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High Fashion, Now and Then

By Timothy Hagy

PARIS, January 24 - On Monday morning it spit snow in Paris, and by afternoon some 1,500 or so guests trampled across icy planks, through a muddy field in the Bois de Boulogne, to reach a tent wired with more high voltage than a Hollywood sound stage. Between television monitors showing archival images of the House, blaring spotlights and a soundtrack pumping both rock and classical music, haute couture in its present incarnation was presented à la Dior.

This season's theme traveled the courtly passageways of the first empire, stopped at the love-in years of the 60s (Andy Warhol and his muse Edie Sedwick as inspiration), and wound up with a nod here or there to the paintings of Rembrandt. Throw in a runway strewn with patchwork carpets, aluminum foil, sliver balloons and mismatched armchairs, and then John Galliano madeover as Napoleon Bonaparte, replete with blazing red hair extensions, and I'm sure that somebody must have found the results really cool. One of those was Sydney Toledano, President of Dior Couture, who was practically ecstatic when he told reporters after the show "It's new. It's wearable!" Others, like a Central American GQ editor, were less convinced. "Not one thing a woman could put on," he said disparagingly. Of course, the modus operandi never changes - big would be the word.

Christian Dior haute couture remains something of an enigma: what the fantastic collections have to do with an industry increasingly focused on profits derived from the sale of perfume and accessories, and driven by an emerging strategy (already jealously being eyed at rival PPR) of downplaying high priced star designers in favor of increasing brand recognition, is anybody's guess. Frankly, it might take more than the two bodyguards that trail John during his spotlighted catwalk sashay to protect him from evolving market forces. His own Elba may be looming on the horizon.

Have times changed since the frigid February day in 1947, when Christian Dior unveiled his revolutionary "New Look" collection, the brainchild of then Dior atelier premier, Pierre Cardin?

Admirers will say that John is constantly shaking up the cobwebs, while critics will say that he is stuck in a rut. Friends will say that he's carrying on the tradition of Dior's shock and awe, while foes will say the hype is in the production, not the clothes. Supporters will see the finesse and technical wizardry of the Dior couture atelier on display, while skeptics will say that if the generators failed, you'd be left with a handful of crystal dust.

If you took a long term view of things, the review for Monday's Dior couture show could have been written a week ago when 82-year-old Pierre Cardin told Reuters News Service: "Before you had Balenciaga, Chanel, Courrèges, Cardin· Of these names, yes Dior still exists, but it's spectacle. It's superb, but you can't walk in shoes like that or hats like that - to go where? You go to dinner and you need three chairs to sit down. Intelligent women work nowadays, they drive cars, and the cars are smaller and smaller, while the dresses at Dior are bigger and bigger. It's very beautiful, but it's not fashion - it's something else. It's costume."


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