Before Britain's royal wedding, when the identity of the designer behind the dress Kate Middleton would wear to the alter was still the best-kept secret in the kingdom, some in the fashion world cast doubt on the rumors pointing toward Alexander McQueen, saying the label's aesthetic was too dark for a princess-to-be known for her demure style.
Though McQueen creative director Sarah Burton did end up scoring the plum commission, the label's spring-summer 2012 ready-to-wear collection Tuesday served as a reminder of just how somber the house's look really is. Nip-waisted skirt suits borrowed elements from bondage gear, while stunning pearl and mother-of-pearl covered gowns felt like beautiful straitjackets.
There was nothing constricting about the Valentino collection, where the airy concoctions of organza and lace were as light as a whisper.
Karl Lagerfeld said that with everyone and their mother churning out knockoff Chanel skirt suits in heavy-duty tweed, he'd decided to send out the label's iconic suits in the lightest of high-tech materials.
Lagerfeld bragged that his iridescent sheath dresses, made from Space Age polyester shot with fiberglass and paper -- "not that horrible polyester from the seventies" -- "weigh literally 3 grams."
Beyond the technical virtuosity of the materials, Chanel impressed with its ever-awesome set. This time, the luxury powerhouse -- which has just about the deepest pockets in the industry -- transformed the steel-and-glass domed Grand Palais into a pristine seabed, its sand-strewn catwalk dotted with towering clumps of seaweed and coral made from bright white fiberglass.
New beginnings dawned at Paco Rabanne, the iconic sixties label that relaunched its shuttered women's line after a yearslong hiatus, and at Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, where a new owner has resulted in uncharacteristic austerity.
After eight grueling days under the blazing sun of a freak Paris Indian summer that finally broke on Tuesday, the collections come to a much-anticipated end Wednesday, with Prada second line Miu Miu and Elie Saab, the Lebanese designer who's omnipresent on red carpets the world over.
But before breathing a sigh of relief, fashionistas were setting multiple alarms to be sure to make the Louis Vuitton, which is, cruelly, in the 10:00 a.m. time slot.
Unlike pretty much every other show, where a half-an-hour late start is considered on time, Vuitton actually starts at what the rest of the world would consider promptly, and sometimes early, even.
Last season, stragglers made a blind dash for their seats when the lights went down and the music came up two minutes ahead of time. Rumor has it that Vuitton will start a full five minutes early this season.
Like a luminous Venus rising from the sea atop a half-shell, pearl-covered Chanel models in light, liquidy fabrics emerged from a giant sea anemone onto a catwalk transformed into a sprawling undersea kingdom.
There was nothing literal in uber-designer Lagerfeld's take on the ocean theme: None of the clothes were covered in sailor stripes or emblazoned with kitschy red anchors. The collection was more about play of sunlight on the surface of the ocean -- shine, reflection, radiance.
"I absolutely wanted to avoid mermaids and things like that," Lagerfeld, sporting a seashell pink shirt and matching tie for the occasion, told reporters in a post-show interview. "I was inspired by the movement of seaweed, its lightness, and by certain fish that have very modern shapes, like sting rays."
Frothy puffs of chiffon clung like sea foam to the hemlines of some of the narrow skirts, and shiny aqua ribbons zigzagged down the white shift dresses like angry waves. A cocktail dress had puffs of slick ribbon embroidery at the sleeves and the hips, like clumps of black seaweed.
Everything was covered with pearls: They stood in for buttons and replaced chain belts, punctuated the models' slick, wet looking hairdos and were stuck onto their ears and backs -- in neat rows down their prominent vertebrae.
Ahead of the show, which attracted A-list guests including Uma Thurman, Lagerfeld himself emerged, like Neptune, to survey his underwater kingdom. He hammed it up for the scrum of photographers that immediately materialized around him, pretending to strum a fish-adorned harp as the flashes popped furiously.
Like tourists at the Eiffel Tower, guests posed for snapshots on the set: Two Chinese couples dressed in head-to-toe black -- the women in floor-length Chanel evening gowns, the men in tuxes with bow ties for the 10:30 a.m. show -- contrasted smartly with the backdrop of gleaming white coral.
A border terrier named Frickey in an Yves Saint Laurent leopard print collar ran in excited loops around the set, sniffing at the mammoth fiberglass seashells. Thankfully, he was well-trained and didn't dare mark his territory.
The ivory silk wedding dress that Kate Middleton chose for her date with history was, of course, Alexander McQueen, but it was hard to imagine the demure now-Duchess of Cambridge sporting the S&M-infused black teddy, the head-enveloping lace-and-leather face masks or any of the other extreme looks that came down the label's runway Tuesday.
The house was built on just such harsh beauty, but following the Feb. 2010 suicide of its namesake and founder, it appeared as if his successor would steer the label in a softer, more consensual direction. For her debut as creative director one year ago, Burton delivered a collection that loosened the screws on McQueen's punishingly nipped waists and smoothed out some of his harshest angles.
And then there was the dress, the wedding down that saw Middleton transformed from commoner into royalty -- the single most coveted commission in recent fashion history. Kept under the strictest of wraps up until Middleton alighted at Westminster Abbey on April 29 -- before some 2 billion spectators worldwide -- the simple-lined, long sleeve concoction became an instant legend and unleashed a bridal wave of copycats.
