- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2011

PARIS (AP) - Could it possibly be a simple coincidence, wondered fashion insiders looking for clues that might confirm rumors McQueen designer Sarah Burton has been chosen to design Kate Middleton’s top secret royal wedding dress, that the label’s fall-winter 2011-12 show began with an all-white look?

Burton and the label’s chief executive have both denied the rumors, which surfaced last week in Britain’s Sunday Times. But those crossing their fingers they’ll prove true in the end found lots to give them hope in Tuesday’s show _ not least, two gleaming white dresses with long trains of frothy tulle that closed the show and looked to some suspiciously like wedding gowns.

Speculation over the identity of the designer Middleton has chosen for her April 29 wedding to Britain’s Prince William finally eclipsed the constant chatter about John Galliano’s spectacular fall from grace. The British designer was fired from his position as creative director of the house of Dior amid allegations he made anti-Semitic insults and after a video showing him, drunk, slurring the words “I love Hitler” was posted on the internet.

Galliano was sacked after 15 years at Dior on day one of Paris’ nine-day-long ready-to-wear collections, and the scandal has thrown a persistent pall over the collections, which have failed to generate as much excitement in seasons past.

Many were hoping the Chanel display Tuesday would pull the City of Light out of its funk, but the mod-vibed clothes failed to electrify. Still, Chanel’s blockbuster productions set the bar so high that even on the rare occasions when the clothes disappoint, the audience still emerges drop-jawed and starry eyed.

The new design team at Valentino forged ahead on their own path that took them away from the label’s traditional stalking grounds _ the red carpet _ and toward a younger, lower-key place. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli refined their soft, featherweight silhouettes in layered chiffon and lace.

Under retired founder Valentino Garavani, the label sent out so many statement gowns in tomato red that the color became known as “Valentino red,” but the shade was completely absent from Tuesday’s collection in neutral tones. The reddish-brown on a leather coat and some of the see-through chemisier dresses was the closest thing on to the label’s namesake shade on the nude, ecru and caramel-dominated collection.

Celebrities have largely stayed away from the shows this season, but A-list fashion mavericks Katy Perry and Kanye West turned out for wacky French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. Don’t be surprised if you soon see Perry sporting the piece de resistance of the Surrealist-themed collection, a bandeau top made from a pair of leather gloves padded out to look like they had hands still inside.

After nine long, drama-filled days, Paris’ collections wrap up on Wednesday with Prada second line Miu Miu, Elie Saab and the sole show on the entire calendar guaranteed to start on time, Louis Vuitton.

ALEXANDER McQUEEN

With the Middleton mystery hanging in the air, a collective shiver swept the crowd when the first model stepped onto the runway dressed in head-to-toe white. A volley of meaningful glances shot around the room as the looks that followed _ fur-trimmed pencil skirts and nipped-waist jackets with zippers in lieu of seams _ were also in gleaming white.

The clincher, for many of the fashion insiders in the room, were the two tulle-covered gowns that closed the show, which looked _ drum roll, please _ an awful lot like wedding dresses.

No matter that the collection also included a fair share of black, not to mention plentiful hardcore bondage touches, like the sculptural leather horse harnesses that encircled some of the looks and stood a fair chance of raising an eyebrow or two in palace protocol.

With whoever was chosen to design the dress bound by a strict confidentiality agreement, it looked unlikely that the secret would come out before Middleton walks down the aisle on April 29.

Still, those rooting for Burton _ who was appointed the label’s creative director after founder Alexander McQueen committed suicide last February _ saw Tuesday’s collection as a good omen.

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