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All eyes on catwalks with respite in Galliano saga

The City of Light shone especially bright on Thursday, with high-voltage, sequin and mirrorwork covered collections at Balmain and Manish Arora.

There were no new developments in the dramatic saga that saw Dior sack its star designer, John Galliano, amid allegations he made anti-Semitic insults. The respite in news on the shocking case, which has riveted the fashion world since it broke last week, finally allowed industry insiders to concentrate on the business at hand and give their full, undivided attention to the fall-winter 2011-12 ready-to-wear collections, which debuted in Paris on Tuesday.

There was plenty of drama on the runway, with the dazzling — in every sense of the word — collections from Balmain, the It Girl's go-to label for serious party clothes, and India's inventive Manish Arora, who's appointment at iconic label Paco Rabanne and collaboration with Nespresso (he decorated a line of expresso machines) have raised his profile of late.

Then there were the pretty, ladylike wares from Nina Ricci — which Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, said ushered in a whole new way of dressing.

"The days of throwing on a dress and a pair of Louboutins and calling yourself dressed is over," Downing said following the parade of delicate skirt suits in oddly beautiful color combinations, like forest green and sky blue. "This style of polite dressing, which is very ladylike and feminine, is going to require a bit more thought."

Two U.S. designers also fielded their collections, with very different results.

Rick Owens defended his title as among the most reliably solid of Paris designers, churning out yet another riveting collection that managed to project his dark, tribal vision into the fashion future without compromising its essence.

Zac Posen was another story altogether. The show fizzled before it even began, with many of the seats languishing empty and the cast of top models looking bored and listless. The lackluster show sapped any energy the clothes — sexy bustier dresses with crocodile paneling and flared pantsuits — might have had.

The Galliano saga will be back in the spotlight on Friday, as Dior fields the Galliano-designed fall-winter collection — presumably without the designer, who rumor suggests is in rehab in Arizona. The fashion world was waiting with bated breath to see how the luxury giant would handle the delicate situation, and whether the house would soon announce Galliano's successor.

To be continued.

BALMAIN

These overalls weren't in Kansas anymore.

The Paris label gave that wholesome Midwestern staple a decidedly unwholesome turn, sending out blinged-out overalls in sexy silver chainmail that would make Dorothy blush.

The high-wattage coveralls and second-skin catsuits were a welcome alternative to the peaked-shouldered blazers that helped make Balmain the go-to brand for jet-set party girls looking to make a big entrance. Designer Christophe Decarnin has been churning out variations on the blockbuster look for years now, and it was refreshing to see him serve up a collection that, while not revolutionary, at least charted some new territory.

Gone were the peaked shoulders, replaced by flat square shoulders on the elongated, lapel-less jackets in metallic leather. As for the overalls, they fit so seamlessly into the label's sexy rich 'n' roll aesthetic it was hard to see why Decarnin didn't seize on them seasons ago.

Still, Thursday's collection was not all about change. The bling remained: The jackets glinted with ornate hand-embroidered mirrorwork stripes and Swarovski crystal patches. And It Girls with the legs to pull off the label's tiny dresses needn't panic: Balmain's notoriously high hemlines didn't migrate southward — in fact, the sleeves on many of the dresses appeared longer than the dresses themselves.

The collection looked sure to please not only Balmain's exclusive clique of fans, but also the fashion critics who'd started grumbling about Decarnin's collections always being the same.

MANISH ARORA

The problem, when you're Manish Arora, is that each season, you've got to raise the bar.

Not such an easy task given that the madly inventive Indian designer took Paris by storm several years ago with sequin-saturated, applique-slathered, metal-work-covered, sculpture-sprouting collections that were unlike almost anything else out there.

You name the design feat, he's done it: fitting catsuits with sculptural exoskeletons in gleaming metallics; covering every inch of an outfit with Swarovski crystals, rich embroidery and mirrorwork; even rigging out cocktail dresses with their own lighting systems.

There's not a whole lot of uncharted territory left for him to explore.

So for fall-winter, Arora added magic to the mix, opening Thursday's show with a materialization act worth of Houdini. Magician Benjamin Dukhan wheeled an empty metal cage into the middle of the catwalk, covered it with a cape and, ta-da, a model appeared inside.

As per usual, each look was so elaborate it would take reams to describe exhaustively.

A catsuit printed with what appeared to be magnified images of crystal formations was paired with a gleaming gold girdle that sat jauntily on the model's hips. The eyes of a fox stole glowed eerily with green lights. A floor-length ballgown looked as if it was made out of stiff colored paper cut like a paper snowflake.

The collection was yet another tour de force from Arora, who was recently appointed artistic director at Paco Rabanne in a bid to revive the iconic but now sleeping brand that help define futuristic fashion in the 1960s. Arora is to present his first collection for the house in October, and already fashion insiders were wonder how he'd manage to raise the bar even higher.

RICK OWENS

It was what Little Red Riding Hood would wear for a nuclear winter.

Rick Owens topped his fall-winter looks off with little capes and ponchos in black and gray leather, wool and fur, adding a sweet, almost ingenuous touch to his hard-edged turtlenecks and long, slim skirts in black microfiber.

Owens, a California native, has built an empire on his dark, tribal looks, which often veer into the realm of the post-apocalypse. This season's dose of sweetness mixed surprisingly well with his signature broody wares.

The capes softened the silhouettes and gave the models an ingenue quality not often found in Owens' work. Even the makeup reflected the collection's saccharine current: Models who in seasons past have been smeared with ash or painted with oversized bug-eyed patches of eyeshadow on Thursday were wearing but a lovely bright shade of red lipstick.

Besides the capes, which came in all different shapes, lengths and materials, Owens served up puffer coats with flattened heart-shaped sleeves that evoked some sort of nocturnal moth. You could almost see the bolder women in the room adding those to next season's mental shopping list.

ZAC POSEN

Posen's bid to jump-start his flagging label by showing in Paris looked to have run out of gas in just its second season, as the New York-based designer's fall-winter display elicited the bare acceptable minimum of applause.

The audience's lackluster response was hard to explain. The clothes were pretty enough, cropped flared trousers and snug little blazers with standup collars and peplums and flattering bustier dresses in crocodile. But the energy that's palpable at good shows and practically crackles at great ones was utterly lacking.

Even the models — who included some of the most sought-after girls of the moment, ladies who know how to work a catwalk — looked bored. Their hair in Farrah Fawcett loose curls and their eyelids smothering in teal shadow, they seemed to mope petulantly down the runway.

Thirty-year-old Posen, a one-time wunderkind who shot to critical darling status in his early 20s, has struggle in recent years to reproduce his early success. He made his Paris debut last season with a flower-sprouting cancan girl-themed collection that was widely lambasted by the press.