Wednesday's shows went from the Renaissance-feel of Valentino's shimmering blue silk capes to the 19th century, where couture's enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier, paid homage to the black top-hatted dandy.
Elie Saab went decorative with Imperial motifs of the Ottoman Empire. And, nearer to the present day, Givenchy reworked house founder Monsieur Hubert de Givenchy's little black dress, made famous in the 1960s by Audrey Hepburn.
With the couture season thinned from a week of shows to only three days, designer must make an immediate impact. Wednesday's shows offered a rich display of craftsmanship from the century-old Parisian clothes-making tradition.
JEAN PAUL GAULTIER
Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier loves film. For proof, look no further than his dandyesque couture offering, which paid homage to the silver screen.
The show took for its muse an unlikely matinee idol: the singer Pete Doherty, who made his acting debut as a 19th-century figure in a film that screened at Cannes. The movie, "Confession of a Child of the Century," bowled Gaultier over. "I said my god he is so seductive, a decadent dandy," said the designer backstage.
The result was an androgynous and theatrical couture delight.
Nineteenth century top hats accompanied high taffeta collars, deconstructed texture-rich satin crepe waistcoats and a lot of black, broken up with explosions colour and bright fox fur, which provoked whoops of delight from the crowd.
Gaultier threw in other cinema references. As if straight out of that 1927 science-fiction film "Metropolis" was a grey metallic looking cape with golden lining. The piece de resistance came in the form of a science-fiction corset cage — like a mechanized hourglass.
The show was an hour late — luckily Gaultier omitted any other references to time.
Hubert de Givenchy's column dress from the 1960s — made famous by actress Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" — was the muse behind the house's imaginative couture presentation.
At a private show in a lavish Parisian mansion, guests viewed ten ornate and plunging creations in black and light beige.
When "Monsieur Hubert" originally designed Hepburn's 1960s dress, it was all about simplicity of form. The garment — alongside Coco Chanel's — is among history's most iconic little black dresses. Here, 50 years after Blake Edwards' romantic comedy, the look is far more eccentric.
Designer Riccardo Tisci gave the famous designs a gypsy-infusion at this show, taking bohemian foulard print to inspired intricate reliefs of bonded leather. Several pieces owed their column form to the sheer weight of the ornate detailing.
It was a master class in craftsmanship. There was only one problem: a model got tangled in some long, heavy fringing by simply lifting her arm.
Valentino opened its art history books for a vintage-feeling fall-winter 2012 show, with couture inspired by the Old Masters.
Choker-collar gowns in silk chiffon and crepe de chine blue capes floated past with the eerie, magical feel of a bygone age. Why the old-school references?
"We just love our past," said designer Maria Grazia Chiuri. "The capes are the idea of the woman as the new Madonna... like in Giotto and Botticelli."
But there were intentional contradictions in the style. One piece with a gentle V-neck had an on-trend inflated arm. Another piece, a belted jumpsuit in blue opium crepe, looked very contemporary.
Two pale pink silk gowns, with fresco-like images of branches, had a Renaissance-style Empire waist, a look that has been making a comeback in recent seasons.
As ever, the incredible work the "petites mains" — the old Italian seamstresses — was on display. One blouse and trouser ensemble, the program notes say, took 1,200 hours of stitching.
But, the best pieces were often the simplest. In some of the lavish garments, there was an overkill of embroidery, and the designers' message got lost.
Elie Saab used Ottoman motifs to give his show an imaginative lift.
The move expanded his strict repertoire of va-va-voom column dresses and created a strong offering for this year's couture season.
A superb array of embroidered black gowns in tulle, lace and georgette — which opened the show — was the best sequence. Pearls glistened alongside sequins in decorative shapes.
"The black was fantastic, this season he's put in much thought," said stylist Susan Tabak.
The blacks then gave way to a typical Saab palette of champagne, pink and sky blue. And the money-shot came at the end: an embossed organza bridal gown with gold brocade leaves.
Saab's program notes said the patterns had been "lifted from a palace along the banks of the Bosphorus" — and the glimmering decorative effects did endow the show with a certain Imperial element.
Saab — a designer with a faithful following of women — made no big creative leaps here.
But then again, he doesn't need to.
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