On the Streets of Highest Fashion

Christian Dior on Ave Montaigne
On the corner of avenue Montaigne and the
rue Francois 1er, Christian Dior's Paris headquarters.

Runway TV Fantasies Flop in the
Soft Light of Day in the Avenue Montaigne

Paris:- Friday, 21. March 1997:- Aside from Paris' main business, there is another one that generates a lot of notice and hoopla. It is the fashion business. Two times a year, the world's top designers roll out their new models and the world goes 'Oh Wow!' or 'Ho Hum!'

Even if it happens - very rarely - that the entire circus puts a collective 'only so-so' collection into the world's spotlight, the world still pays attention, because in the fashion business, the rag trade, Paris is number one. It cannot be ignored.

In my time here, the way the public sees this has changed radically. I think the type of change that I've seen is not one that applies only to fashion, but to the way we all see a lot of things. The centre of value had shifted from the content to the presentation, and the insatiable glutton of television is the culprit.

Everybody knows that fancy threads are designed, made and sold in Paris. The high-end part is a showcase for the textile industry as a whole, but Paris has earned a place as the incontestable world's leader when it comes to the high ticket sector. This is simply because the cream Thierry Mugler of the world's best designers have accepted the idea that Paris is the place to do it.

After paying a million francs a metre for rent, Thierry Mugler has little left over for decor.

For years the couture shows have been a little treat for ordinary residents. The twice a year events are newsworthy, and I used to really enjoy seeing the most outrageous, the most slinky, the most elegant threads on earth, being shown on the evening TV-news, in incredibly short video clips. It was never more than a blitz-view, a glimpse, but it often served as a real exclamation point to the night's usual news - this flash of glamour.

I knew the designer's names - and most of them are still around - and I knew which ones to watch for. There were the ones who did the 'routine' good stuff, and then there were these few who did... creations! New visions, fabrics assembled in such a way - clothing is not good word for what it is they do, they did - utterly stunning or astonishing.

In the area of the upper atmosphere where these people operate - some thousands of metres above the pollution - up there, in dreamland, I knew the clothes weren't real; they were made expressly for their seven to 15-second TV-news video clip. But boy, were they worth it!

That was then we had exactly six earth-bound TV stations in Paris. One was pay-TV, so I didn't have it. Two others had little or no news, or so few viewers that the fashion clips weren't shown on them. I think the other three used a 'pool'-service, because the industry didn't want too many tapes made, didn't want too many different angles of the designs to be floating around for counterfeiters to use.

Today it is completely different. A TV guide headline screamed at me: '80 channels coming soon!' The local cable company somehow got access to the latest runway shows of the summer collections, and has shown them non-stop over the last couple of weeks. The Herald Tribune has had several special issues, with full-page four-color photos, and hundreds, maybe thousands of extra column-inches of copy, devoted to fashion, the collections, the buyers, the customers, and to the fashion reporters themselves who are also becoming rich and famous. Everywhere you looked for the past couple of weeks - fashion, fashion, fashion.

Overkill. They have got to feed the monster and the monster's name is TV - land, cable, pay, encoded, satellite, world-wide 24 hours a day; we never sleep. Never, because we, the TV, have an unstoppable appetite, craving - need! - to fill airtime, fill cables, fill outer space with TV signals - and fashion! As a show, it costs next to nothing to produce.

Tennis is easy to produce for TV; so are billiards. 'Baby Dior' Harder are football, ice-hockey, car racing and ocean racing probably costs most (wait for robot TV-camera satellites!). Ballroom dancing and ice-skate dancing probably cost something between billiards and baseball. One thing they have in common is nobody is needed to write scripts for them. Neither does fashion and it is dirt-cheap to produce.

For 'Baby Dior,' leave the baby Benz out in front.

And look, the top designers in the world knock themselves out for this! The absolute top people. The TV may 'buy' the rights to broadcast, but you can be sure they do not 'buy' these designers - with 80-channel competition, who could afford it - even if the designers were for sale?

I guess that not much money changes hands for the 'rights' to broadcast the fashion shows. The argument will be that the broadcasts are 'free' publicity for the designers and their 'maisons.' On top of it the TV companies sell ad spots between the frocks and even make a little money.

The designers - not all of them - are sucked in, but not quite. The ones that go along with it, do so, it seems to me, in the spirit that they are making costumes - for cheapo TV shows.

It's 'hey, free publicity!' But in order to beat their competitors, in the ratings, they have to make really extreme costumes; the wildest stuff they can dream up. So I can see it; they have one whole atelier doing nothing except making TV-costumes. This is the nut-ball department where anything goes and the loopier the better. Toilet seats as collars are not far off.

