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Romantic Rochas salutes genteel but modern woman

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Dignity, decency, sobriety is French fashion's new mantra. And this new anti-vulgar, post-girlie take on summer style is coming both from a new generation of sensitive male designers and from the sister sorority.

With Thursday's shows focused on women designers, including the debut of the Croatian-born Ivana Omazic at Celine, a new image of womanhood is emerging, especially as females tend to create for themselves. Or as Loulou de la Falaise put it as she showed her collection: "I think most women designers think less abstractly about clothes than men."

Yet paradoxically, it was Rochas, with its designer Olivier Theyskens, which best defined the new romantic sobriety and sweet gentility that suddenly seems so modern. A woman in a pantsuit with a purse shaped like a violin case set the tone of a collection played out by a major designer in a minor key. The trouser suits a first for Theyskens were simple, graceful in textured linen, the pants slender, but softened at the hipline, perhaps worn with a silken blouse where one of his signature whorled roses was at the throat.

The rest of the show offered the elongated dresses, with a faint Edwardian resonance, which Theyskens seems tentatively to propose for day, but really come into their own at night. A watery cascade of cream lace ruffles ushered in the theme of the collection: Claude Monet's Giverny.

"It may sound stupid, but I have always loved those water lilies," said Theyskens, referring to dresses colored from shadowy blue to vivid spring green, with tiny organza dragonflies edging scooped out backs. The designer said that these effects were densely printed on layers of lace and they gave the effect of blooms shivering on intense blue water.

Theyskens does not offer much: his spirit might be just in tiny braids worked in simple hair or a blush of pink at the hem of a daisy patterned dress. But sometimes a collection is more significant than the sum of its parts. Here is a designer who believes in beauty. And there is an elegiac elegance to his floor- sweeping dresses that is compelling.

Stella McCartney is a straightforward woman designer, who makes a collection with herself in mind. When she came out with an egg- shaped sporty top over pants, it was a reflection of one of the newer silhouettes on her runway: based on a track-suit top, but with its ribbed edge translated to filmy organza on a dress. The rest was bright, shiny and sexy and well done if you still want that kind of thing: dresses patterned with chains, a gleaming belted coat, a silver swimsuit and silvered bags. A jersey one-piece outfit ending in beribboned knickers looked like a left over from McCartney's successful collaboration with Adidas sportswear.

The designer is smart at getting a little help from her friends. Even if her dad, Paul McCartney, was not front row ("He does have a day job he is touring," she said), the artist Jeff Koons was present: on the runway and in the audience. His bold prints of fleshy lips on silken dresses made a big impact and Koons raved about them.

"I was so surprised," the artist said. "We worked on jewelry together, but Stella worked the prints. It looked amazing and the whole show was so sexy and so beautiful."

Celine's new designer left Zagreb to study design in Milan and has worked for Romeo Gigli, Jil Sander and for Prada's MiuMiu. This was a runway debut for Omazic, 32, who called her collection: "Poetry in Motion." Surely that should have been "Purses in Motion"? For out they swung, hefty crocodile bags, tiny turquoise purses slung across the body and as the show picked up speed both at once. That meant a bold bag with horseshoe decoration (last seen at McCartney) and other bankable shapes. Add floppy hats, brightly colored gloves, knee socks and stylish signature boots with horse bit rings, and this looked like a perambulating accessories show. The clothes, inevitably, owed a lot to (old) Prada, especially librarian cardigans paired with pleated skirts with painterly patterns or MiuMiu-style sporty beige cotton shorts. A designer can't be expected to throw off the past in a first season. But Prada's accessories grow from its personal culture and express the brand's aesthetic. Celine has not developed a recognizable look since the sunny-side up collections of Michael Kors. Even a dramatic opening and close, when a giant ball emanated fire and water images a la Bill Viola, could not help the show to catch alight. Sophia Kokosalaki owns the fashion territory of the draped and pleated dress not just because of her Greek heritage, but because she developed the genre. Now that other designers are playing catch-up, she took to a new level her intricate tucking pleating and whorling that makes a silk top look like strands of curling hair and turns a chiffon bodice into twin star bursts.

She also refined the silhouette, offering a fancifully tucked blouse with simple, tailored shorts or slender skirt. That was part of a play on volumes that looked fresh when those blouses ballooned gently, but sometimes turned skirts into poufs. The skill and workmanship of such a young designer is impressive, from the first white dress where the folds flicked up at the skirt front to the layers of lace over silk that gave a good show yet another dimension. Veronique Branquinho, one of the first designers to usher in womanly skirts and dresses, unreeled in a ruin of a garage, a film noir collection in which a frieze of winter trees on a cape- backed dress hinted at a story and its denouement. Her characters, with their elbow length gloves and Hitchcockian stance have strayed a little too far from the sweet sensibility of the Belgian designer. Dresses appeared with insets of fanning pleats, in draped jersey, often with the cape effect of a loose panel of fabric from the shoulders. Branquinho chose to layer her modest dresses over 1980s style bodysuits and leggings. Occasionally that idea worked, as in an aquamarine pleated dress with paler leggings peeping under the skirt.

"Whistler and especially the Japanese-inspired paintings," said Dries Van Noten backstage, referring to the late 19th century painter and explaining the inspiration of his collection, in which rough hessian, like a blank artist's canvas, was made into soft dresses and the models' hair was decorated with Japanese combs.

This Japonisme became more intense as flat oriental flower images patterned flowing dresses or appeared on the loose coats that are a Van Noten specialty. If the designer had stuck with long, Edwardian silhouettes melded with the orientalism, the collection would have been exceptional. But it wandered off into more familiar Bohemian territory, where even the subtle mix of colors could not hold the spell of the collection's earlier enchantment.

Loewe had the slight merit of being an honest collection. When a model stepped out with a quilted white leather tail coat matching a white quilted bag (or should that order be reversed?), the show was announcing what it is: a clothing line for an accessories house. Within those parameters and the designer Jose Enrique Ona Selfa does not really stretch them at all the show was fine. There were even moments when a pink suede bag, matching sandals and jacket gave a jolt of mild surprise. After seasons of "it" bags with clothes as a backdrop, going back to that bourgeois notion of matched accessories could seem fresh. But the show just offered pretty pieces, with a touch of Spain (Loewe's origins) in rompers that were probably once all the rage at the Spanish court, in portrait necklines and short Infanta dresses. It was all designed in the name of the new volumes. And, of course, of showcasing the stuff that makes the tills trill.

The Loulou de la Falaise line showed how years of handling color, fabric and jewelry at Yves Saint Laurent could be used to her advantage. Examples were mixes of striped cotton and paisley chiffon for a summer dress, snug jackets with cotton/metal fabric skirts that held their shape like whipped meringue and the ineffable chic of a Parisian shirt dress in a Toile de Jouy print. Add feather light accessories made, indeed, out of feathers, or from horsehair, and the collection was elegant in an original way.

"I have thought a lot about the post Saint Laurent period," said Falaise. "There was a need to break up his perfection and elegance with all that porno chic. But people are suddenly re-inventing elegance in a more modern way. I think it's a good moment for women. You don't have to have clothes that make you powerful. We are more confident now."

Suzy Menkes is the fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune.

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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