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PARIS Spring 2004

After a summer of heat, fires and staggering loss of life, Parisians are strolling beneath charbroiled chestnut trees while celebrating the coming of autumn. Fashion, however, is never far from sight. In this style-conscious city, the new police brigade on roller skates weaves in and out of the Boulevard Saint German patrolling the enlarged bike lanes, their ultra tight uniforms, aviator sunglasses, and flame-licked helmets crying super cool. Even the sanitation workers sport color-coordinated lime green brooms that match their vests an cargo pants.

Just in time to rekindle popular culture, the French Federation of Fashion has released the calendar for Fashion Week Spring 2004, which will run from October 7-15. In an effort to spotlight emerging designers, the entire first day of collections has been reserved for up-and-coming labels. Isabel Marant, Dice Kayek, Marc Le Bihan, Alexandre Matthieu, Sharob Wauchob, Haider Ackermann, Gaspard Yurkievich, Andrew Gn, Mispelaere, AF Vandervorst and Bernhard Willhelm will kick things off.

Beginning on October 8, the traditional houses will retake the stage, though in this year of economic pressure, several mainstays have elected not to show. Among the notable absences are Balenciaga, Guy Laroche, Scherrer, Kenzo, Jacques Fath, Montana and Tom Van Lingen.

Elsewhere, two débuts will be closely watched - Christophe Lebourg at Balmain and Nils Larson at Nina Ricci. The final Hermès collection by Martin Margiela (before Jean-Paul Gaultier officially takes over the reigns) has been scheduled to be presented to a limited audience in the company's boutique on Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. At Givenchy, beleaguered Welsh designer Julien McDonald is to present what is widely expected to be his final Ready-to-Wear collection for the label.

The last of the big names fall in a block on Sunday afternoon, October 12, beginning with Valentino and ending with Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, designed by Tom Ford.

For the third consecutive season, Christian Lacroix will show his Spring/Summer 2004 ready-to-wear collection by presentation rather than by a much more costly catwalk show. According to a company spokesman, the date and time should be fixed within the next week.

The final three days of fashion week will be reserved for newcomers, with 25 different shows running from Monday through Wednesday noon. In total, the 90 official shows, together with numerous off-calendar events, make the Paris Ready-to-Wear shows the world's largest fashion event.

There is a familiar figure ensconced upon the front row of each Dior Homme and Lanvin Ready-to-Wear show. None other than the co-founder of the Yves Saint Laurent Couture House, Pierre Bergé, arrives like clockwork - winter, spring, summer and fall - as he cheers on his two mutual protégés, Hedi Slimane and Alber Elbaz.

The former, a Frenchman of Arab descent presently transforming Dior Homme, and the latter, an Israeli-American now Artistic Director of Lanvin, have a thing or two in common. Pierre Bergé hand picked

I'm so much happier now at Lanvin."

both designers to run, respectively, the women's and men's sides of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche in the late 90s. From someone with has a proven track record on talent spotting, that fact seems auspicious.

When in the fall of 1999, Gucci Group bought out the label, that catalyst saw the departure of two of fashion's most talented designers from YSL Rive Gauche. While Pierre Bergé is well documented in his bitterness towards Tom Ford, even telling the French daily Le Figaro "When one buys a Porsche, one does not buy the chauffeur to drive it", both Alber and Hedi have shown remarkable Zen in restraining from any direct criticism.

At the reception that closes Haute Couture season held each July in Paris, in a rather telling moment, Alber was admiring a set of tails from Hedi's Spring 2003 Dior Homme collection while reminiscing about his Saint Laurent years. What he said was "All of that is behind me, and I have no regrets. I'm so much happier now at Lanvin."

As for Hedi, last July he turned down a lucrative counteroffer from Ford and the Gucci Group to return to his previous position, preferring to extend his contract at Dior, where soaring revenues have astounded even his harshest critics. "Hedi" in Arabic, means "Wisdom" after all. Shimmering in lacquered black and oozing sexiness, the Dior signature style has begun to set the codes for men's fashion in the new century.

Across town, any editor who has seen one of Alber's collections for Lanvin can attest to the perfection of mind and matter floating along the runway. Featherweight and classically chic, his signature has come to redefine one of the most noble of Parisian fashion houses. With a finish that could be taken for haute couture, his work is charting unknown territory in the rapidly changing world of high fashion.

French Actress Chloé Sevigny chose a Lanvin jersey one-shoulder dress for the premier of her film "Shattered Glass" at the Toronto

Film Festival on September 10. But an even more telling sign of the ultimate coolness of the label is the fact that the trend-setting Paris boutique, Colette, has featured Lanvin's fall collection front and center in its display windows.

As the venerable names of the last century slowly retire, the future is left to a set of young designers, no less driven by a passion for their art. With the Paris Ready-to-Wear shows just around the corner, and men's shows coming on the cusp of a New Year, there is much to watch for from two designers whose careers are just taking off.