The Elegance of the Beauty

Ever since Tom Ford took over the designing of Yves Saint Laurent ready-to-wear, he has had to deal with snarky journalists who think he’s not faithful enough to the style he inherited or not talented enough to create an image for Saint Laurent that’s distinct from Gucci, the brand he forged out of bankrupt playboy shoe leather. And probably it seems to Mr. Ford that he can’t get a break.

But it’s his own comfort level with Saint Laurent that one keeps questioning — not his talent. One gets the feeling over and over again that Mr. Ford has the eye but not the heart for Saint Laurent. It’s as if he scans the opulent forest of Saint Laurent references and plucks what he likes without bothering to go deeper and examine the roots. So one season you have ”Carmen” gypsies and the next sexy safari nomads. And sometimes the results are dashingly effective. But what you still have is a kind of drive-through couture: burger, fries and a bow. The surface supersized.

With the fall collection he showed on Monday night at the Musée Rodin, Mr. Ford at least seemed to be revisiting a part of the Saint Laurent world that isn’t widely known or remembered: the clothes he did for Christian Dior in the late 1950’s. In his autumn 1959 collection, Mr. Saint Laurent showed a dress gathered up generously at the hem with a fat bow. And bows appeared throughout Mr. Ford’s show — as shoestring lacing down the fronts of tight black-lace blouses, as floppy trellises on the backs of snug velvet jackets and as thematic tie-ins at the knees of skintight velvet breeches.

It was bold of Mr. Ford to propose so much beribboned glamour for day, though dressiness was a theme of the fall 2002 collections (which ended today). More problematic were the many repetitions in this show and the one he presented for Gucci: the slick straight skirts, the tepid use of color (navy or deep red), the abundant velvet and ribbon-lashed tops. Some journalists thought they spied 18th-century references in Mr. Ford’s frilled Saint Laurent cuffs, others a note of Velásquez.

It hardly matters, though. Scrape away the references, and you get Gucci. Mr. Ford has to dig deeper.

”Elegance today has to do with brains and bones — it’s an attitude,” Karl Lagerfeld said. And he couldn’t have said it better with a right-on Chanel collection on Tuesday. For elegance to mean anything, it has to be connected to the way women think and move on the street, without cumbersome gestures.

That’s what Mr. Lagerfeld accomplished, with seemingly little effort, by pairing flaring leather minis with fitted jackets in murky tweeds that evoked waistcoats. Or, for night, a black silk chemise with a draped back and a wide hip belt of quilted leather.

Mr. Lagerfeld’s show played to a live rock band, as models trooped out in small-shouldered wool suits with sleeves that could be upzipped to get the arms through, yet could still achieve a tight, clean fit. These were shown with long, matching sleeveless coats — a practical nod to lighter layering. The collection brought sparkle into day clothes, but more impressive was its human range. Mr. Lagerfeld even offered what he lightly calls ”in-between clothes,” beaded lingerie for those in-between hours.

For more than a decade, Martin Margiela
‘s role in fashion has been that of a pesky outsider commenting on the inside, while subtly influencing it. To look at the oversize coats that Mr. Ford showed at Gucci and Saint Laurent is to see his ventilating influence. Yet two years ago, when Mr. Margiela first went jumbo, people thought he was riffing on fashion’s obsession with thinness; in fact, he was addressing something more fundamental: proportion.

Now he has dropped volume. On Tuesday night, at the Petit Palais, as models were led by uniformed attendants onto caged platforms and briefly bathed in hot light, Mr. Margiela cleverly lampooned the mania for must-have products that drives magazines like Lucky and reduces fashion to brands and marketing. At one point, he sent out a man in a white lab coat bearing a large plexiglass box containing a white purse. It was held out solemnly to the audience like a prized specimen. And, of course, to be considered a luxury player in fashion, you need a trophy bag.

A more subtle tribute to this reductive kind of thinking was a plain black wool dress tied at the neck and waist with a full-length gray silk panel that resembled a pin-tucked slip. It stood out in relief against the black, like those cutouts of garments you see in magazines under the headline ”20 Cool Looks!” Mr. Margiela also took a nice swipe at the vintage hullabaloo — stitching together two old coats, in cloth or fur, and leaving the two spare sleeves dangling eerily down the front and back of the blended coat.

Among the new designers showing for the first time in Paris was Istvan Francer, a 45-year-old native of Subotica, now in Serbia, near the border with Hungary, a region that figures in his romantic trimmings and full-skirted chic. At times Mr. Francer seemed too overpowered by old-fashioned sentiment, with costume looks like ballooning black jodhpurs. But then he eased up, offering the more playful cocktail-hour treat of slim black trousers worn with a taut black sweater, its sleeves of fine black lace. He finished off the outfit with a black taffeta sash.

Be it a bow or a sash, that seems to be fashion’s must-have garnish for fall.