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Voyaging on the African Queen

By Timothy Hagy

PARIS, January 26 -With haute couture hanging by a thread, it was Jean Paul Gaultier who tied up the week with an imaginative show on Wednesday afternoon inspired by the dreamy world of equatorial Africa. The runway might have been a series of podiums zigzagging in interconnected knots, but the collection was smooth as mocha latte - a color used frequently, whether in pleats streaming down the front of a day dress, or in a suit with lace brocade applied over shimmering satin. A string of beaded skirts flashed vividly amid a collection seemingly intended to be worn. Gone was extravagance, and in was a more understated interpretation of sleek legerity. That might be in keeping with the downsizing of the House, as 30 or so employees have been laid off as part of an ongoing restructuring plan.

As an ethnic drumbeat rang out, models sporting mega-sized tortoise shell sacks looked ready to set sail down the Congo. Ethnic head mask motifs were applied in relief, standing out prominently on the bodice of a topaz-blue evening gown, or hand-held as a frontal shield to the fluttering wedding dress of transparent tulle-over-bikini. The silhouette this season was for the most part linear, reinforced with pencil skirts and lightly tapered tops.

Scores of editors trudged down the maze of backstage passageways in the spiffy new Gaultier headquarters, frantically searching the designer. After having passed through a room full of half naked models, flotillas of security guards and makeup artists, Jean Paul was at last to be found street level, where champagne was gently bubbling and petit fours laid out on silver. "The masks," Gaultier explained, "I used them because that's really a work of art that is uniquely African".

Of course, the state of couture is not far from anybody's mind, especially the fashionista who flocked from the Four Corners of the world for an abbreviated Paris couture week this arctic-cold January. But Donald Potard, President of Gaultier certainly was optimistic. "Of course we're going to continue the haute couture line," he said. "At all costs."

You get the feeling that whatever those costs may be, Gaultier's heart and soul is sewn into those delicate, fleeting strands.


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