Designers are no longer slaves to fashion, this season they are doing their own thing. By Tamsin Blanchard. Photographs by Ben Elwes
The problem with fashion is that after a while, everything starts to look the same. A single designer, or a single trend, can catch on like wildfire. And before you know it, not only are you wearing the shoes, the lookalike dress or the knickers, but so is everyone else you know. After the spring/summer '97 shows in Paris last week, however, the trend slaves will be confused. The best designers stuck to their principles and produced collections that resolutely follow their own visions with clothes that have a certain creative spark and, best of all, an individuality all their own.

Frank Sinatra's "My Way", as played at Jean Paul Gaultier's show, was the anthem of the week. Gaultier did it his way with a glamorous revisitation of late-Seventies punk. Ingenious all-in-one catsuits complete with trompe- l'oeil jacket, waistcoat, shirt and tie, unzipped down the back to reveal fluorescent Day-Glo fishnet tights and saucy, brightly coloured knickers. Splat-a-paint prints clashed with stripy knits, bikini bras were worn over evening dresses, naval uniforms were recut to follow a feminine form, or covered in sequins, a brocade apron dress was wrapped over a pair of jeans, trousers were flared, striped, printed, and voluminous.

Gaultier was not telling us the trouser shape or skirt length we should be wearing next spring. The collection was about a look, an image, a certain energy: his own personal vision.

Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons is also bored with the way fashion is looking the same each season. Unlike Gaultier, she does not design clothes with a sense of humour. When she sends a model down the runway with more padding and wadding than the Michelin Man, she is serious. In an attempt to inject a new impetus to fashion, Rei Kawakubo added growths, feather-and-down pregnancies, and humps, to intricately cut dresses. At the showroom after the intimate show, buyers were trying to get their heads round the humps, hoping that they could simply detach them. But in many cases the ugly wadding and the beautiful dresses were as inseparable as Beauty and the Beast. At least Kawakubo tries to forge forward in her own way, regardless of - indeed despite - the latest fashion trends or silhouettes.

When Vivienne Westwood tried a similar gag with exaggerated bust padding and cages around the bum and hips four seasons ago, people laughed. But a toned-down version of the silhouette still remains, with the emphasis on the bust, waist and bottom. Victorian striped blouses were worn with matching bras - on the outside, of course, just like those at Gaultier. At times Westwood's clothes looked matronly; at other times as if they were made for Little Bo Peep or a saucy chambermaid. The designer also played with her old friend, Bondage, wrapping wide strips of fabric around demure evening dresses, and sending a blindfold, hand-tied bride down the catwalk to close the show.

The other Brit in Paris, John Galliano, was on form with a collection that pillaged from gypsies and travelling circus tents. Floral caravan paintings were lavishly printed on jackets and trousers, knitwear was intricately worked and worn with psychedelic-coloured leather biker suits, and evening dresses with spiders' webs, as well as heirloom fringed scarves, were just a small part of an outburst of ideas and creativity. These are clothes that won't date because they are unique in themselves.

The most wearer-friendly clothes all week were by the Belgian, Dries Van Noten, and the Austrian, Helmut Lang. Van Noten is an exoticist who layers pattern on pattern to make sumptuous outfits. There were Indian saris and North African henna prints on soft chiffons and silks that will be worn and loved by those who buy them until they fall apart, not because they are the latest thing, but because they are simply beautiful clothes. Likewise Helmut Lang whose plain suits and minimal dresses are pure in line and true to his own vision.

Martin Margiela, chose not to show on the catwalk and showed a video in his showroom instead. The collection is based on the Stockman tailor's dummy which Margiela has fashioned into a foundation garment. An ingeniously simple square of black silk is pinned on to it to make an elegant evening dress, while a yellow velvet half-dress or half-skirt is tied around as a "work in progress". Margiela is a free spirit in a world that is constrained by the need for advertising revenue. Despite this he continually turns out beautiful clothes that are on a plane all of their own.

The hit collection of the week came from Yohji Yamamoto, always an original, who made humorous references to the couture houses so up in arms right now with Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. A Chanel jacket looked like it had been left out in the rain, run over by a bus and found in an Oxfam shop, while a shredded black suit was given the New Look silhouette. Best of all were lighthearted dresses and shirts in dual-coloured floral devore velvet layered over one another. Yohji's play on couture was witty and well timed as well as being true to his own style and spirit.