By special reporter Cathy Horyn

On Thursday, the scene at Balenciaga, one of the most anticipated shows in Paris, had a Chaplin quality of farce: benches collapsing under the weight of fashion heavies. In the end the audience stood — fittingly, I suppose, as Nicolas Ghesquiere paid tribute to Balenciaga’s Basque roots with fisherman tunics and the famous bridal cap with its steeply pitched sou’wester brim.

But the real surprise was how weightless the opening jackets were, despite the beefy shoulders and gridlike patterns that mirrored the parquet floor laid for show. Mr. Ghesquiere has trained the fashion crowd to expect more — more craft, more exotic mixtures of materials — and the effect in recent seasons has been to take the air and speed out of his designs. The new jackets had no padding, no linings; they more or less floated on the body. The track shorts, while not new to any young woman, were also airy. Underneath was lingerie, a naked bit of fantasy.

His other gesture was to create a sophisticated pair of jeans. At least twice in the last decade he designed a widely copied style of pants. The new silhouette is tailored, but its real value is that it treats utility fabrics like denim and khaki in a nuanced way. The front half of one style is a knit, the back is tough khaki. There were also beautifully naïve cotton blouses with the texture of papery silk, and floating dresses in a black-and-white dot print with a khaki hem that, again, felt free of heavy thought.

Mr. Ghesquiere can come away refreshed from the Balenciaga archive, but for most designers the postwar couture is an element in the cut-and-paste process that largely defines current fashion. Designers saw the Madame Grès exhibition here this summer; they know Balenciaga’s volumes and bullring pomp by heart. But they always have to do something extreme to make you think it’s new.

That’s why during a show you sometimes feel as if you are in a little boat moving away from a familiar shore, into a sea of weird or ugly clothes.

If a designer is going to be cinematic, as Dries Van Noten and Marco Zanini of Rochas obviously were (Mr. Van Noten with his beep-and-toot urban soundtrack, Mr. Zanini with his picture parade of ’50s skirts), I wish they would read Raymond Chandler or see a film where the girl isn’t literally frozen in layers of organza. Mr. Zanini’s models walked as if they might break. He had them wear organza kerchiefs, or carry the stupid thing in their hands, with a purse large enough to hold a few bills and a Metro card. Not that these girls were the type to worry about either.

If Mr. Zanini was not a sensitive designer, the one-dimensional quality of his show wouldn’t be puzzling. He had some lovely sober black suits, a sleeveless black column with a flounce at the ankles, and a pencil skirt in black lace with a black V-neck sweater and black shirt that looked austere and aware. It probably says something, though not much, about consciousness that you couldn’t identify the movie inspiration. You knew there was one, or several, but it was all just fuzziness.

Mr. Van Noten showed more awareness. His opening shapes had the volume of Balenciaga, the loose-back jackets a blend of worker’s garb and matador costume (dark cotton with embroidery). For every skirt with drapery, there was a simple full skirt in dark raspberry cotton or a lanky pencil skirt in off-white cotton. He kept beating back the nostalgia.

The last section consisted of photo prints of cityscapes, the lights of Los Angeles or the landscape of Las Vegas, with their depressing come-ons of distraction. These prints, based on images by a photographer named James Reeve, were hardly profound; we’re only too aware of the solitary feelings produced by cities. But the fact that some of the prints were like scattered pin dots of light on a black skirt (with a flamenco zest) gave them mystery. As Mr. Van Noten said backstage, “I wanted them to have this secret feeling.”

Lady Gaga, appearing on a giant screen at the Mugler show, advised us not to mess with the Mugler woman, although that’s not the word she used. Then she went on to thunder about Mugler and Paris, as if it were the last word in cool, but of course the more she thundered the more empty the claim was. The cool people were surely at café enjoying a drink. The designer Sébastien Peigné, who works with the creative director Nicola Formichetti, is better than the slashed looks that appear on the runway, in white and makeup-tone beige.

Balmain’s new designer, Olivier Rousteing, put a lot of sweat into his Nudie Cohn-inspired outfits, which meant Vegas cowgirls in baroque leathers. It was a good start, but the trouble with shallowness — and Balmain is gloriously shallow — is that the attitude has to be completely secure.

After seeing Rick Owens’s terrific show on Thursday night, I thought it made a good counterpunch to Balenciaga’s geometric patterns. His jackets and tunics, shown with long white skirts, were all done in paper-thin pieces of gold, black and white leather, though they looked like fabric. He also did some wonderful tunics and dresses in white or black cotton with a drawstring at the waist that can be loosened for a different shape.

“A simple gesture can be really nice,” he said backstage. No kidding.

With courtesy of the New York Times

First pic: a work of art Thierry Mugler

Second pic: boxy blazer at Balenciaga

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