Balenciaga reworked immaculate and austere vintage ©
With her lips painted black and curves draped in dark silk, Susannah Frankel was bewitched

Last week in Milan, when Miuccia Prada said that the femme fatale was making a triumphant return to the fashion arena, they turned out to be prophetic words indeed. Small wonder: this is a designer with the sharply honed instincts of a tiger in pursuit of its prey where predicting the way forward for fashion is concerned, both her own and that of her contemporaries.

And so there she was, in all her glory, at Yohji Yamamoto, where the silhouette was as unashamedly romantic and dark as ever, cut this time in raw-edged leather and diaphanous organza. This is among the most poetic designers working in fashion today, and his offering for autumn/winter was as accomplished a display of technical precision and perfection of proportion as might be expected. Even loosely woven tweed – the way to wear the weave for the forthcoming season was thus established, early on in the week – was wrapped in a sheer veil of silk, softening the silhouette, although there was never any question of this dignified creature dressing to impress anyone other than herself.

Martin Margiela's woman this season rampaged the ramparts in skintight catsuits and jersey dresses cut on the diagonal to expose slender limbs. While Margiela has come up with some of the most considered, and indeed considerate, clothing of the past 20 years, this was not his most empathetic collection. Neither did it boast the complexity that the world has come to expect of him. A conventional runway presentation and clothes that, while lovely in places, in others veered perilously close to outright theatrics, did not make for as strong a showing as is usual.

Junya Watanabe was, conversely, on fine form. Here were sublime draped dresses – voluminous on the top, fitted on the bottom, bringing to mind the aesthetic of Bodymap in the 1980s. Then came tailoring that whispered of the belle époque – Edwardian walking suits and Poiret coats given a contemporary makeover that few in the industry today could rival. Watanabe chose to wrap the world's most famous model faces in opaque black headpieces stuffed with geometric shapes for the first half of the show, which was almost entirely black. These were then removed for more exits scattered with garlands of pretty red rosebuds, and a final sublime sheath that spoke of a new dawn – once again in inky black.

Alexander McQueen was always going to shine in a season in which neo-Gothic was the buzzword. The designer cited as inspiration the Empire, kings and queens of England and, in particular, the British couturiers of the mid-20th century: Hartnell, Amies, Worth. McQueen being McQueen, this was never going to be a case of putting a headscarf on a model, or indeed layers of tweed worthy of Barbara Woodhouse. Instead, this was a heroic affair that told of punk princesses and toy soldiers dressed in neat, narrow tailoring and S-bend corseted dresses in engineered brocade, loosely knit mohair and fine lace. This collection was younger than those of recent seasons, and looked all the better for it. The woman the designer is dreaming of is no Lolita, however. Instead, she is wild at heart and all the more powerful for it.

For Riccardo Tisci, currently designer in residence at Givenchy, a dark romanticism is also key. Although a collection of strict black tailoring, ruffle-fronted shirts and unlined lace dresses would have benefited from a more rigorous edit, it will no doubt be worn by just the type of self-assured young Parisienne it is aimed at, and she will look chic, strong and urban.

She is nowhere near so formidable as Nicolas Ghesquière's über-beautiful and empowered woman at Balenciaga, however. Once again, this extraordinarily talented designer showed the rest of the world just how it might be done with a collection that was as breathtaking for its reworking of immaculate and austere vintage Cristobal Balenciaga silhouettes as it was for its modernity and determination to push fashion to a new and better place.

The little black dress was moulded to the body and cut away in places to look more chic, perhaps, than it ever has done in its history. High-shine vinyl Sixties-line coats stood away from the body but were still moulded and worn with clusters of crystal at collar and cuff. There were leather biker jackets tooled to mimic samurai armour, and in colours reminiscent of reptiles from another planet, and a sequence of skintight latex dresses printed with tangled branches and oriental garden scenes that were statement dressing at its most modern and accomplished.

One could be forgiven for burning one's entire wardrobe and starting again after seeing Stefano Pilati's discretely elegant, beautifully proportioned and effortlessly wearable collection for Yves Saint Laurent. In identical black, Eighties-style bobs, with fringes so long they covered the eyes completely, and with matt-black lips, this army of formidable women pounded the runway in talon-heeled black leather platform-soled boots and shoes, black opaque tights and tailored dresses, coats and trouser suits. Sometimes these were body-conscious, sometimes oversized as if protecting their wearer from the world outside. Either way, any woman of style would love to wear them, and few men would dare to approach them with anything but the utmost respect, and even trepidation.

The collection that John Galliano came up with for Christian Dior was rather more simplistic in flavour, though charming nonetheless. Galliano's muse for the forthcoming season was Mrs Robinson as played by Anne Bancroft – not Jerry Hall, please – in The Graduate, and as anyone who has seen this classic movie will know, she is not to be messed with. Boxy day suits and coats cut to mid-thigh and in rainbow colours, but perhaps most of-the-moment in black, were teamed with the biggest hair of the season and the biggest – and best – hats courtesy of the milliner and long-time Galliano collaborator, Stephen Jones.

Hussein Chalayan is not a designer daunted by a big idea – in this case, nothing less ambitious than evolution was his starting point. And so, among the lovely – and impeccably chic – black tailoring and dresses were more printed with raw crystals almost monolithic in their proportions, and a sequence of gowns that came complete with their own baby apes attached – their tiny arms reached around models' slender necks where a shoulder strap might otherwise have been. These presumably will be removed when it comes to production, but they made for thought-provoking and even quite sinister viewing.

The Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo said that her show was devoted to "bad taste", which, as the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland once said, is always better than no taste at all. Here models came down a red-carpeted runway – of all of today's fashion designers, Kawakubo would be the last to pander to celebrity stylists – in clothing that appeared to have its roots in market-stall fashion, and even Ann Summers. Short, red polka-dot dresses in acrylic silks had frilly hearts cut out of their bodices and skirts. On more than one occasion, they were worn with fluffy bras on top – the fluff was fake, Kawakubo never uses real fur. Tailored shorts were crotchless, the black opaque tights and frilly suspenders worn beneath them on display for all to see.

The most clever thing about this great collection is that it could be separated into pieces of clothing that were beautiful in their own right. The type of frilly black harnessing, for example, that might have made even Madonna circa Blonde Ambition blush will look nothing short of brilliant worn over a severely masculine white shirt.

"I want to be loved by you," warbled Marilyn, and the message rang loud and clear: "Come on, ladies. We must surely all be able to do better than that."

Also in Paris, Sophia Kokosalaki offered up just the fearsomely beautiful black dresses that a modern-day femme fatale might long for; while Viktor & Rolf said "No!" to traditional methods of crafting clothing, often rather too literally for such a high-fashion arena.