By  on January 24, 2008

Hippie mermaids and punk ballerinas — these were the fanciful visions at Jean Paul Gaultier and Givenchy, while Elie Saab pursued what's currently an even more elusive creature: the red-carpet siren. Jean Paul Gaultier: Imagination has never been in short supply chez Jean Paul Gaultier, whose couture collections have visited many exotic locales. One of his favorite stops, of course, has been the sea, with louche sailors inspiring some of his most memorable looks. This time around, the designer dove deeper into that territory — as in "20,000 Leagues Under" — with marine life (think fish scales) forming the basis of his strong spring effort.Gaultier's quirkiness had its moments. Models boasted matted wet hair; one had a bustier of shells and another drowned her jumpsuit of golden scales with a wet sponge, evoking Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." Thankfully, the designer cast a wide net on this transoceanic romp. A hippie dress printed with a jellyfish motif created a spectacular virtual aquarium, fishnet dresses were beguiling enough to ensnare their prey and dresses embroidered with tropical flora proved Gaultier's an island-hopper, too. Client-pleasing elements rounded it out: a scalloped skirt suit, a trench with sparkling scales and plenty of flowing trousers. But Gaultier ended on a truly bizarre note, sending out his finale mermaid on crutches, which some people in the audience saw as an offensive spoof of the handicapped. Givenchy: Degas ballerinas don't usually evoke images of women in tough-chic silhouettes marked by sharply constructed military jackets and aggressive shoes. But that's the great thing about fashion — a designer can take an inspiration and run with it, as far away as he chooses. Which is what Riccardo Tisci did in the Givenchy collection he showed on Tuesday, to very strong effect. The designer's starting point was the sculpture "La Petite Danseuse de 14 Ans," which attracted him for its "romanticism completely made in bronze," in other words, a combination of hard and soft. Yet his first look out tempered any expectation of wild extremes: a dress with a reed-thin torso and short skirt flounced sans softness over white underlayers for a look lovely in its precision. This was followed by more demonstrative, unfussy ruffling as well as plenty of the take-no-prisoners skinny pants that have become something of a signature for Tisci's Givenchy. When he went really soft, it was with the proverbial edge, shrouding dresses in black tulle to costume his Gothic Ballerina, or juicing up beautifully rendered "Swan Lake" feathers with a shock of bright red at the waist.

Only occasionally did Tisci give in to the wanton overstatement that marked, and often marred, his earliest collections. On the downside: a couple of sculptural honeycomb extravaganzas. Conversely, the indulgently proportioned white tulle-and-canvas trench made a glorious argument for audacious grandeur. Elie Saab: Finding inspiration in diamonds might seem like a no-brainer for Beirut-based couturier Elie Saab, whose sparkling sequin-flooded confections bear testament to his love of bling. This outing was even higher wattage than a typical Saab affair, with dresses so heavily embroidered with glittering crystals that they made you reach for your sunglasses. Saab's strength lies in sticking to his time-tested silhouettes, which are seldom tricky. He featured Fifties-style cocktail ensembles and glamour-puss red-carpet gowns that are sure to find plenty of takers if the awards season ever materializes. This season he livened things up with some nice blue or pink lamé columnar gowns. But it's hard to sit through a Saab show without yearning for a little variation.

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