IT WAS a battle: the bourgeois versus the avant garde. When it came to excitement at the Paris shows the new wave won. The established designers had little novel to say.

But the loyal customers of Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and Montana will be delighted. For these designers dress 'ladies' rather than women, grown-ups rather than girls. Their customers do not want to wear the shrunken sweaters or droopy dresses with the seams on the outside that are now deemed to be stylish.

Valentino's lady does not want grunge. She wants something perky for Gstaad. Montana's client does not want wisps of chiffon. She wants angles that could take your eye out. Yves Saint Laurent's madame will be looking for a satin evening gown with troubadour- wide sleeves or a softer version of the YSL perenniel, Le Smoking, this season belted like a dressing gown.

Valentino's lady might pick a day suit, again belted like a dressing gown and fringed and tassled, too.

To Claude Montana, the trend towards unsewn seams meant taking out the pinking shears to give collars a jagged edge. While too far from today's fluid mood to be on the current cutting edge of style, Montana is on the cutting edge of cutting. His sharply tailored swing jackets and flared trousers, his circular suedes over cabled knitwear and his swaggering coats will have other designers marvelling at his technique.

There was nothing stiff about Christian Lacroix's collection. Although he can sit with the establishment names, he is a young rebel in spirit.

His sunny collection reworked Portobello patchwork with a ragbag of ethnic influences. Best was stripey knitwear in the colours of Seventies upholstery and a panne velvet highwayman's coat, teamed with matching trousers, a sumptuous Paisley gilet and the exuberant froth of a scarf at the throat. Also fun were little black nighties, to be worn out of the house, with T-bar satin shoes and tattoo tights.

Romeo Gigli is never either in or out of tune with the times, for he carries on with his own opulence regardless. But this season he did it particularly well, with masses of variations on his mannish suits for girls. These came as three-pieces in tweed teamed with a tie and a pansy in the buttonhole, with the dressing gown detail of frogged fastenings, or in the lustrous satin of a schoolboy's silk tie, as well as in the rich brocades of a smoking jacket.

Karl Lagerfeld always tries to be absolutely of the moment and usually succeeds. But it proved hard to adapt jackets that cost well over pounds 1,000 to the taste for the tattered and torn.

Lagerfeld tried. The traditional four-pocket tweed jacket was shrunk and worn over a baggy white shirt, floppy knits and old men's long johns. The thigh-high waders, sheepskin bags and moon boots were fun, as was the souped-up soundtrack featuring The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Zorba the Greek with a rap overbeat; the clothes themselves, stripped of the stylising, only proved what a long way it is from Seattle to Chanel.

Azzedine Alaia stripped his clothes of all the trappings. There was no music, no lights, no formal show. Word went round that the elusive Alaia, who shows when he feels like it, had some summer clothes ready (everyone else was showing winter) and a few people found out where. A mark of how good a tailor he remains is that the suits stood up to scrutiny - even if the models were posed in front of an old radiator. Alaia also revealed some reworkings on the highly sexed underwear-as-outerwear theme he has been offering for years.

Alaia, dubbed the King of Cling, has a new rival in Herve Leger, otherwise known as the Rubber Band Man because he makes dresses out of elastane strips tight enough to stop the circulation. Although the models could hardly walk in Leger's Jessica Rabbit dresses, you could sense the rise in the testosterone level among the men watching them try.

Leger is not a feminist, liberated woman's designer; his woman moves only to wriggle in and out of a limo and hook her sugar daddy. When he is accused of being a one-dress wonder, his fans answer that one dress like these is all a girl needs. Certainly, they are breathtakingly constructed.

So are the designs of Robert Merloz, the dauphin in the House of Yves Saint Laurent. Young designers' collections usually mean good ideas brought down by poor-quality construction and fabric. The opposite is true of Merloz. He has marvellous fabrics, the best seamstresses and all the money his backer and good friend Pierre Berge, the YSL chairman, can throw at him.

When Yves Saint Laurent was young, women wept at his shows. They wept last week at Merloz's but these were tears of laughter. Knickerbockers, ruched, smocked cummerbunds, chiffon mittens and a bubble of baby doll brocade for a bride do not great fashion make, however poetic and dedicated their creator. The tragedy of Merloz, whose second collection was even more ill-received than his first last July, is that he has not been allowed to learn out of the limelight.

Noticeably absent from the small audience were the big-league buyers from Barneys New York, who will open an uptown Manhattan store in the autumn. Barneys bought the first Merloz collection in a bid to secure the prestigious Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche line. This was refused and the Merloz order repacked and returned.

(Photograph omitted)

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