Women of substance at Paris fashion week

A triumvirate of designers shone in Paris last week – and these ladies all had very different ideas. Susannah Frankel reports from the front row
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The women whose designs appear on these pages would no doubt balk at being grouped together on account of their gender, or indeed at all.

However, their clarity of viewpoint is an inspiration to members of the fairer sex across the globe and that applies to everything from the creation of clothes to the controlling of the image of the companies they preside over more broadly. In particular, for spring/summer 2012, their entirely diverse talents were remarkable.

To take it from the top, Rei Kawakubo's collection for Comme des Garçons was probably her strongest and most profoundly moving for years. Kawakubo is the single most influential fashion designer – male or female – of the past 30 years. Since she arrived on the scene in Paris in 1981, when her anarchic spircaused fashion editors to run tearful from her shows, she has given the world deconstruction, deliberately aged fabrics – boiled, faded and frayed around the edges – an oversized silhouette and more. Kawakubo overthrew – and continues to overthrow – any notion of status in designer clothing. We even have this designer to thank for the (non-) colour black in the fashionable wardrobe which is now ubiquitous to the point that it has become clichéd.

Conversely, the godmother of the avant-garde worked this time around entirely in white. Media-shy to the point of reclusive, all Kawakubo had to say of her extraordinary presentation was "white drama". Later in the showroom that was elaborated upon, at least to a certain extent, by her husband and business partner, Adrian Joffe, who said his wife had been thinking of "everything that makes you happy and sad in life". Kawakubo was trying to express all of life's big events and the sentiments they evoked including, in particular, marriage and the potential restraints that go with it through white clothing. An ambitious concept to say the very least.

And so models' arms were tied at the front with soft, oversized bows, their torsos and legs were enclosed in silk-covered cages, crinolines were worn over dresses and trousers and more dresses sprouted overblown skirts from in front or behind. Sleeves, meanwhile, were so long they grazed models' ankles. Crochet-knit jackets brought christening blankets to mind, while cocoons of silk encasing bodies and then even heads whispered of the shadow of death.

Perhaps inevitably, at least some onlookers concluded that Kawakubo was reacting to the earthquake in her native Japan – she lives and works in Tokyo travelling to Paris for a few days only four times a year for her shows – but she was quick to assert that was absolutely not the case. Whatever, the play here between nihilism and optimism and innocence and experience made for a visual and emotional tour de force that was magnificent even by a designer of such elevated stature's standards.

Phoebe Philo is still a fledgling talent comparatively, although she was responsible for the spectacular success of Chloé in the Noughties and is now working her magic at Céline. Although she demonstrates very different concerns both women, interestingly, share a reticence to speak about their personal lives. Passionately private, the point of it all is the work and their designs should speak for themselves, their thinking goes.

In the two and a half years since Philo has been creative director at Céline her aesthetic has certainly spoken to women of style and, it has to be said, considerable means the world over. The "cabas" and "luggage" bags, the Céline tunic, white shirt, crepe jumpsuit and perfect cocoon coat are all part of the label's vocabulary by now and have earned Philo a following that would rival many of those who have been striving to achieve such a clear identity for far longer. The hype that has sprung up around this label is all the more noteworthy given its understatement. Céline is subtle, about wardrobe over and above seasonal stand-out pieces, and to all but the initiated far from immediately identifiable.

While the Céline classics were all present and correct at Philo's show last week there was a jump forward in silhouette. There are very few designers working today who have the ability to develop new proportions. Here, though, jackets were high-waisted and kicked from the empire line down and were worn with skirts and trousers cut low on the hip. Shoes were high, even by catwalk standards, only adding to the impression of tallness in the clothes. Like Kawakubo, Philo works against the traditional hourglass silhouette, preferring her clothes to be moulded around the body and for there to be a space between garment and wearer. The distinct feeling here is that tight clothes are too obvious somehow. In the past there has been a severity to the Céline look. This time, however, softness was evoked by the veiling of white trousers in black chiffon or the concertina pleating of a strict white shirt when seen from behind.

As the final day of the Paris collections dawned, a friend and colleague wondered: "How long do you think it will be before we're all bored of sweetly romantic clothes?" If the Miu Miu show was anything to go by, Miuccia Prada's over it already. This may seem just a tad contrary given that her collection for Prada, shown in Milan not much more than a week before, showcased just the pastel colours and ultra-feminine silhouette that more than a few designers in Paris have since upheld as the last word in summer chic. And that, perhaps, is the key to the blinding success of Italian fashion's first lady. She has an extremely short attention span, jumping from one idea to another at breakneck speed, forcing the rest of the world to struggle to keep up with her quick and elegant mind only if they dare. Prada, who with her husband and CEO Patrizio Bertelli, has recently floated her company on the Hong Kong stock exchange and is believed to be among the highest earning people in contemporary fashion, has made a small fortune out of such thinking.

With this in mind, belle laide was the story at Miu Miu where many of the staples of the classic bourgeois and/or haute couture wardrobe that have proved de rigueur in New York, London, Milan and, finally, Paris were subtly subverted to typically mischievous effect. Lace – the fabric of the spring/summer season – here came stiffened and in the type of unlikely hues this name is famous for, not least burgundy and beige. Velvet bows were scaled up and tied capes no longer than a matador jacket and designed to be worn off the shoulder. The bell-shaped skirt that has cropped up here, there and everywhere, looked considerably more fierce with an exaggerated high waist and in a palette of navy, black and grey. Matchy matchy? Miuccia Prada doesn't do matchy matchy. Instead the disparity between a lace dress, a patchwork cotton cape, a velvet bow, brass-finished dolly bags in myriad fabrics and colours and shoes and boots inlaid with roses and with witchy pointed toes was exaggerated almost to the point of madness. As for the hair and make-up... Gashes of blood-red eye shadow and hair plastered to the head with a centre parting that was often slightly skew centre-parting made even the most beautiful models appear far from conventionally pretty. It looked brilliant and you could almost hear the designer laughing to herself backstage.