There were times, at the Paris collections last week, when the way in which some of the world's most famous status labels chose to flex their considerable muscle was as, if not more, interesting than the clothes themselves.
At Chanel, the entire Grand Palais was taken over by a freshly installed 18th century-inspired parterre garden, and Karl Lagerfeld employed an epic 92 models and a live orchestra.
At Louis Vuitton, it was all about Marc Jacobs being untouchable enough to make the world's most expensive – and sparkly – joke: as camp as Christmas and then some. For the designer Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, however, it is the clothes that matter as an expression of power par excellence. A procession of strong women in beautiful dresses, coats and tailoring looked as interesting as they were adaptable and easy to wear. Toughness – in the form of saddle leather harnessing – was juxtaposed with the label's wonderful drape and proportion.
At Yves Saint Laurent, meanwhile, a graphic silhouette, characteristically confident use of colour and the knowledge that, if everyone else is referencing YSL's 1970s archive, Stefano Pilati is the best designer to nail it, all made for quintessentially Gallic and very elegant viewing.
The finest John Galliano collection for some seasons reaffirmed this designer's position as the creator of some of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful clothes. At times, his muse was as light and brightly coloured as a butterfly, at others she was more femme fatale in flavour but delicate as porcelain china, nonetheless. Tao Kurihara's vision of femininity seemed more fresh and youthful than ever as clouds of feather-light fabric were draped, puffed and pleated around the body, and looks were topped off with headpieces that resembled other-worldly garden flowers.
More bourgeois were the little ruffled chiffon dresses at Valentino, where designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli are successfully modernising the label; a fact acknowledged (remarkably) by a standing ovation from the founder of the house himself.
Sarah Burton's debut collection for Alexander McQueen focused on the softer side of the label, too. This collection was inspired by going back to nature, and intricate gowns crafted in fragile feathers, lacquered raffia, horsehair, ears of wheat and golden straw spoke of the precious nature of found materials. A more free-spirited female hasn't been seen for some time.
If the jolie madame appears to be making her way back into fashion – thanks to everyone from Chanel to Ungaro, Valentino and YSL – there's a handful of designers intent on knocking her off her pedestal. It should come as no surprise that among them is Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, whose collection of darkly coloured clothing came with wardrobe changes attached. A jacket had three more to choose from sewn to its back, while coats were knotted at the hems and worn as stoles, their arms hanging almost to the floor. The designer wanted people to be "just a little afraid" and a Fifties-line leatherette dress with a hard-as-nails leather corset worn over the top had just that effect.
Yohji Yamamoto, too, wanted to shake things up, mixing the intricately constructed inky black garments he is famed for with a leery psychedelic print. The last look said it all: an inflatable gold skirt like a swimming pool toy was worn with a black T-shirt that read "THIS IS ME". The Balenciaga woman made for fiercely fashionable viewing as she stomped down the runway in clothing that stood away from, and protected, the body, as opposed to showing off any curves, while mischief, over and above pure anarchy, was the story at Miu Miu.
Fashion's love affair with no-nonsense clothing that is as functional and androgynous as it is chic continues, spearheaded of course by Phoebe Philo at Céline. Languid white trousers worn with moulded leather tunics or white shirts split up the back like hospital gowns, heavy crêpe jumpsuits with nothing but a single zip at the front or back disrupting their perfect surfaces and more had the front row rushing off to place personal orders only hours after the designer took her bow. A more heartfelt minimalism appeared at Hussein Chalayan, where the designer takes great time and consideration over making highly complex pattern-cutting appear simpler than the sum of its parts.
Dries Van Noten juxtaposed an oversized 1990s' silhouette – best in hand-dyed soft colours – and spare fabrics such as cotton and canvas with a more opulent 1970s spirit that also nodded to the 1940s in silhouette.
Was the story backstage at Lanvin a just a publicity stunt? Apparently, models found the requisite high heels so difficult to walk in they that donned flats – coincidentally available for all in attendance – instead. Whatever, for spring/summer 2011 heels are no longer necessary. Flats were very much in evidence at Valentino (where they were hugely elegant), Balenciaga (where they were just huge), Chloé and, of course, on the catwalks of all the Japanese designers who have long believed that an independent woman should really be able to run in her shoes.
The back is the new erogenous zone. If it wasn't naked (Céline, Stella McCartney, Yves Saint Laurent, the list goes on...), it was veiled in the finest silk chiffon (Givenchy). This is good news for those of us who find autumn's focus on the décolletage somewhat nostalgic, but not so welcome in the case of anyone who wants or needs to wear a bra.
If designers have their way, denim is about to become considerably more loose-fitting – a million miles away for the still ubiquitous, ultra-tight, skinny jean. Artists' smocks in stiff denim were seen at Dries Van Noten, Céline and Stella McCartney. Céline also boasted a raw denim jumpsuit that stands away from the body, and wide-legged jeans.
The Model Grande Dame
Is the cult of youth finally on the wane? Probably not, although it was great to see more than a few designers used models who were over the age of 18. At John Galliano, Yasmin Le Bon looked as beautiful as ever. At Chanel, former house muse Inès de la Fressange was the last woman to step out. At Giles Deacon's collection for Ungaro, the fashion crush of the season, Anna dello Russo, sipped champagne and chatted to the audience alongside some of the world's most feted faces modelling the designer's new clothes. Kristen McMenamy closed the Louis Vuitton show, and we could be forgiven for all wanting to be her.
Feathers were here, there and everywhere, most notably at Alexander McQueen, Ungaro and Chanel. All three labels upheld the values of hand-craftsmanship via the inclusion of more than a little finely executed embroidery. The workmanship at Balenciaga, while deceptively hard-edged, was still executed to couture standards. This is France, home to many of the world's most accomplished technicians, and the haute couture tradition is as revered as it is jealously guarded.
Also in Paris
Colour-blocking (Hussein Chalayan, Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent), Lurex (Dries Van Noten, Louis Vuitton), stripes (Céline, Junya Watanabe, Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier), transparency (Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Tao), peek-a-boo erotica (Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen), androgyny (Stella McCartney, Céline, Comme des Garçons, Chloé), animal print (Givenchy, Louis Vuitton), animals (Louis Vuitton, Miu Miu) and especially horses (stirrup details on sandals at Stella McCartney, and of the living and breathing variety at Jean Paul Gaultier's swansong collection for Hermès).