A Look Back at Paris Fashion in the 1970s & 80s

“Twenty years ago, I used to watch fashion show tapes over and over. Nowadays, they bore me,” a fashion professional told me recently. But there’s a place in Paris where he’ll find solace.

A highly entertaining new exhibition at the Arts Décoratifs museum focuses on the seminal work of Paris designers in the 70s and 80s. By assembling superstars like Yohji Yamamoto and Christian Lacroix, as well as such unsung heroes as Jean Muir and Marc Audibet, curator Olivier Saillard has resurrected the recent yet often misunderstood period in fashion. Creativity was stretched to its limits, models of all ethnic origins began working together, suited-up marketing guys didn’t direct trends, and it was the last era that prêt-à-porter would be informed by haute couture.

Each designer is given his or her own section (Claude Montana’s is unbelievable). But it’s the videos that soar to camp heaven, notably an Azzedine Alaïa promotional film featuring Grace Jones at her best, a hilarious Sybilla show where models—including Anh Duong and Rossi de Palma—mocked career women in a hurry, and footage of Yves Saint Laurent’s fab 1976 ready-to-wear collection. And don’t miss the statuesque Djimon Hounsou prancing about in itsy-bitsy swim trunks at Thierry Mugler’s 1986 African summer show.

Seeing photographers at the edge of the runways and models in character, teasing the audience, one misses that kind of interaction and energy today. There was no Internet then, and the attending press had to be seduced. Today, brands have websites in mind, eradicating any spontaneous spirit.

It’s a pity the Chanel section didn’t aptly convey Karl Lagerfeld’s infectious fantasy of the 80s, and it would have been great to see the underrated American designer Patrick Kelly. But this is an exhibition that I, and all fashion lovers, should visit over and over until it closes in October.

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