A bohemian rhapsody

Sarongs over trousers, kaftans, arabesque jewelling and patterns ... Tamsin Blanchard finds Paris looking east for the winter collections. Photographs: Sheridan Morley

After three weeks of London, Milan and Paris, the question keeps arising: do we really need this collection? Is there room in the world for yet another trouser suit and yet another maxi skirt? The answer is probably not. But where there is advertising revenue, and where there are supermodels, there will be film crews, newspapers and magazines, fighting to get in.

Nevertheless, what emerged in Paris is that the pared-down minimalism that has dominated fashion's cutting edge for the past few seasons has reached a dead end. Decoration and bohemian exoticism is the way forward. And what a relief! Think pre-First World War Paris: Paul Poiret, Erte and the Ballet Russes and you will be on the same wavelength as a lot of the designers, from Chanel, who used gold brocade and Arabian jewelling on jackets and evening dresses, to Valentino, who based his evening wear on Indian saris.

Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons took sumptuous fabrics - Indian wallpaper flocking, paisley, jacquard, florals, velvet devore - and made them the central core of her collection of cocoon-shaped coats and dresses. There was intense silence as models with high, back-combed fright hair and jewel- coloured eye make-up stepped before the intimate gathering of 300 press and buyers privileged enough to be allowed to watch.

Pattern, colour and texture are mixed up into a rich tapestry that is both luxurious and strangely avant-garde. Some of Kawakubo's shapes are challenging to say the least. Anyone wanting to hide a dowager's hump should look no further than a Comme des Garcons high-shouldered coat. But it was on the more simple shapes that the naive daisy devore and the bold flocking worked best. And then they were enough to make you want to invest in one, wear it until it is threadbare and then donate it to a costume museum for posterity.

While the djellaba is the inspiration for a lot of the clothes in the shops this summer, for next winter, designers including Rifat Ozbek, who made black wool kaftan coats, have gone a step further and taken a long, hard look at North Africa and Turkey.

The Belgian designer Dries Van Noten showed his collection in a cavernous, wood-vaulted car park, decked out in fairy lights and candles. Dates, figs, Turkish delight and ornately painted glasses of sweet mint tea were a taster for a glorious clash of North African, Indian, Oriental and Western clothing. Van Noten is a master with colour and pattern. His layers of dresses and sarongs over narrow trousers; blanket checks with Lurex and gold embroidery and knitwear; tailored khaki jackets and djellaba dresses hit the high note of the season and possibly of his fruitful career so far. Van Noten's strength lies in his ability to fuse the dress and fabrics of other cultures and still be able to make it relevant to everyday modern life.

If Scheherazade were alive today, she would find all her dressing needs at the Dries Van Noten showroom. She might also like to invest in a piece or two from Jean Paul Gaultier. He too used opulent decoration and upholstery chintzes and Sixties-inspired swirly print wool tops and narrow trousers that looked like Russian constructivist textiles.

The use of pattern, flocking, surface detail and devore livened up the collections of Martine Sitbon (where dresses looked as though they had been traced into by precision laser beam) and Valentino (argyle patterns scraped from black velvet). At Helmut Lang, arabesque floral patterns were machine-knitted into sweater dresses and one shoulder tops. Decoration for the minimalist Lang is a low-key, subtle affair, but all the better for it. His fine-gauge knit dresses in khaki, layered over sequinned underslips, had a charm and beauty all their own.

Rumours that the Austrian Lang may be a candidate to take over the reigns at Balenciaga led to renewed interest at the house. Josephus Thimister is the young designer who is doing the job at the moment. It seems odd that Balenciaga should end his contract, for the collection - a homage to Cristobal Balenciaga - was near perfection.

Thimister took Balenciaga's favourite shapes and themes like kimono sleeves on a jacket, and flyaway panels on the backs of coats and jackets (not dissimilar to the detachable back flaps that Helmut Lang made two seasons ago) and updated them in such a way as to make them feel sharp and contemporary. The use of the fresh new breed of emerging star models such as Guinevere, Carolyn Murphy and Trish Goff also helped to add an edge. Finely constructed, couture-like jackets were teamed with white jeans, courtesy of French Utility clothing company APC. The only misjudgement was the use of fur to make, among other pieces, a draped-back ball gown. The models who had to wear the fur were not happy, and the younger customer Balenciaga is hoping to attract will certainly not be impressed.

Balenciaga is not the only established design house that has had the foresight to employ new blood to rejuvenate it. John Galliano's first ready-to-wear collection for Givenchy was stronger than his own. Tight discipline is what he needs to keep him from self-indulgent flights of fantasy. He stayed true to the Givenchy archives with decorative bow details on neat jackets and dresses, frilled necklines and svelte day dresses that the older, loyal customer will still be able to wear.

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