Fashion: Clothes to cut out and keep

At the Paris ready- to-wear shows the French foundered in a millennial malaise. That left the Japanese, with their DIY approach, unashamed romanticism and endless innovation, to show them how it's done.
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Something is rotten in Paris - in fashion circles at least. Call it fin de siecle malaise if you will, but confusion reigned throughout last week's collections. Confusion between creativity and commerce and between the old image of an established house and the new, supposedly improved one. Have young designers been brought in for the pure love of fashion and to nurture young talent? Or are they simply there to ensure lucrative cosmetic and accessory lines do not grow old with the city's more established generation of designers? Whatever the answer, the pressure is on them.

Take John Galliano, the first new blood to be injected - originally at Givenchy and currently at Christian Dior. It seems the designer can do nothing right. If he allows his fertile imagination and enjoyment of the couture techniques now at his fingertips their full expression, his detractors say he is not addressing the Dior client or any sense of commerciality. If he sends out what he perceives to be a more commercial collection, critics say he has lost his magic touch.

This season's collection for Dior was more commercial - sloppy, oversized knitwear that played cute havoc with the body's proportions, as well as more straightforward, figure-hugging dresses, cardigans and skirts. There was barely a trace of the elaborate evening wear Galliano is known and loved for - he has been criticised for showing too much of this at the expense of the day wear in the past. This season, when it finally came out, in chartreuse and bright turquoise, it stole the show. As a whole the collection lacked vitality and coherence: by trying to rein himself in, perhaps Galliano lost heart.

The designer's signature collection was scaled down from previous years too, shown in the Carrousel du Louvre - official location for the Paris collections - rather than an 18th-century chateau, say, in the middle of nowhere. This meant that the set - a building site complete with musclebound labourers in hard hats - looked prefab where previously it has been fabulous.

There was nothing confused about these clothes, however, although at times the audience had to struggle not to be distracted by the antics of models acting their hearts out with irritating effect. But even they failed to detract from the magnificence of trench coats twisted into sinuous day suits and sassy leather skirts, or the wit of a John Galliano spin on the Chanel suit, more curvy than the original by miles. Bias-cut gowns, this season in cranberry and thistle, were as gorgeous as ever: nobody does these better.

Alexander McQueen is a designer who seems more able to separate his own collection from the ones he designs for Givenchy. If his signature London show was unrivalled, full of creative energy and ideas, his show for Givenchy was more straightforward, aimed at the bourgeois Givenchy customer.

Strong-shouldered trouser suits looked good: a knife-sharp black tuxedo with leather trim will prove a welcome addition to the Givenchy wardrobe. Less fierce were knee-length shift dresses: sweet, flattering and easy to wear. McQueen is no fool and the millennial theme that ran throughout - shock-white make-up and identical crimped Breaking Glass wigs - ensured that he made the news pages the following day. A dress in moulded plastic was one very beautiful show-stopper; flashing body suits straight out of Tron another.

Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton went camping, in more ways than one: take the world's largest (and most expensive) rucksack in tomato-red, patent, monogrammed leather and complete with rolled-up sleeping bag - cashmere of course - and there you have it. Louis Vuitton is the most lucrative arm of LVMH, the fashion conglomerate that also owns both Dior and Givenchy, turning over $1bn in international sales a year. But it's the luggage that sells way over and above any clothes. Jacobs knows this and so, with a twist reminiscent of early Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, bags dominated. Models in Flashdance trousers (smocked at the waistband) and fine cashmere sweaters tottered beneath the weight of them, the biggest and most brash of the season: a tote that would house a family of four; a shopping trolley in which to wheel about an entire year's provisions. Once these have been scaled down for public consumption, they will no doubt sell and sell.

It's hard to see anyone buying Alber Elbaz's first collection for Yves Saint Laurent, despite the fact that relations between the designer and his successor are said to be just fine. True, Saint Laurent is a tough act to follow but peasant sleeves blown up to cartoonish proportions, tarty little black dresses split to the crotch and satin evening gowns with buckled seams were not what was expected. There were exceptions: a red leather trench coat was pure Left Bank chic and at least some of the tailoring - coat dresses in particular - had the elegance of the originals that inspired it. Otherwise, the Saint Laurent customer can only hope for better days to come.

The grande dame of French fashion is Sonia Rykiel, and she presides over a house that is still very much her own (despite the fact that she is pushing 70) and looks great for it. Rykiel's is run as a family business - in much the same way as the Italian greats - which means that a signature is maintained and developed season after season. For the millennium, Rykiel's look came discoed up with hot sequinned lips appliqued here, there and everywhere, and very sexy and desirable it was too.

Whether Stella McCartney was brought in to maintain the famous Chloe signature is another matter, although this season, for the first time, she seemed really to have found her feet. The clothes were far better cut than they have been: rock chick clothing to suit rock wives - Patsy Kensit, Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg - all in the front row. Is it McCartney's increasingly accomplished work as a designer or her pulling power where celebrity turn-outs is concerned that won her appointment in the first place, I wonder? Hats off to her, none the less.

Yohji Yamamoto's last collection, based on brides and widows, was a tough act for even this most poetic of designers to follow. He managed it, however. Much has been made of the death of the trouser suit in fashion in recent months: Yamamoto's deft cutting skills and narrow silhouette ensures that it won't be long before we are all wanting one once more. For evening, he was back in more unashamedly romantic mode. Panne velvet in jewel colours was so fine you could see through it: it fluttered round the models like the finest chiffon when they walked.

Rei Kawakubo's collection for Comme des Garcons was equally innovative. Described as "another exercise in simplicity", it looked just about as complex as fashion can be: this is very Comme. Tartans and tweeds, wrapped and draped high around the neck, mixed with sequinned dresses, skirts and even big knickers in a riot of colour and texture - brave even for this most courageous of labels and lovely for it. Best of all were sequinned garments in silver and gold. Nothing brash about these - the colour had been stripped from them so only the barest shimmer remained. Comme protege Junya Watanabe continues to grow in stature: his neoprene New Look skirts took couture into the 21st century, as did handbags that, at the flick of a wrist, transformed into immaculately tailored jackets.

Finally, Issey Miyake developed last season's introduction of A-POC (A Piece Of Cloth) that looks set to earn its place in fashion history in much the same way as the enormously successful Pleats Please line. Out of a single roll of fabric, everything from dresses to bras, knickers, hats and even gloves are cut out, by the customers themselves, following a pattern provided by Miyake which they are encouraged to adapt to suit their body shapes and needs. This time round, these designs came complete with stuffed seams - not easy for any but the very thin. Pleats found their way back into the mainline collection for the year 2000 too: they looked beautiful, shaped like exploding stars.

It's no coincidence that the three great Japanese designers - Miyake, Kawakubo and Yamamoto - continue to steal the Paris season. They have no corporate giant bearing down on them and answer only to themselves. When the shows are over with, they pack up their wares and head straight back to Tokyo where all three are doing very nicely, thank you, continuing to sell well in Europe and America from a distance, without any interference from men in suits.

They alone in Paris are pushing the boundaries of fashion forward, truly challenging our notions of dress.