From matinée idols to military men, the ranks on the Paris catwalks were an exercise in modern masculinity. Tim Blanks salutes the victors

Who shall I be next winter? The closet of characters Paris offered for its recent collections of mens- wear ran the gamut. Perhaps that should be gauntlet, given the different ages of military man on parade, from Culloden Moor to Weimar cadet to signalman on the USS Nimitz.

There were poachers and rock stars, matinée idols and shirtless martyrs sporting gilded crowns of thorns. Louis Vuitton suggested Franz Kafka as a style icon, John Galliano countered with Sherlock Holmes (though that's a bit this winter). Japan's gnomic cult-figure Junya Watanabe seemed to be proposing a bebop jazzbo. The designer's definition of his collection's essence was typically cryptic: "This is a man."

Junya's men were leanly tailored, collared and tie-ed, trilby-topped and wrapped in a parka; the staff of Blue Note Records turned out on a Paris catwalk. If there were echoes of Charlie Parker (and not just because of the soundtrack), that was only in keeping with the designer's ongoing fascination with Americana. His collections and creative collaborations with iconic brands such as Levi's and Dickies have fetishised masculine workwear in the West as exhaustively as if it were some alien phenomenon. If you want depth in your men's fashion, Junya's got it. If not, he cuts a mean jacket. You can probably tell he's a favourite.

Another is Miharayasuhiro. If Junya was bebop, Mihara looked to the Beats, Ginsberg and Burroughs, with clothes that channelled the shabby/smart style of Fifties Bohemians, perfect if you're in the market for a jacket that looks like it's already been visited by moths. That effect was presumably achieved with some outré technique, because Mihara is a virtuoso with fabric. This season's jaw-dropper was a coat with what looked like a photographic image of another coat printed on top. The image was, in fact, a jacquard woven into the fabric.

One of the fashion industry's responses to hard times has been a renewed faith in narrative, as in, giving the clothes a story. You can do this by emphasising the history of the brand, the route Kim Jones is taking at Dunhill. Or, like Mihara, you can literally weave a yarn. There was also a post-apocalyptic road trip in his collection of artfully distressed clothing (with the keys of Burroughs typewriter turned into jewellery by London artisan Husam el Odeh).

Post-apocalypso has been a long-time state of mind for Japanese fashion. Rei Kawakubo caused a sensation when she brought her label Comme des Garçons to Paris in the early Eighties with a collection that looked like she'd been rag-picking in the ruins. For her latest, she offered a one-word summary: "Protection". (She's even more cryptic than her protégé Junya Watanabe.) That explained waistcoats that looked like bullet-proof vests in fabric rather than Kevlar, or jackets with odd patches of quilted padding which corresponded to the location of vital organs in the body, or heads wrapped in fur-trimmed hoods, or shoes with a protective toe-cap strapped around them. Kneepads and elbow pads? Goes without saying. And the shaggy fake furs (worn under jackets) could be construed as animal hides, one of the oldest protective coverings known to humankind. Baggy shorts over trousers had a kilt-ish flair. In dun, muddy tones, they reminded me of Peter Watkins' warriors in Culloden. There are times when Kawakubo's collections are more interesting as social comment than as clothing. This was one of them.

It's often remarked that designers seem to manifest a curious kind of group consciousness as a new season in fashion approaches. It's all red! It's motocross! It's Ballets Russes! Next winter's military undertones at least made sense in the light of current events. I'd include the weather in that generalisation. A soldier's boots are designed to withstand climactic extremes. And his uniform is, after all, the root of tailoring as we know it. Dries van Noten gave us a reminder with a pair of officer's trousers, self-belting, pleated, cuffed, parade-ground precise. Winter's best in show, in fact. They were in tan, to boot, which, with khaki and army green, helped colour the season. And camouflage helped pattern it in Paris, if not quite as vividly as Miuccia Prada's candy-coloured version in Milan. Issey Miyake printed a suit with a camo-like topographic map. At Lanvin, Lucas Ossendrijver played with a print of clouds that, from a distance, also looked like camo. He showed it in a tightly belted, double-breasted suit with matching knapsack and gaiters at the very end of a show where the military references were shorthand for a general toughening-up at the label. "Not so much romance or poetry this time," said creative director Alber Elbaz. But just enough of the languid glamour that has given Lanvin menswear its vaguely subversive, sissy edge in the past. If you want bang for your fashion buck, it was here. Collection of the week, I thought.

