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American in Paris brings haute couture to dolls

Many a famous French fashion designer has worked with dolls in his career. As young men, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Balmain, and the late Christian Dior all created couture fashions in miniature from scraps of fabrics, furs, and trimmings before plucking up enough courage to cut into the most costly and beautiful fabrics.

During World War II the French couture continued to make and sell fashions even though fabrics were strictly rationed and the quality was appalling. After the liberation a group of high-fashion creators organized the "Theatre de la Mode" to show the world that the ugly "occupation styles" did not represent French talent.

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This show, which opened in New York, was made entirely on dolls scaled to one-quarter life size -- large enough to show every detail, the intricacy of the cut, the draping and couture techniques as they had been known before the war. Forty-one Paris couturiers, 37 milliners, and 21 hairdressers combined their talents to achieve this chef d'oeuvre. The novel presentation was an outstanding success and induced American fashion buyers and wealthy private clients to return to France in the mid-1940s.

Now there's a reverse twist with an American woman creating and dressing high fashion dolls in Paris. "Poupees Elegantes" is the creation of Carol Charon, a fashion designer and illustrator, as are these prototypes of elegant Parisian women.

Mrs. Charon operates this small business, which she began a year ago last February, in a studio flat that adjoins her own spacious apartment overlooking the Porte des Ternes on the edge of Neuilly. The French government has issued an artisan's license, difficult for any foreigner to obtain, and the dolls are patented.

Each figure measures 24 inches high with the body made of padded cotton. The head and lower parts of the arms and legs are in Limoges porcelain. The heads are all cast from the same mold and delivered in solid white. Mrs. Charon then handpaints each face, styles the human hair wigs, and creates a completely individual ensemble for each doll. Each one is given with a typical French name: "Michelle, Colette, Bettina" for various Parisian friends who have encouraged her and helped make the contacts to start the business.

The original head, modeled in clay, is cast in series by Michelle Sagant, one of the skilled technicians living in Limoges, the medieval city where the art of porcelain has been acclaimed since the 13th century. "I never could have gotten started without her," says Mrs. Charon. "She even helped me find the woman who makes the little wigs."

Friends have pointed out that Mrs. Charon has unconsciously modeled the doll heads on her own features, and she tends to paint them to resemble herself. Since the dolls look like Mrs. Charon, who is practically a cinematic double for Ava Gardner, the end result is very attractive.

Next come the tiny wigs, each made of human hair in various natural colors which Mrs. Charon cuts and curls with a miniature curling iron to style in various elaborate effects according to the specific type of gown she intends to dress the doll in. Finally, off to the sewing machine for a contemporary fashion gown worthy of any top couture house: rich brocades, lame, lace or velvet trimmed with embroidery, sequins, furs, or feathers -- all the fantasy of a high-fashion collection.

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The dolls are not for sale in any boutique or shop but are ordered by word of mouth through "friends of friends of friends" practically as fast as their creator can make them. Prices begin around 1,000 francs (about $250) on up, depending on the time involved for each individual collector's item. The simplest model necessitates at least 10 hours work to paint the face (sometimes done 10 times over), style the wig, create and make the dress and accessories.

Each costume is unique and will never be precisely duplicated. Fabrics are often small remnants from the couture house sales; trimmings may come from millinery supply firms, church sales, the flea markets, or anyplace. Mrs. Charon, formerly a New Yorker, has lived in Paris for the past nine years and travels frequently with her husband, an IBM executive here. A recent trip to Greece proved a source for a doll's lavalier concocted from a tiny string of Greek "worry beads."

Curiously it is this American woman who is helping to perpetuate the dying art of fine handwork in Paris. Perfectionism is now a grace that very few people have the time to achieve. Yet one of the Charon dolls has a hair wig which is totally concealed beneath her "Madame Gres" style turban. "I simply couldn't bear the thought of anyone removing the turban and discovering a totally bald head underneath," she says.

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