After the last couple of weeks, I haven't seen anything that grabbed my attention like before the age of cable. So I figured out the above answer, and decided to check out reality in the avenue Montaigne and rue François 1er, in the classy part of the eighth arrondissement between the Champs-Elysées and the Seine.

The avenue Montaigne is a cool understatement street. There is no bar-tabac; there is the hotel Plaza-Athenée instead. A plaque on the wall says this street was 'twinned' with Madison Avenue on 19. June 1987. Dior's place is an ex-bar, but it doesn't look like in its 'dove' grey. Nine Ricci's brass is a bit too shiny and the building could use a tiny smaze of grime, but they are cleaning the place next door and I guess they did the Ricci place first.

About halfway down to the Seine at place de l'Alma, the rue François 1er cuts off at a right angle and runs through to George V. It is less elegant, without the trees, but has places too - Balmain, Versace, Courrèges and... Cartier! Harry Winston was down on Montaigne near the hotel.

Thierry Mugler's place looked the most ordinary with a bit of chrome in the name outside. This 'name' is one of the ones that used to blow me away back in the three-TV-channel days. 'Mugler' could easily be the name of a off-road truck, so it is probably real.

While I'm on names, I may as well drop them all into one paragraph, as they all fit into one 615-metre long street dating to 1672 - Emmanuel Ungaro, D. Porthault, Jean-Louis Scherrer, Valentino, Chanel, Christian Lacroix, Revillon, Ines de la Fressange, Louis Vuitton and Céline. The Italians include Max Mara, Salvatore Ferragamo, Krizia, Genny, Mako Cashmeres, Prada, and Dolce and Gabbana. And there are more to come as Calvin Klein has a scaffolding up and there's a bunch of hard-hat guys inside a dark hole throwing cement dust around.

You don't have to go into the shops on either of these two streets to see something that was not shown on TV recently. Courrèges, rue François 1er Although most buildings have less than show-window-sized windows, most of the windows do have clothes showing in them.

I tell you, with my hand over my prolo green American Express card, that these windows have displays of clothes that real people can actually wear, even in public.

In the rue François 1er, Courrèges' Café Blanc has the lowest priced 'petit déjuener,' and 'tea time' for only 30 francs.

These are store-windows displays, so the threads are tacked up 'just so,' but all they same, compared to the wild scenes of TV flamboyance, these are real clothes. There are these tiny bits of real green grass behind iron fences, so you can't press your nose to the windows like you can in the rue François 1er, but at two metres distance, you call tell that... well, these would look good on most people - and not odd, like the other ones do on those models - those poor models!

If they were horses, somebody would alert the animal rights people about obvious abuses. I suppose the thing to remember is that their careers are short; and they should have several years in which to recover before they reach 25.

The clothes I saw today are for ordinary people. My wife entered a Time magazine guaranteed-winner free superjumbo lottery contest and now they are sending free copies of the magazine for some reason, so it has given me a chance to read it for the first time in 20 years. The current issues remind me of why I never read it more than sporadically before.

By co-incidence therefore, I have Time's slender 72-page 'European' edition of 24. March - futurenews! two weeks old - and their 16-page fashion feature - not news! - I say it's a feature! - it says, in the first paragraph! - that during couture week Chanel wrote an order for 13 dresses and six beaded jackets, with the dresses at $175,000 a pop, for - just one! - one single customer! If it's in Time Magazine, it must be true. You read it too? I wonder if Time's editors read it.

I shouldn't knock a magazine I never buy and usually never read - but I mention it to give an idea of the scale of the hype that surrounds 'the presentation' while effectively ignoring the content.

If you too have been scared off by the hype surrounding fashion - couture - 'prêt-a-porter' in Paris, my advice is, don't be. Just like anywhere else, you can look in the windows for free, and see really fine things, maybe finer than you've seen elsewhere. You can also go in 95 percent of the shops and boutiques for free as well, and see the good things at close range.

No matter where you go, and Paris is included, good things well-made do cost money. Considering that a lot of outright Nine Ricci, ave Montaigne junk costs good money too, you may as well get ready to save up for an extra six months - and get something really good, something that you'll never forget.

By the time you get to Nina Ricci, the barricades will be gone.

If saving is not your bag, bring all the cash and plastic you can carry, and get ready to haggle. All the tickets are negotiable in this bazar. If the hurdle is sill too high, take a métro ride to one of the places that sell original items from last years' collection, for up to 60 percent off. Although there's nothing older than last years' Paris collection, they are exceptionally well-made and will last for years.

A nice little Chanel suit will last a lifetime, and you might be the only person in Yellowknife to have one. I'd get one if I was a lady and was only going to get one.

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