Eiffel power: Collections with real imagination

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The Paris collections were a tour de force, says Susannah Frankel, as designers sidestepped summer clichés in favour of real imagination

The spring/summer collections are usually a relaxed affair; a time when even the most pioneering designers offer the world frills, florals and rainbow colour that may seem somewhat bucolic for metropolitan life but are easy on the eye nonetheless.

Perhaps the depressed economic climate is the over-arching reason why, in Paris, no such failsafe tactics applied. Neither was that hoary old fashion cliché, the overt historical reference, anywhere near as ubiquitous as in the past. Instead, the world's most inspiring and inspirational designers genuinely appeared to be carving out a new way to dress – innovation, over and above anything as predictable as, well, as clothes aimed at a holiday in the sun.

With this in mind, respect is due to Junya Watanabe, a designer who quietly and without fanfare reinvented the tailored jacket via an ever more complex study of pattern-cutting, in a manner that has not been seen since Martin Margiela in the Nineties. This was an outstanding show, where subtlety, more than the projection of an arresting image, was the story. The silhouette was slender and deeply rooted in the menswear tradition, but still quintessentially feminine and curvaceous. Backs were cut away, pockets appeared at the sides of hips, shoulders were small and neat, and just the perfect height – and all with beautifully cut and equally narrow trousers to match. Anyone with a taste for impeccable chic that falls loosely on the androgynous side would do well to shop here.

"Adult delinquent," declared Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo following her show. And if the designer is, famously, a woman of few words it is also true that, with this, she neatly summed up the prevailing mood. There was intense strength and beauty to clothing that was a patchwork of found textiles and off-cuts from past seasons, all just found in the studio apparently, although there was nothing even remotely random about the way these were put together. Very timely was the play between soft pieces – the lovely chiffon shrouds of last season – and far tougher elements – leather harnessing of the kind Japanese policemen used to wear. Shoulder pads jutted from skirts and jackets, difficult-to-identify florals rubbed shoulders with army green, pinstriped wools with crinkled acrylics. While the technique behind the construction of garments couldn't have been more intricate, and there's no doubting the fact that the woman who chooses to wear Comme des Garçons wishes to stand out in the crowd, it all also looked like a pleasure to wear.

While Marc Jacobs' doll-sized clothing for Louis Vuitton could very easily have been sugar-sweet, there was a modern and far-from-passive spirit running through this collection, too, which was, if not quite miscreant, then certainly mischievous in flavour. There were here unmistakeable references to Comme des Garçons – puffy pants, cycling shorts, kilts, military fabrics, gingham and footwear that might not unreasonably be described as ugly (and proud of it) among them. The workmanship that went into the making of each small but perfectly formed piece was a feast for even the most jaded eye, and Jacobs' own signature – the fusion of a basically American instinct with the gorgeousness of French fashion at its best – was very much in evidence also.

While Nicolas Ghesquiere, the very gifted designer at Balençiaga has, in recent seasons, referenced the revered couturier Cristobal's archive, this time around the handwriting was more clearly his own. This is a view of a powerfully strident heroine whose clothing is protective and even fierce but put together in a way that is ever more finely tuned. Ultra-slim leather trousers – quilted, smocked, padded and with kneepads for extra strength – looked great worn with equally reinforced leather gilets and, again, tiny skirts constructed out of ribbons of leather. The shoes alone were an engineering feat, covered in wool, chain or printed in a style that was all new.

The house of Givenchy has struggled for years to make an impact. Now, under the control of Riccardo Tisci, it has become a high-point of even this, the most competitive calendar. Long, lean and leggy but always with controlled feminine frills and flourishes with no trace of whimsy, this is a quintessentially Parisian idea of womanhood at its most sexy.

Eclecticism is clearly high on the agenda just now, but never in an undisciplined way. Instead, the new way to dress is as a globally knowledgeable creature with a determinedly contemporary edge. It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that Dries Van Noten has this particular mindset nailed. His was a gorgeously luxurious collection that was as authentic – any ethnic details were real and sought out the world over – as it was highly personal and all with an effortlessly chic and wholly current end result.

Minimalism. If this is, again, a buzzword, then it is a very different creature than it once was. In the early Nineties, it spoke of utilitarian fabrics - nylon in particular – dark colours – black, of course – and an unembellished uniform quality that could no longer have an impact given a customer that understands luxury and the value of fine craftsmanship so well. Enter Stefano Pilati, with a fresh, elegant and highly sophisticated collection for Yves Saint Laurent that any woman who prefers not to wear her considerable wealth on her sleeve will love. White is the colour of the forthcoming YSL season, for the most part uninterrupted and in technologically advanced fabrics with the occasional strawberry motif - printed or appliquéd. Roomy tunics, voluminous skirts with a single frill at the hem, crisp cotton dresses that floated about the body in a blithe, beautiful manner all looked brilliant. Signature body-conscious leather and, new this season, lederhosen – yes, Mr Pilati can even make these appear desirable - was the counterpoint to this, and was equally fine.

Phoebe Philo, the designer behind the spectacular success story that was Chloé in the early Noughties, has now turned her hand to Celine, a more difficult and certainly more niche creature. Philo's debut collection for the latter label was a study in pared down luxury that might be the envy of many other designers. Leather shifts in sludgy colours were subtly moulded but always soft, wide-legged trousers worn with putty coloured bodies were impeccably proportioned as so too were fluid jersey skirts. The only trace of this designer's former identity was in the shoes – high, wooden-heeled clogs – which will no doubt go on to be as successful as that mother of all "it" bags of this very designer's making: the Chloe Paddington.

If Miuccia Prada was the patron saint of Nineties minimalism she has, by now, left it behind in favour of a still uniform-infused aesthetic but one that is more playful and even indulgent in flavour. Who could fail to smile at fitted tailoring printed with baby animals, purposefully odd Seventies style pumps and, best of all, little white dresses embellished with pastel coloured smocking, Heidi-style, rivers of crystal and sheer, Strictly Come Dancing panels at the back. This was a spirited, hugely confident Miu Miu collection from a designer who rests safe in the knowledge that she is basking in perhaps the most extended fashion moment of the decade and whose influence is unsurpassed.

Some of the most sought-after clothes in the world now come from Alber Elbaz of Lanvin – a technician of unparalleled expertise, with vision to match. Season after season there are no big about-turns at Lanvin. Instead, Elbaz drapes, folds and cuts fabric on the body to ever more accomplished effect. This time, Italian men's tailoring was deconstructed and reconstructed – a black tuxedo jacket morphing into a dress was one particularly lovely example. Couture details were referenced – the hems of light crumpled skirts were weighted with chain. Finally, however precious the garment, there's always a trace of toughness – even the lightest, prettiest, rose-pink dress was finished with comparatively utilitarian zipped pockets sewn into the sides.

And so, finally, to Alexander McQueen, the greatest showman in fashion and a collection that fulfilled every requirement the fashion follower could wish for. Couture workmanship? Each garment was created around its own particular – and spectacular – print. Technical innovation? Highly structured torsos mutated into delicate, fluid pieces all cut out of a single piece of fabric. Pioneering pattern-cutting? There were no hard edges this time around, instead everything folded in upon itself. The show was called "Plato's Atlantis", and the other-worldly creature who stalked the glossy white runway transformed from a dark, forest-dwelling nymph into an alien underwater creature as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

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