Grand Dames: From infants to schoolgirls, trophy wives to soldiers, women of all ages ruled the Paris catwalks. Susannah Frankel salutes a vintage week

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Indy Lifestyle Online

For those who bow down at the altar of high fashion, as showcased at its most accomplished at the twice-yearly Paris ready-to-wear, the question is not simply what the world will be wearing in six months. Instead, the dedicated follower comes to the French fashion capital for a hugely diverse view of femininity which may be anything from anachronistic to fiercely modern and from spellbindingly beautiful to plain twisted - or even all of those things at one time.

The challenge for John Galliano at Christian Dior lies in dressing the resolutely bourgeois Gallic woman of a certain age while enticing a younger, more fashion-forward customer into the fold. The designer has done this in the past by fusing his own history - romantic, audacious and with its roots firmly in street culture - with that of the haute couture and the Dior archive in particular. This time round, however, only the latter ever really got a look-in. For autumn/winter 2007, the Dior-clad trophy wife is the order of the day - one would need a particularly attentive partner, not to mention a limousine, to travel anywhere like this, after all. Galliano understands it only too well. With this in mind, colour was sensational - shocking pink, lime green, brightest orange, fuchsia, rose and iris. Silhouette was equally dramatic - from the overblown drama of the New Look to the more elongated and sinuous lines of the 1930s and 1940s. The prominence of extravagant furs and rare reptile skins in particular suggested that these garments would never make their way down anything as pedestrian as a pavement, say.

Over at Balenciaga a rather more independent female showed her face, although the collection designed by Nicolas Ghesquiÿre was no less colourful, or indeed understated, for that. For the first time, this designer abandoned the archive of Cristobal Balenciaga, concentrating instead on underpinning a magpie aesthetic with the architectural rigour for which the house is famous. African scarves dripping with fringing and coins, rainbow-hued silk dresses printed with designs that took their inspiration from any continent one might care to mention and a military/naval spin on the long, lean trousers that is integral to this brand were part Accidental Tourist, part Mutiny on the Bounty in flavour.

The women who lined up in ruffled, strapless black dresses with full asymmetric skirts at Yohji Yamamoto were remarkable but grounded in reality none the less - these are women who wear ultra-feminine designs with nothing more whimsical than army boots and tough leather jackets. Both Yamamoto's technical skill and, more importantly, his tenderness, make his clothing loved by a woman who likes to stand out but never at the expense of freedom of movement or self-expression. London-based Greek born designer Sophia Kokosalaki has similar concerns in mind, as amply demonstrated by a show that juxtaposed intricate and often rather beautiful tailoring with the complex pleated, draped dresses for which she is most famous.

Junya Watanabe's customer also chooses to wear darkly romantic designs, underpinned by hard-edged cropped biker jackets and knee-high, black leather boots with Cuban heels. Faded schoolgirl florals, polka dots and shrunken grey knits were here deconstructed then reconstructed to understated but still hugely accomplished effect.

If Watanabe's springboard was young, his mentor Rei Kawakubo's offering for Comme des Garçons had its roots in the nursery. This was a collection that was as humorous as it was, in the end, twisted in the way that only this designer, now in her sixties and perhaps the best advertisement for her clothes, knows how. Mickey Mouse ears and fishnet socks decorated with pompoms finished a look that Kawakubo said was all about 'curiosity' - and this meant sexual curiosity, presumably. Stretch dresses in fondant rose and violet were embellished with padded hands, first round the waist, then at the hips and finally all over the body. Many of them had frilly baby frocks in the same colour and fabric attached to front or back. A glance at the pre-pubescent and indeed pubescent Japanese girl's eternally cute view of womanhood? Perhaps so, although the determinedly elusive Kawakubo would be unlikely to admit to that. This was winsome but, in the hands of this particularly thoughtful designer, suitably challenging - and even disturbing - none the less.

The pounding pace and strident choreography at Yves Saint Laurent brought the emancipated thinking of Helmut Lang to mind - although the clothes themselves were rather more polished and indeed haute, if only in the most understated way imaginable. This house's designer, Stefano Pilati, stripped away the florals and frills of the summer and sent out a sophisticated and, at least in parts, androgynous tailoring-based collection that was as new as it was sombre. Cut and proportion was key, and the clothes moved away from extraneous surface detail. As they marched around the top storey of the Pompidou Centre wearing a high-heeled take on sensible shoes, trouser suits, tuxedos and overcoats that stood away from the body, models reflected an empowering and urban view of womanhood that was good to see.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that Martin Margiela's woman was equally strong-spirited. This designer, who started out in the late 1980s undermining that period's power-dressed aesthetic by sewing shoulder pads on to the outside of clothes, this time placed cages under jackets, taking the strong shoulders of last season to ever more extreme proportions. The silhouette was long, lean and hard around the edges and accents of fluorescent colour only added to the overall quite fearsome effect.

Hussein Chalayan has long presented a vision of femininity that, unusually refers principally to the designer's own, relatively young, archive. There is a purity to clothing that is very carefully proportioned and beautiful this time in tailored wool, antique metallic brocade and a more lightweight patchwork of contrasting fabrics. Chalayan continued his experimentation with mechanical clothing in the form of light-up tunics and articulated hoods that rose over his models' heads to cover their faces. He should be applauded for his ability to provide food for thought, all while sending out very commercial clothes.

And so to Alexander McQueen, whose view of femininity has long been as provocative as it is romantic. In a show dedicated to Elizabeth Howe - one of the 'witches' hung in Salem and a distant relative of the designer's - a cocoon-like silhouette was achieved by boned gazar cages worn beneath richly textured designs that nodded to ancient Egypt but were ultimately far from classical. It is all too easy for this designer to come up with sensational tailoring and sinuous chiffon, lace and velvet gowns and the latter in particular were all present and correct. This was a brave move forward, however.

Elsewhere in Paris, Riccardo Tisci's floor-sweeping skirts and narrow tailoring took the Givenchy label in a wise, new direction. Viktor & Rolf turned to their Dutch heritage with clothing infused with national references but clean and modern in all but presentation none the less. Christian Lacroix produced a stand-out, highly embellished but more controlled collection, and Jean-Paul Gaultier gave his beloved kilt a joyfully vibrant makeover. At Chanel, meanwhile, co-ordinated tweeds, hard colours, and a man dressed in a jumper with an oversized baby puffin on the front, all made for winter dressing as firmly rooted in status as it was in designer Karl Lagerfeld's post modern humour.

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