“Then is there a vast difference between a Callot dress and one from any ordinary shop?” inquires Marcel Proust’s Swann to his mistress Albertine. “Why, an enormous difference,” she replies. “Only alas! What you can get for 300 francs in an ordinary shop will cost 2,000 there. But there can be no comparison. They look the same only to people who know nothing at all about it.”
As fate would have it, on a recent afternoon we found ourselves, like Albertine, agape with admiration at a group of Callot Soeurs frocks in the mesmerizing F.I.T. EXHIBIT “Fashioning the Modern Woman: The Art of the Couturiere 1919-1939” (Seventh Avenue and 27th Street, through April 10). The Callot Soeurs flapper dresses are hardly the only magical garments in the show, a cavalcade of woman-designed couture that includes a 1939 shocking pink Schiaparelli gown (would that its sparkly black trim were in the shape of bugs, a hallmark of the surrealist Schiap) and a ’20s dress by Jeanne Lanvin that looks slouchy and comfortable despite a wealth of scallops, bead-encrusted hoops, and a vertical scarlet sash. On the other hand, even 80-odd years ago Jeanne Paquin must have strained credulity when she described her oeuvre as meant for “la civilization du metro”; the gargantuan brown velvet Paquin walking suit on display at F.I.T. would take up half a subway car.
In any case, that fusty suit was soon to be relegated to the back of the closet: The revolutionary Coco Chanel, an evil-eyed sprite brandishing an uncomplicated, effortless little black dress, was poised to rewrite fashion history. When the couturier Paul Poiret sputtered that all Chanel had to offer was “poverty deluxe,” Chanel replied, “Simplicity does not mean poverty.”
Inspired by Chanel’s devastating dis, we take the metro to Soho to look into the lairs of contemporary women designing for women. Our first stop is DKNY (420 West Broadway), because after all, Donna Karan, whatever you think of her, was the first to get women out of hideous 1970s dress-for-success suits (remember bow ties?) and into slinky bodysuits and wrap skirts. DKNY is a real space hog in Soho, taking up an entire block, and its tame spirit is really more mid than downtown. Still, we are touched to see that the shop offers an updated version of that original bodysuit, almost as progressive in its time as Chanel’s black dress. These days it’s bright orange, and though it still snaps closed, it also features, for better or worse, a thong.
DKNY may be vast, but with its cement floor and track lighting it is no interior design groundbreaker. We’re a lot happier at BETSEY JOHNSON (138 Wooster Street), where we love the yellowed roses on the wall so much we once quizzed a saleswoman about how their preternatural fading was achieved. (It’s paint over wallpaper.) If the DK woman has a real job in a genuine office, BJ’s gal is a lot goofier: She might don a pale green sweater decorated with a leering red devil—he looks a little like Johnny Dynell ($118)—or a saccharine cardigan crocheted in tea-cozy yellow and pink ($135).
Betsey isn’t the only one who has made her store into a boudoir: At ANNA SUI (113 Greene Street), the guiding light seems to be the historic Biba store in London, a long-vanished 1970s showplace famous for its droopy art nouveau clothes. Sui’s shop is painted lachrymose lavender and there are lots of black lacquer cabinets to hold the mauve nail enamels and MC5 T-shirts. But of course the big draw here is the mod-redux clothes: A shredded plaid dress that appears to have been ruined in the wash is a steal, marked down to $97 from $300.
Unfortunately, JILL STUART (100 Greene Street) seems to share her interior design sensibility with Donna Karan. Her shop, an enormous two-story affair, is militantly plain and full of her own designs at discouraging prices: $315 for a tiny pleated skirt; $95 for a pink undershirt. We fare better downstairs, which is called Jill Stuart Vintage (she’s affixed this enormous label inside old clothes designed by somebody else). Here the monotony is relieved by ottomans covered with piano shawls, and the frothy confections on the racks include, for $85, a pale silk camisole lavished with lace enough to make a Callot soeur weep.