In Paris, fashion flaunts innovation, nuance

Paris — THE secret to the fall season revealed itself in the strangest of places on Thursday morning — an Art Deco restaurant nowhere near a runway. It was there that a museum curator summoned his assistant to try on a replica of a velvet opera coat by the long-dead French designer Paul Poiret, the man famous for liberating women from their corsets with his relaxed silhouettes.

The woman slipped her arms into the slouchy sleeves, only to have the curator begin pulling the garment apart to demonstrate how it was constructed entirely from a single rectangle of fabric.

A single rectangle of fabric.

Harold Koda, the curator, was previewing the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute's spring show on Poiret. But more vividly, he was demonstrating the idea of economy of design, of doing more with less, the very idea that is driving fashion forward today.

We saw it in Milan in the clean lines, subtle details and focus on craftsmanship in the Jil Sander, Versace and Prada collections. And we're seeing it here too — a new kind of minimalism for the 21st century motivated not by asceticism but a desire for meaningful content. It's the same shift toward conscientious consumerism that is fueling the green movement. People want more from their clothes.

Since we're talking about the Paris runways, that doesn't necessarily translate into corporate or environmental responsibility (we're not there yet), but it does mean nuance, not in-your-face ostentation. So, rather than a retro theme or travel narrative, the most interesting collections have put forth new ideas about construction, fabric innovation, or the most basic function of clothing, as seen at Hussein Chalayan.

Last season Chalayan proved himself to be the only true futurist when he subtly mocked fashion's obsession with the past by staging a technologically inspired show of dresses that morphed into different historical styles right before our eyes. This time he turned to the issue of climate change, building his runway around a roaring geyser of steam, and creating clothes that reacted to the seasonal cycles.

Chalayan sent out glowing hats and neckpieces emitting light to uplift the wearer in winter, an electronic hood that rose from the collar to protect from the rain, and a marvelous dress flickering LED images more beautiful than any designer could imagine, those of the arrival of spring. In between there were plenty of smart, down-to-earth styles too, including golden rose jacquard dresses, and red-and-black stripe, zip-front coats, which should finally mean good things commercially for this visionary. (See the podcast at

At Yves Saint Laurent, Stefano Pilati said in the program notes that he wanted to distance himself from "luxury in the most obvious form." That meant dispensing with the superfluous, working with a restrained black-and-gray palette and a single textural motif. As for the roominess of the silhouette, well, Poiret would have approved. No need for corsets here, just a little leg.

Pilati's starting point for the collection, his most focused and technically precise to date, was a rounded shape, which guided him all the way through from a beautifully tufted coat worn over leggings, to a gray tunic with a dropped collar, layered over a pencil skirt and sparkly knit sweater. He achieved soft volume, even on a man-tailored pearl gray jacket, which stood ever so slightly away from the body, and a black sack dress with a bow at the back of the neck.

Suggesting perhaps that luxury today is no longer about fine materials (you can buy cashmere at Target) but rather about fine craftsmanship, Pilati laser-cut a fur coat to look like crocodile scales, and repeated the effect as embroideries on a knit sweater. He even took it to the abstract on a midnight blue, hammered silk dress topped with a medieval-looking knit hood. (All the cool kids will be wearing them come fall.) As for le smoking, it doesn't get any better than Pilati's creamy white, fit-and-flair tuxedo jacket. He didn't even bother with the pants, just a pair of tights.

John Galliano was roundly criticized last season for caving into commercial pressures and giving his bosses at Dior a collection's worth of subtle riffs on the same, salable flesh-toned suit. But it looks like he was ahead of the minimalist curve. For fall he staged a 1940s Hollywood fantasy in Technicolor purple, fuchsia, chartreuse and electric blue that was impressive, if a bit tarted up for the here and now. Models descended a grand staircase, like at an old-fashioned maison de couture, which was appropriate because these clothes were as close to couture as ready-to-wear can get. And in that, there was genius.

It was impossible not to be dazzled by the construction. All of Galliano's talents were on display. His expertise at draping came through on a stunning coral column gathered into a waterspout of silk at one hip. His origami folds were here too, on a strapless white crepe gown that looked as if it had paper cranes around the bodice. There was a retro femininity to luncheon suits — a beige python jacket with bushy fur sleeves, belted over a slim skirt with a train in back — and a swing coat in Kelly green ostrich no less. I'm not sure what kind of woman would wear these clothes, but that doesn't mean I don't want to be her — at least for a day or two.

Valentino was drinking from the same nostalgic well, giving guests snippets of Bette Davis dialogue from "All About Eve" along with the polished clothes and Veronica Lake hairdos. He revisited his glory days — the 1980s — puffing up taffeta sleeves and lengthening skirts mid-calf. He also worked at layering — a brown, crocodile trimmed bolero over a strapless tweed dress, over a turtleneck sweater and wool crepe trousers. But there were no surprises here, except for the naked fur protesters who tried to jump onto the runway.

Jean Paul Gaultier spun a Highlands theme, beginning with model Coco Rocha in a red coat, plaid skirt and feather headpiece high-kicking it down the runway in a full-on folk dance. The collection was not groundbreaking, but it was a tartan-covered good time, with Gaultier's famous kilts (on women, not men) and some inventive coats, such as a baseball jacket (referencing last season's sporty theme) in mink shaved to look like argyle, and a python motorcycle jacket with a butt bag built in. But that was where Gaultier's nod to the street ended. Instead of taking things in the direction of punk, in line with the aggressive spirit we've seen in some fall collections, he played nicely-nicely. Too bad.

Riccardo Tischi looked to a 1920s Japanese naval jacket to find his way at Givenchy, a collection that has been struggling since he started in 2005. The result was a step forward, even if there were a few too many gold buttons and studs on his smart variations on the navy blue suit with sailor pants, below-the-knee pencil skirts, floor-sweeping maxi skirts, fitted pea coats and crisp white shirts with collars cut into ribbon points. There was a lot to wear here, but Tischi needs a better edit. Those powder pink, draped and pleated dresses and glittery little girl shoes had no place on this fashion island. And he needs to cast off those crotch-dragging dhoti pants once and for all.