disturbed with his demonstration of gothic-flavored chic at Givenchy.

With Paris still buzzing about the opening of the Quai Branly museum, which showcases tribal art, Tisci drew inspiration from countries as far flung as Myanmar, Indonesia and Brazil for exotic creations trimmed with crocodile leather or marabou feathers.

The ethnic influences were subtle, ranging from the giraffe pattern shaved into a camel-colored mink cape to the knuckle-sized cabochon crystals studded on a see-through trench coat.

There were undertones of fetish to the tight black leather boots with compensated heels, which gave the models a supernatural height, and the final section of velvet and eel skin gowns.

U.S. domestic diva Martha Stewart, in town to shoot segments for her new television program, reserved judgment after the show, held in a cavernous theater warehouse.

"Well, it was very dramatic and I don't know yet. I think about these things for a while before I make a decision," she demurred.

What is certain is that Tisci tapped into a desire for sturdy, protective gear that also ran through the collections shown by Christian Dior, Chanel and Christian Lacroix.

"We live in very uncertain times," commented Glenda Bailey, editor-in-chief of the U.S. fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar. "People want to feel protected, they want to feel strong, they want to feel that they have power."

She noted that the trend coincided by an upcoming exhibition looking at the influence of armor and military styles on fashion, due to open at New York's Museum at FIT in September.

"There's no greater sign of what's going on in our society than what we've seen at the couture shows. Maybe politicians should attend in the future," Bailey quipped.