Liberté, égalité, reality: Key themes from Paris

From oversized coats to flattering tailoring, the Paris collections had accessible clothes – and flashes of truly imaginative brilliance. Susannah Frankel introduces the key themes

In the Navy

French navy – with camel and, of course black – looks set to become the colour of the autumn/winter 2010 season, and it is the smartest of all shades.

In her second season at Celine – the revitalised status label du jour – designer Phoebe Philo certainly drove that message home. Narrow coats with funnel collars and impeccably cut shift dresses with big leather pockets were the stuff that fashion editors' – and perhaps even more so, buyers' – dreams are made of. And so too were vertiginous black suede loafers and riding boots with polished gold heels. This was a cleverly thought out and executed collection of real clothes – and real clothes are the story of the season – promoting a basically minimal mindset that was present on this as well as many other catwalks.

Yohji Yamamoto's aesthetic has its roots in men's workwear, and this season saw an immensely dignified and impeccably edited reprisal of this particular theme. Although Yamamoto is most famous for his allegiance to black he has also always been in love with navy, and navy gabardine in particular. So here were some of the finest coats, fisherman-knit dresses and kilts suspended from a single diagonal strap, jumpsuits and overblown skirts.

In the Future

"The revenge of nice clothes" was how one fashion editor in particular summed up the season, and it is true that the catwalks were less pyrotechnic this time around and – for editorial purposes at least – potentially challenging for that.

It would be all too easy for Nicolas Ghesquière, designer at Balenciaga, to send out an impeccable collection of tailoring – his is some of the finest in the business. While the Balenciaga selling collection will no doubt include such staples, Ghesquière's main line is more of a laboratory, or "the brains" of the label, as he puts it. And this designer has more ideas than most of those working in fashion put together.

There was, as always, a futuristic feel to bright white, quilted coats with scaled up collars, knitwear that stood away from the body in Pop Art colours, and a final sequence of "bubble" dresses – shot through with text from the French press critiquing the art world – in equally pretty, but this time metallic, hues. Fabrics were as technically advanced and difficult-to-identify as ever, as experimentation dominated on every level and throughout.

No one would ever expect Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo to play safe either – it's simply not in her nature. Even by this great designer's standards, however, clothing that boasted organically shaped padding trapped between layers of classic Comme des Garçons fabric – from pinstriped wool to demi-sheer polyester – making models appear at least twice their real size, was "strong", to use that company's own parlance. The idea, according to a spokesperson, was to externalise the way in which we protect our inner selves, and it was a lovely one – as indeed were the clothes.

In a Jacket

There's been an emphasis on the jacket for some time, but this season there's more choice than ever. Stefano Pilati's collection for Yves Saint Laurent, which was black almost in its entirety, boasted a fine selection – this is the spiritual home of the Le Smoking tuxedo. In particular, a fluidly tailored design, wearable with arms in or out of sleeves and teamed with wide-legged trousers, was the height of elegance. For his finale, Pilati introduced a sequence of vivid shades.

Cocktail dresses in fuchsia, emerald, violet and gold were pure Yves Saint Laurent in flavour. More tailored jackets were on display at Givenchy, where models with sparkling crimson pouts wore inky black tailoring with a markedly Gothic edge, at Stella McCartney where mid-Nineties minimalism was key, and at Hussein Chalayan, whose American road trip opened with the type of androgynous, no-frills look loved by the New York uptown girl. Chalayan's collection was remarkable for its authenticity: he is as determined to maintain individuality as he is to dress women in an interesting and elegant manner.

In the Cold

Controversially, and for the first time in years, autumn/winter clothing actually looked like autumn/winter clothing this season. Oversized knitted bed jackets woven with ribbon in sugared almond colours were as pretty as a picture at Dior. Snow boots lined with faux fur as white and fluffy as cotton wool were the order of the day at Junya Watanabe, and as for Chanel on ice – think yeti boots with Perspex heels...

The most beautiful coat of the season was, perhaps, Alber Elbaz's black blanket design for Lanvin. With a broad, softly rounded, dropped shoulder, and nothing but a giant safety pin disrupting its soft surface, this was a fine example of why Elbaz – a technician par excellence with a proudly romantic heart – is continuing to whip up a quiet storm at that label. From the sublime to the plain insane over at John Galliano, where fashion's favourite fantasist had what is described in fashion circles as "a moment", with quite the bravest, boldest coats imaginable – best with a dropped waist and big bouncing skirt, and worn with equally oversized hat. This came courtesy, as always, of the milliner Stephen Jones.

In the Army

Patch pockets, epaulettes, camouflage prints and a veritable deluge of green were on display everywhere in Paris. Demonstrating a technical virtuosity that is second to none, Junya Watanabe's intricately worked flight and bomber jackets and parkas, army rib knits and softer pleated, draped and folded jersey dresses and skirts were an exploration of this particular theme from start to finish. Then there were sweet puffed taffeta skirts in sludgy military hues and sprouting silver-grey fringing at Vivienne Westwood, and cavalry jackets in tweedy fabrics worn with ruffled chiffon at Dior. At Dries Van Noten, meanwhile, army green jackets, coats, jodhpurs, skirts and more saw the designer adapting a principally functional mindset to suitably metropolitan effect; very chic in a quintessentially Parisian manner. Also of note here were ultra-luxe sweatshirts that were perhaps the most desirable take on the re-emergence of sportswear-influenced clothing of the season. They looked brilliant worn with opalescent dirndl skirts.