Fashion File: Getting Back to Basics in Paris

Zigzagging from "dream dresses" to nightmare chic, the Paris haute-couture shows this week proved there's a reason why classics are classic.

Many designers came out with skirts just below the knee, or inching above it, as well as elegant suits. Others went off with wild style and a lot of skin. In both cases, decadent fabrics and classic cuts set the tone all week.

The Masters

The nightmare-cartoon element came from John Galliano, Dior's mischievous cut-up. From jet-beaded garter-belt babes with tulle tops to American Indian-inspired looks, it was a show that scoffed at fashion.

Under all the ornamentation, however, lurked a few elegant draped dresses proving that Galliano is actually a couturier after all.

A sexy, hard-edge costumed look came up at Versace, where Donatella — the sister of the late couturier — took his tack, plus some inspiration from Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings. The style was based on whale-boned decolleté clothes worn by La Goulue, the dancer who Toulouse-Lautrec lusted after. Daring legs and large bosoms were on show, as well as many bared backs.

Christian Lacroix's collection was like a fandango dance — eye-catching, sexy, fun. Unfortunately for us, it wasn't particularly wearable by mere mortals.

Stuck between a Spanish bullfight and legendary performer Josephine Baker, Lacroix unfolded some vivid color ideas. The designer showed marvelous numbers, from a tangerine strapless satin draped dress with a pleated green-blue pouf behind, to a beautiful bridal outfit, jeweled under a veiled look of white tulle.

At Givenchy, designer Alexander McQueen shut out the press and showed for a small clientele only, pleading production difficulties as the reason. Others saw his next move to Gucci as a better reason. Givenchy is thus without a design guru — though names such as Belgian Olivier Theyskens and the red-hot Stella McCartney from Chlöe have been bandied about.

Jean-Paul Gaultier produced a creative mix of wearable and eccentric show-off clothes. His famous draped pink satin corselet dress made supermodel Sophie Dahl look like Miss Piggy. But some of his ideas and execution were great — such as laser-cut fingernail incisions up and down sleeves, skirts, and even around trenchcoats that turned into boleros and dresses.

Emanuel Ungaro turned out riotously colorful dream clothes at a pink-green setting that could have been in Dubai, or maybe Rajasthan, India. The lightly decorated, draped clothes with silky head wraps showed plenty of flesh, and came in vivid hues from shocking pink to gold, bright green and deep purple.

Newcomers Make a Good Show

Several younger couturiers showed off this season. Dominique Sirop's small show offered a welcome touch of simple sophistication: wearable satin, organza, tulle evening wear.

Franck Sorbier went in for a cinematic show featuring a dress like a bodice of lacy, woven horsehair and skirt of ruffled gray tulle.

Korean designer Ji Haye loved the appeal of multi-colored silks and folded them origami-style into delightful artistic gowns.

Wearable Chic

Following his credo that outrageously expensive clothes should at least be comfortable, Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld wowed audiences with exquisite cream or pink-flecked silk-tweed suits with slightly flared or stitch-pleated skirts to the knee, jacket-tops tucked into skirts, and feather-light and soft, feminine evening gowns.

Especially appealing was the white dance dress — a lace blouse topping a swirly, silver-spangled skirt.

In the same wearable couture vein, Japanese designer Hanae Mori, long a respected Paris couturiere, turned out a small, dressy and beautiful collection.

With original touches like a cellophane collar licking a suit and a shiny patent leather jacket-dress outfit, the collection was one of Madame Mori's best in years. A few excellent day suits included a split skirt with a well-cut charcoal jacket, a cream crêpe suit with sun-pleating on the pants and a raw silk powder-pink trouser suit with a big obi-style bow in back.

Yves Saint Laurent: Back to Basics

But the shouts and applause may have been loudest for fashion patriarch Yves Saint Laurent, who was wooed by celebrities from Catherine Deneuve to soccer superstar Fabien Barthez.

The show was welcome, after a surfeit of vulgarity in other quarters, as Saint Laurent featured mainly classics with new twists.

Saint Laurent trouser suits may look mannish and retro, but they distill a great daytime style, whether in shades of beige or taupe or with light gray or off-white jackets over darker pants.

The fun of the collection was in the feather-light organdy blouses, puffy sleeves and eyelet details, plus some luscious fruit embroidery by the house of Lesage. This blouse-skirt look creates a stimulating new challenge to jackets and skirts. The skirts are shown a couple of inches below the knee.

The lovely, airy spotted organza dinner gowns in colors from blue and turquoise to tomato reds were another modern and easy solution to late-day dressing.