The supremacy of French designers is no more. The Japanese, Belgians and British are setting the trends. Tamsin Blanchard reports from the Autumn/Winter collections
WHEN Giorgio Armani tried to show his Emporio Armani collection at the Autumn/Winter '98 shows in Paris last week, his efforts were scuppered by the French authorities who said he had not made the correct security arrangements. Rumour abounded that this was a plot to prevent a powerful Italian showing his collection on French soil. And perhaps Paris is right to be defensive about who shows there - French designers might once have been at the centre of the fashion universe, but not any more.

Last week, foreign designers dominated the Paris shows. This is the culmination of years of overseas influence, beginning with the Japanese, who moved in during the Seventies, when Kenzo, Issey Miyake and Comme des Garcons first moved their shows to the French capital. Then came the Belgians, who have been so influential since the late Eighties; the British, who are in the seats of power at Dior, Givenchy and Chloe; and now the Americans, who have taken control of the commercial backbone of Paris at Louis Vuitton, Celine and French-controlled Spanish company Loewe.

Most of the next generation of new designers are Belgian, from the Antwerp School - Veronique Branquinho and Olivier Theyskens are hot new names who show great promise - and Jeremy Scott, Isabella Blow's latest protege, is American. French fashion's only real hope lies with Jerome Dreyfuss and his partner Gaspard Yurkievich.

Fashion needs designers who push forward, bringing new ideas and new ways of thinking. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons is one such designer who refuses to compromise her vision, however difficult it might appear at the time. For next autumn, the theme of Kawakubo's collection is "fusion". Her designs includes pieces so abstract that you would need a lesson on how to put them on, with disparate pattern pieces apparently sewn up in the wrong order. Then there are coats and dresses that had been turned inside out to make a feature of the linings and inner workings of the garments. However unusual, these clothes are pure and beautiful.

It is difficult to identify Kawakubo's references or sources of inspiration, but there is something of Martin Margiela in this collection, the Belgian designer who showed his debut collection for French luxury leather company Hermes in Paris. Margiela's appointment shocked the industry: he has managed to remain underground since appearing on the fashion scene in the late Eighties, showing in car parks or Red Cross depots. But his collection for Hermes was superlative, touching the perfect note for both the fashion house and its customers, nudging the label along a little, without inflicting his particular look on the house. This is the mark of a true designer with real integrity, not a deluded egomaniac.

Margiela's Hermes is the height of understated luxury: hand-knitted jumpers in chunky cashmere; masculine tailoring which is relaxed, slouchy and totally desirable; coat linings worn as lightweight "anti-pluies"; comfortable tunics; and worn-in Kelly bags which had obviously been well-used and well-loved. Typically, Margiela's own collection, shown at La Defense close to midnight, was displayed on life-size puppets in a venue so crowded and chaotic that it was hard to get a glimpse of the clothes.

Margiela belongs to the first generation of Belgian designers to infiltrate Paris - the so-called Antwerp Six, which included Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs and Dries Van Noten. Within a decade, Dries Van Noten has quietly built up quite an empire as well as a loyal following among women who want to wear rich and exotic clothes that they feel comfortable and confident in.

He surpassed himself in Paris last week, blending his north African Saharan layered look with a touch of Hungarian gypsy. Etched leather riding boots were worn with layers of floral dresses, wrapped knits, bolero jackets, embroidered coats, sheepskin shrugs and sequinned skirts. Best of all were the finishing touches, such as the long thin scarves with panels of shiny metallic knit. Here was the ultimate fusion of good design, sumptuous surface decoration and romance - real, wearable clothes of which buyers cannot get enough.

Of the rest, British designer Alexander McQueen excelled at Givenchy with Bladerunner styling and superbly tailored suits that keep in tune with the house and its customers, both new and old. These are clothes that will stand the test of time - as should clothes involving this much workmanship and expense.

Galliano, too, proved himself to be a master showman, creating a Weimar Republic tent in the middle of nowhere, with prostitutes draped over a central pianola like a scene from an Otto Dix painting, while bubbles and money showered down from the roof. However, his talents as a designer remain singularly focused on the pre-war years (be it the First or Second World War, he doesn't really mind). The production was fabulous - he can create another world with incredible imagination and finesse - the clothes, however, look like they are stuck in the fancy-dress cupboard of his mind.

But the real master was Yves Saint Laurent, the man who started it all when he took student fashion and made it haute in the Sixties. After 30 years as a designer, he proved his talent remains unsurpassed, with a classic collection including a sequinned sheath with chiffon over a dress, bright wool capes and the jumpsuit that has become a signature of Alexander McQueen.

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