It's a great time to be a woman – in terms of fashion, at least.
Alexander McQueen's Sarah Burton said that her show, which buzzed with golden honey bees, was "a celebration of femininity", and that could be a mantra for the season as a whole.
In place of ephemeral, trend-driven fashion, spring's focus is on character, of putting a look together more than stepping into a single statement piece. The Paris catwalks, still home to the most gifted designers, are the place where individuality shines. And so it did, brightly.
If there is an overriding mood, it is a minimal one. That could be seen in the pure lines and fondant-bright colours at Hussein Chalayan, in the prevalence of white and in a love affair with the trapeze line given to the world by Yves Saint Laurent but this season all over other designers' runways too.
Raf Simons's debut ready-to-wear collection for Christian Dior was so full of ideas it was difficult to keep track of them, on the runway at least. Simons paired a fine-gauge knit sweater with an overblown silk skirt, elaborate bell tops with black shorts and veiled black, strapless cocktail dresses to lovely effect. This was a huge collection, most impressive, perhaps, for its diversity: almost every piece told its own story.
Nicolas Ghesquière's collection for Balenciaga not only upheld the new season's central contradictions – hard and soft, masculine and feminine, black and white, often in a single garment – but also had a humanity to it that was good to see. Models looked as if they'd stepped straight off the street in their own clothes – albeit amazing clothes – wearing tiny golden charms round their neck and rings on every finger. The new so-called "minimal ruffle" (can there be such a thing?) found its spiritual home here – it is, after all, a name famed for architectural rigour. Tailoring – with sharp, laser-cut edges and in double-faced fabrics that stood away from the body – was masterful; the elaboration on dresses extraordinarily complex but never fussy.
"Crushing. The energy of an explosion," was how Rei Kawakubo summed up her Comme des Garçons collection and, with scrap-metal crowns made of battered upturned paint cans and broken toys, that rang out loud and clear. The clothes began with toiles – pieces of garments in raw-edged calico squashed together to form dresses, tops and skirts: a sweet frilled sleeve here, a ragged shoulder there and the odd padded protuberance. Glittering pale silver and gold followed and finally black, which was where this collection truly sang. Comme des Garçons pretty much invented the non-colour of modern fashion and uses it less these days now that everybody else does. This was a masterclass in invention: brilliant, brave and bold.
The spirit of punk that swept the London collections was evident in this collection and in Dries Van Noten's show, too. Here arms were stripped off jackets and wadding was on show, the tartan beloved of the movement was cut in finest silk chiffon, and black leather thongs tied the open backs of tops and jackets to suitably déshabillé effect. There were shades of grunge, too, as Dries Van Noten's woman layered a boyfriend sweater over a shirt, over a pair of floral-print sheer trousers, over tailored shorts.
"Friendship, beauty, support, life" were the words that Phoebe Philo used to describe her collection for Céline, which was her most gentle so far and wonderful for that. Clothing that caressed its wearer was deceptively simple – the low-slung but still hugely elegant proportions are clearly worked on to the nth degree. The pairing of white and ivory shouldn't work but it did. The teaming of sandals that make Birkenstocks look light with coloured mink was equally unexpected: witty and surprisingly pretty. The finest raw-silk dresses were finished with coarse cotton fishnet, the most lightweight pale-gold trench coats were fashionably frayed all to discreetly but extremely desirable effect.
Next season's Miu Miu girl is equally relaxed and mischievous too, as always. Miuccia Prada's take on film-noir heroine meets nerdy student was as upbeat as it was – for all its maverick playfulness – chic. An exaggerated A-line silhouette was here juxtaposed with a more distressed, narrow one as aged fabrics and skins – including bags – rubbed shoulders with the super-shiny and new. Add to the mix giant fur stoles, long leather gloves and elegant court shoes gorgeous in rose pink… We could all be forgiven for wanting to be this person. Maison Martin Margiela's muse was something of a swot too, with her heavy glasses (sans lenses), jewelled nose clips and in clothes that were ultimately French classic with a huge twist.
How great to see yet another new lease of life on the Chanel catwalk, where a youthful and fresh play on scale – shoes, bags and pearls were huge, clothes were teeny tiny in places, bell-shaped and swinging on bodies in others – was on show. The Chanel suit, meanwhile, was barely recognisable: bolero jackets, A-line dresses and colours that one might not unreasonably want to eat.
At Junya Watanabe, the Puma logo appeared on the back of some of the designs – a collaboration, perhaps? No. Watanabe simply acknowledged the fact that he'd borrowed high-performance fabric from the PPR-owned brand. Lucky Puma. This show took sport couture to a new level: bright, clashing colours, T-shirts and trousers with curvilinear go-faster stripes, techno-stretch dresses that made the body-conscious look cool (that's not easy) and spiked, studded silver head pieces all made for a look that the sartorially discerning bright, young thing will love to wear.
The shadow of Helmut Newton loomed large over collections including Peter Copping's Nina Ricci (black fishnet, zips and underwear as outerwear more dominatrix than David Hamilton in flavour), Givenchy (a lovely juxtaposition between the curve of an oversized frill and a more sharp-edged silhouette) and Lanvin, where a particularly powerful vision of a woman was upheld as Parisian style was duly reinvented. The "underpinnings as outerwear" theme that ran through the aforementioned Burton's collection also nodded to this woman, all while showcasing the fetishistic attention to detail this house is now known for.
More "butter wouldn't melt" than siren was a perfectly pitched show by the Valentino designers, Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, the refinement of which doubtless fills that house's namesake with pride. And finally – fashion heaven courtesy of the Louis Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs. Perfect set, perfect soundtrack and perfect clothes all worn by not-quite-identical twins who were more beautiful than nature ever intended.