Beret, Baguette, Couture and French Cancan

Betsey Johnson at the end of her runway show as seen by Julien Fournié

Betsey Johnson at the end of her runway show as seen by Julien Fournié

NEW YORK, Sep 12, 2005/ FW/ — Betsey Johnson might just not have wanted too many real French people in the audience for the collection she showed this afternoon. Although Julien Fournié and myself secretly admired her from afar, we were very disappointed!

Ready to forgive her and her PR for not being invited, we were all the same very deluded by the so cliché pseudo-French collection that she has sent on the runway. French typical café tables were set among the first rows, as we saw it on the television screens in the lobby at the Bryant Park tents. Don’t take me wrong, we love humour, but too much is too much and enough is enough!

Paris for a fashion designer should not only consist of the Eiffel tower and the Arc de Triomphe. And no, let me tell you, the French no longer wear berets and don’t always go around with a baguette under their armpits!

This reminded me of a Hollywood episode which happened to me on the premiere of Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Truth About Charlie.’ Shot exclusively in Paris, the screening of this remake of the Stanley Donen’s classic Charade was followed by a cocktail party where all the waiters and waitresses were wearing berets and red foulards around the neck, while everybody was eating camembert and baguette. When you come to think of it, Stanley Donen’s original movie was much closer to reality, starring Audrey Hepburn, a real spokesperson for Parisian elegance!

But let’s go back to Betsey. Although I was amused with her signature athletic wheel on the runway, I think this show was no tribute at all to French fashion. Sorry, Betsey, but think of what kind of a tribute to the Parisiennes, Jean-Paul Gaultier has been giving over the past 25 years… You cannot compare! Just because of the beret, a piece often used by her in collections, the image of Sonia Rykiel and Betsey Johnson just mixed and I thought that Betsey just looked like a blonde Sonia who would have been too high to conceive a proper collection!

Writing about Audrey Hepburn inevitably makes me think of Haute Couture, as she embodies an image so much linked to this world… It gives me the opportunity here to write a little about the bad perception Americans must have of what couture is all about. In a country where a brand can adopt this name and put the word “juicy” at its side, I knew that something was missed on the way of understanding what Couture really is about.

This very afternoon, I saw the B. Michael show at the Altman Building, B. Michael is now calling his brand B. Michael Couture. True, what we saw was hardly a ready-to-wear collection, but the fact that it does not qualify for ready-to-wear, does not automatically make it couture! Couture garments should always be done only once for each piece, and this designer started his show by sending on his runway at least eight hunks dressed exactly the same way!

But this is only an example and I might have to come back on this subject after the show of a designer that his PR calls in a press release “haute couturier” using a French word that doesn’t even exist in our language. Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent have never been “haute couturiers” but only couturiers designing Haute Couture clothes. It might seem a subtle distinction to you, but to me, it is a capital nuance!

Early this evening, I stepped into the Victoria’s Secret shop at the corner of 34th street and Broadway to see their exhibit of past runway shows. It brought back memories of the time when I was taking care of one of their supermodels’ career and particularly, in front of some huge golden wings, of a particular Victoria’s Secret show that took place a few years ago on French soil, during the International Cannes Film Festival. The runway pieces that they had brought to France for this event were also so cliché! Their angels’ wings were in fact like oversized badly realized attires made for Folies Bergere a once-upon-a-time mythic Paris cabaret, now reserved only to tourists.

Is this the only best images that America has of the French popular culture lately? I don’t think so… A simple memory of Baz Luhrman’s ‘Moulin-Rouge’ can show that French clichés can be persistent but still aesthetically creative.

I am now putting this last hand to this blog delivering my thought for the day, which should be meditated upon seriously (but please read it aloud first with a Maurice Chevalier cliché accent. Here we go: “It is not because fries are French that waffles are not Belgian!” and after a good glass of Champagne, white Bordeaux or red Bourgogne, dream about French philosophy and about yourself debating with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre…

[JEAN PAUL CAUVIN]

Illustration by JULIEN FOURNIE