But Lanvin's new militancy was still a mere bagatelle compared to Walter van Beirendonck's show. He was inspired by Afghani war carpets, the extraordinary, enigmatic artefacts created by local artisans in response to the endless violence in their country. Submarines, jets, helicopters, missiles and rifles were rendered as colourful, graphic silhouettes in intarsia and Fair Isle knit. The models wore huge headphones, which made the ones in jumpsuits look like signalmen on an aircraft carrier. For the finale, models emerged seemingly impaled fore and aft on weaponry. The guy 'riding' the missile reminded me of Slim Pickens whooping his way to oblivion at the end of Dr Strangelove. Cartoon-ish, but something darker too. Though "war on hate" was van Beirendonck's message, irony was the victor in this battle.

Still, at such times, you gotta have faith. Rick Owens has already been to the dark side, inspiring a flood-tide of Gothic acolytes in the process. He talks about "creating the creature" – something he does by modifying proportions, elongating the human form, extending shoulders and limbs, changing the shape of extremities with odd-shaped boots and gloves. Add tunics with floating tails, tabards and huge wrapped coats and you've got someone who looks like a medieval warrior transposed to the 23rd century. But, as day follows night, Owens leavened his signature black with white for next winter. I also saw gilding (the collection was called 'Gleam'), which made his warriors look like angels to me.

There's always been something Dionysian about Owens's work. God botherers will feel more comfortable with Givenchy, where a T-shirt straightfacedly proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord", the models wore patent leather disciples' sandals, the black and white was clerical in its severity, and the accessory was a gilded crown of thorns. Oh, and "Ave Maria" was the soundtrack. There were some sharp coats and jackets too, but it was the concept – the overt religiosity – that lingered, rather than the clothes. Blaak – London duo Sachiko Okada and Aaron Sharif – also showed a crown of thorns, along with a big, white cross and clothes that, here and there, looked like penitents' rags. The presence of the British contingent in Paris was heightened by a sterling showing from Dunhill, under the creative directorship of Kim Jones, who has logically enough chosen Paris as the arena in which he sets out to establish Dunhill as the UK's answer to Hermès. The collection's tailoring and masculine outerwear (with a wealth of seductive accessories) certainly didn't suffer by comparison with the French luxury label. And the show left me wanting more.

That's not a feeling you would associate with a John Galliano show, where sensory overload is the default position. Sherlock Holmes was the umbrella under which a handful of scenarios flourished, each highlighting a different facet of Galliano's burgeoning menswear empire: the detective's coats (outerwear); his colleagues' suits (tailoring with an Edwardian flair); and various pigtailed, swarthy adversaries (underwear, exotic sportswear). It was a blast, just like the towers of flame that erupted terrifyingly on the catwalk at show's end. No wonder Galliano looked unsteady as he weaved through the fire on his triumphal procession.

I could say it was a miracle he made it through, if only to introduce the fact that Roland Mouret was born in Lourdes. He chose Paris to debut his collection of perfectly cut men's tailoring. But it was the casual clothing that was more seductive: the double-faced cashmere polo, the generous trousers with wide waistband and deep inverted pleats, a matching cardigan and sweater. "It's the way I dress," Mouret said. But he was also imagining his late father or a French icon like Jean Gabin in the clothes. Gabin in a twinset? To paraphrase Junya Watanabe: "This too is a man".