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JAPAN DESIGNERS KICK OFF PARIS PREVIEW

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There has just been an earthquake in San Francisco and a falling of the stock market in New York. But here in Paris, at the showings of ready-to-wear for next spring, it's business as usual.

The shows are taking place in the courtyard of the Louvre, as usual. In three tents, as usual. There are 2,000 buyers and press . . . mostly dressed in black, as usual.And the shows have kicked off, as always, with the Japanese designers, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto, who bring their collections from Tokyo, and Kenzo, who is based in Paris. All are quite different, as usual.

Kawakubo has brought Raggedy Ann into the 1990s. The chopped bangs are still there - and so are her flat shoes, though now they are clunky or slightly altered saddle shoes.

As always with this collection, everything is a bit offside and askew, which somehow makes it seem all the more modern - and interesting. Yet everything is anchored in the familiar.

There are tartans, in color combinations more like those of a suburban high school than of a traditional clan. And there are kilts - mini, of course - worn over matching stretch bike shorts.

Remember smocking? Well, the new Raggedy Ann is dolled up in smocking made by a sewing machine gone awry. There are elasticized smocked shorts, and dresses with smocked skirts, and smocked sleeves of blouses poking through sleeveless jackets. And while the smocking might be lined up in rows, suddenly the rows switch direction, giving lumps and bulges to the clothes.

Our thoroughly modern Raggedy Ann has discovered fluorescent colors and T-shirts, though never one at a time. Usually there are two of each in an outfit, but then she piles others on, as any modern kid might do. And when she really piles on the colorful T-shirts, she bunches them up in a way to show off the different color of each worn underneath.

Whether Kenzo throws a wild extravaganza under a tent with animals and acrobats as he has done in the past, or confines himself to a narrow runway on his premises on the Place Victoire as he did this time, his clothes always provide a happy and imaginative world tour. The advantage of seeing them in a smaller space is that you are closer to them and can see better all that wit and charm. And you can see how wearable they are, as well.

Kenzo's 40-minute, around-the-world journey stops in funny places, sometimes with one foot in Austria, the other in Turkmenistan. He does it with reference to and respect for ethnic crafts, used a la Kenzo.

Sometimes the touches are in the accessories, such as the wide bracelets that look like they might have been hammered in West Africa, or raffia hats that could have been woven in the Caribbean for the Kenzo customer.

It all works so well because basically the clothes are untricky and familiar. There are bellboy jackets and softly constructed blazers, sometimes with elastic at the waist. There are easy shirts and tunics, flamenco skirts, sarongs and shorts.

You can always get a clue to the best seller of the previous season for Yohji Yamamoto by what his staff wears to help the crowd of press and buyers find their seats (and standing room) at his show. This season the winner was clearly an oversized wool dress with a huge cutout revealing a white layer, perhaps a T-shirt, underneath.

Before long it was clear that Yamamoto has gone very soft, slimmer than before, and quite clearly has been inspired by Western lingerie and sleepwear. No bustiers a la Madonna, no tiny ruffles, but rather elegant pieces like those worn in old movies or done by some of the best of the American and French designers today. Of course, done in Yamamoto's own way.

Tunics look like they were made from crocheted bedcovers, and for the finale, some long white dresses, which look ideal for wearing at home, are worn with featherweight shawls that looked like cobwebs. It's hard to recall any designer of any period thinking of that. The audience loved it.

Only rarely did Yamamoto get carried away with his bedroom theme. A couple of dresses looked like he might have taken some white sheets and tied them around the body to look like dresses.

Despite the sleepy, nighttime theme of the collection, none of the audience slumbered. In fact it gave Yamamoto the first standing ovation of the week.