Fashion: Revenge of the old masters

It is the old school of designers such as Kawakubo, Miyake and Yamamoto - not the young guns - who have grasped the secret of modernity.

It was supposed to be the season that Paris stole the shows; the season when the new guard of French fashion pulled rank and showed the rest of the world the path that leads to the sartorial future.

Not since the beginning of the decade have there been quite so many off- schedule shows that promised great things. And at least new names are emerging from a scene that has been stagnant too long. The bright hopes that have been brought into the luxury goods houses, from Michael Kors at Celine and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton to Narciso Rodriguez at the Spanish leather house, Loewe, have proved that their jobs are to be safe and commercial - to sell bags, shoes and leather belts. There are few innovations there. And at Balenciaga, the 26-year-old French designer, Nicolas Ghesquiere - who, along with one of the new Belgians on the block, Olivier Theyskens, has forged a good relationship with Madonna's stylist, which is always a clever move - is taking himself and his severely modernist collection far too seriously at so young an age.

There were some high spots: An and Arikx Vandevorst, the partnership from Antwerp, showed their first collection on the Paris runway. The theme of their collection was "clothes that look like you slept in them". And that is just what the models did. The show took place in a makeshift dormitory with a bed for each model to sleep on until it was her time to take her sleepy head up and down the catwalk to show off their crumpled, layered looks.

AF Vandevorst have a hard act to follow. The Belgians in Paris, who are now well established, include Martin Margiela. He showed his favourite ideas from the past three years in a typically informal show where the models dressed in trompe -l'oeil prints and patched-together denim strolled through the dilapidated house of socialite Sao Schlumberger in semi-darkness. Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten also offered more highlights in a week when they were few and far between.

Sharon Wauchob is Irish, an ex-graduate of Central Saint Martins. There was an impressive turnout of buyers and press to see her second show, and there were some pretty clothes and gentle shapes that were well worth the trip. Sharon also designs for Louis Vuitton and she knows how to make her creativity sellable. And there was Gaspard Yurkievich who showed his linear, geometric and elegant collection on models who walked before the audience on imaginary high heels. For really conceptual footwear, Benoit Meleard launched his first shoe collection, cleverly cashing in on an area of fashion not too over-subscribed. Previously, he has worked for Charles Jourdan and Robert Clergerie. He has also designed the shoes for the American upstart, Jeremy Scott, which is perhaps something he should keep quiet about. Scott has, it seems, become a victim of his own hype and his exaggerated pointy shoulders are almost as ridiculous as his ego.

Best of all was ex-Helmut Lang assistant, Kostas Murkudis, who drew lightly from his Greek background with references to the uniforms of the Greek army, but who showed a collection that pinpointed all the key trends, delivered a strong and original point of view, and had a lightness of touch and a sense of humour. There were dresses decorated with strands of brightly coloured ribbon (ribbons were a recurring theme throughout the shows), punky raw edges and zips, as well as the inevitable military- utility that will sell. Murkudis already has several outlets in the UK - not only does he have ideas and creativity, he has sorted out his commercial side as well - and he is a name worth watching.

It was not the new names who stole the shows, however, much as press and buyers wanted them to. Karl Lagerfeld re-invented Chanel, designing his collection around the new space age 2005 aerodynamically moulded bag. It is a smart move, giving the label a whole new lease of life. There is nothing quite like experience in the fashion world and, while youth has idealism and innovation on its side, some of the old stalwarts of Paris - or more accurately, Japan - still know how to push the boundaries forward. Issey Miyake, Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto have all grasped something that few others have: the secret of modernity. To be modern does not have to mean boring, although try telling some of the American designers that. Yohji Yamamoto is approaching 60. He showed his first collection in Tokyo in 1977, and joined the Paris calendar in 1981. Seventeen years on he is still capable of setting Paris ablaze with a collection full of wit, humour, ideas and energy. On the simple theme of the wedding dress, he managed to costruct clothes that told a story, that were full of integrity and humanity.

Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons is of the same generation as Yohji Yamamoto and must be acknowledged as one of the most influential designers of her times. Her own collections are often misunderstood or simply too challenging to take in. But she continues in her own uncompromising way, challenging preconceived ideas about clothes and the body within them. Even her younger protege, Junya Watanabe, whose collection for summer was designed around mouldings of six different body shapes - some stooped and hump-backed - cannot outshine or outwit Kawakubo. Her experiments twisting and draping fabric have been adopted by designers from Jean Paul Gaultier - who paid hommage to geisha girls and the Japanese kimono in a sensational collection by another designer who is no longer a spring chicken - to AF Vandevorst.

Kawakubo's new look for spring is positively two dimensional and flat. A pattern piece from a jacket was sewn on to another one and turned back from the centre front. The collection was simple and plain, without being severe. A purple dress with scalloped edges was worn with a blue dress placed on the front like an overgrown brooch. A techno lace dress was worn with a one-sleeved bolero jacket on top. The silhouette was slim and neat. For once with Comme des Garcons, each piece was recognisable as traditional clothing, but only Rei Kawakubo can make something so simple so beautiful, and so relentlessly modern.

Issey Miyake is one of the century's greatest textile and fashion innovators: for spring, the designer has made the ultimate fashion statement, clothes that you can cut out and make yourself. It works a bit like Ikea: you go to the shop and buy the flatpack, take it home, follow the instructions and - if all goes well - half an hour later, voila! You have a new summer wardrobe. Miyake is quite a genius. His new invention is called A-POC: A Piece of Cloth.

"This process not only suggests a new way of making clothes that is fun and which creates a dialogue between the designer and the wearer, but also offers a means by which to conserve fabric and reduce waste," read the notes which accompanied the show. "The possibilities for further development are limitless; we welcome the new epoch with A-POC!"

Now this is what fashion designers should be doing: finding solutions to problems instead of causing problems where there were none to start with. Hidden within each rectangular tube of stretch nylon (with cotton where the garment touches the body) is a dress, a shirt, a skirt, a pair of pants, a jumpsuit, socks, underwear, a cap, bags and a belt. A whole wardrobe, in fact, to cut out and wear. And what's more, the tubes of fabric are produced on an industrial knitting machine programmed by a computer, which means they can be mass produced and therefore will be relatively affordable. It is a whole wardrobe easy to travel with, washable and - get this - no ironing is necessary. Now that really is modern.

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