But the Duchess of Cambridge has notoriously low-key style, and trying to imagine her in anything from the spring-summer collection was absurd. After all, what would she do with her luscious locks -- not to mention her face -- in one of those lacy pantyhose head masks that topped off all the looks? (Covered in pearls or sporting a metal beard made out of what appeared to be straight pins, they were the world's chicest and most twisted Mexican lucha libre masks).
With Tuesday's collection, Burton's third as creative director, she tightened the screws again. Suits with flippy skirts and shrunken jackets were cinched at the waist with oversized belts with kinky lace-up detailing. Evening gowns entirely covered in pearls or mother-or pearl scales were ravishing, but looked about as conformable as straitjackets.
The show elicited among the most positive reactions of any of the Paris collections, and Burton looked almost embarrassed by all the hubbub as she ducked onstage for a bow.
Valentino's concoctions of lace and tulle had all the delicate transparency of exotic jellyfish, their luminous membranes pulsating gently in deep-sea depths.
For spring-summer, the design duo that has remade the Italian label in its feather-light image following the retirement of founder Valentino Garavani continued to refine their now-signature airy looks, sending out a collection of see-through dresses in lace, tulle and organza.
Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli delivered chemisier dresses embellished with dramatic flame-shaped panels of lace, A-line bustier dresses like frothy millefeuilles of chiffon and organza and the simplest of ankle-length gowns, with a slight seventies vibe.
Besides a couple of the long dresses in the shade of lipstick red that was so synonymous with the label under Garavani's tenure that it earned the title "Valentino red," the rest of the looks were in the kind of makeup shades Piccioli and Chiuri have favored in recent seasons -- buff, ivory, seashell and salmon pinks, with a sprinkling of gold.
While these looks are not for everyone -- actually, they're meant pretty much exclusively for very young women with sticks in the place of legs -- they have a very distinct and delicate beauty all of their own.
The message going out over the Surrealist satellite dish hats at Paco Rabanne was loud and crystal clear: "Paging Lady Gaga," the headgear, with almond-shaped eye holes, seemed to insist. "We've got something for you."
If she's having trouble finding outfits that can top a meat dress -- and frankly, who wouldn't? -- the pop star need look no further than the newly revamped and relaunched Paco Rabanne, which shot the futuristic legacy of the legendary '60s house back into orbit.
There were second-skin sheath dresses with sharp shoulders and protruding hips that looked like the uniforms of a flight crew on a spaceship and a catsuit in gold lame that was hung with thick metal coils and tangled chains, like so much space debris.
Foil candy-wrapper dresses were kitted out with sculptural whorls of fabric -- shaped like the rings of Saturn -- that enveloped the models, turning them into prisoners of their own dresses. One model even had to fold her hands behind her in backward prayer to order not to muss the rings.
Variations on Rabanne's iconic chain mail dresses -- made from plastic trapezoids linked together with metal rings -- were served up in bustier dresses, pencil skirts and even a slinky hooded catsuit worthy of a Space Age Joan of Arc.
It was a super debut from Delhi-based madcap Manish Arora, who, as the new creative director, is charged with rebuilding the historic brand.
Founded by a Spanish designer of the same name, Paco Rabanne shot into the fashion stratosphere in the mid-1960s with futuristic designs that cleverly incorporated metal and plastic. The house's fortunes later dwindled, and its current owners, cosmetics and high-end clothing company the Puig Group, shuttered the ready-to-wear line several years ago to focus on its lucrative perfume operations.
Arora, whose demented styles for his signature line have garnered considerable critical praise, seemed on paper like just the man to revive the house, and Tuesday's show confirmed as much.
Sure, you could not sit down, walk, use your hands or even breathe in most of the looks on the revamped Rabanne runway. But walking, talking, gesticulating or breathing are simply besides the point as far as these kind of clothes-as-talking-pieces are concerned.
Just ask Gaga, or Katy Perry, or Beyonce or any of the other superstars whose name the collection was calling.
JEAN-CHARLES DE CASTELBAJAC
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac can normally be counted on to latch onto a juicy theme -- the Muppets, say, or Africa -- and beat it to a bloody pulp. But the theme escaped unscathed as France's reigning king of kitsch delivered an uncharacteristically subdued collection of ladylike daywear.
Called "Rustica Gallactica," the collection was supposed to be a sort of hybrid of a pastoral style and slick futuristic looks, or as the fascinating collection notes would have it, a "temporal space trip, (to where) the past sophistication and the future rusticity live together."
It was a hard concept to get your head around -- a fact that made for an obtuse collection, lacking in the kind of over-the-top, tongue-and-cheek extravagance the house has elevated to an art. Heavy oatmeal-color tweed suits had silver lame touches, and silk cocktail dresses burst with oversized star paneling at the bustier.
Still, though it was dominated by proper bourgeois-looking pieces, there were still sudden bursts of Castelbajac's trademark irony, like the Mickey Mouse ears that peeked over the bustline of a bustier dress, and the measuring tape as a waistband on a serious suit -- a touch guaranteed to keep the wearer counting calories.
As a kicker, the floor-length silver sequin gown that closed the show was paired with a pearl-covered choker made out of what appeared to be a neck brace -- the accessory of choice for those women for whom whiplash is no excuse for not looking chic.
The collection marked the start of a new era for the house of Castelbajac, which was recently bought by a South Korean sportswear company after it initiated bankruptcy proceedings.