By  on February 27, 2008

Avant-garde design is alive and well and living in Paris. In fact, it's evolving, with new, darker colors, along with distinctive tailoring and patterns.

Junya Watanabe: In what qualified as a truly graceful mood swing, Junya Watanabe traded in spring's buoyant spirit for a sober take on the same sartorial principles: draping and, of course, asymmetry. It began with a shift in color, from candy-hued cottons to wool jerseys in heathered shades of gray, slate, navy blue and black that were stretched into long, languid silhouettes. Each look came serene and unfettered, aside from the draping, which ranged from a simple tuck or twist to grander gestures of complicated curves and winding seams. There were cardigan versions, fur-trimmed bib dresses and roomy cocoons that funneled into an elegant column skirt. Later on, he switched modes to tailored looks designed within the somber-slim parameters. Classic glen plaid and houndstooth were made avant on twisted blazers worn with floor-length stretch skirts. The look was almost entirely covered up, even restricting at times, as in capelike waistcoats that bound the arms to the body and slim skirts made into pants thanks to a crotch and cuffs just above the ankles. All those lanky shapes and brooding colors, topped with face-masking stretch turbans, made for a dramatic melancholy — a beautiful one. And if it got repetitive, save for the welcome burst of color in a few pretty floral looks, that's just Watanabe working endless possibilities into a singular vision.

Tao Comme des Garçons: Charming. The word is unavoidable when talking about Tao Kurihara's designs. They're charmingly experimental, whimsical, enchanting. This season, that sweet allure embraced a darker, grungier side, while nevertheless still clocking in high on that signature ruffled froth factor. For instance: her fluffy girlish cardis, shrugs and skirts came cut in heavy multitextured black and gray wools. The models, too, fit the mood, their foppish hats offset by black-tinted lips. But as with other designers this season, Kurihara wisely chose to fold in vibrant flashes of color as a foil. There were plenty of dense pastels and pretty colorblocking, as well as shots of shiny silver and gold. She also added a slightly disheveled deconstruction motif, with raw loose strands of fabric falling helter-skelter from garments. But the larger story in this collection is one familiar to designers of her ilk: the push and pull of the creative and commercial. Kurihara is increasingly proving she can deftly balance the two. Check out her terrific knits — ribbed turtlenecks, webby sweaters — for evidence of the latter. But she's still a fashion poet at heart — charming phrases like "You wish" and "They dream" were painted under the models' eyes.

Undercover: Jun Takahashi has given us everything from satires of old fashion masters to a wardrobe fit for Little Miss Muffet-gone-Gidget. So when his invitation promised some "Unreal Real Clothes," who wasn't delighted at the prospect of the sartorial possibilities his sly mind might whip up? The designer didn't disappoint, delivering in the most thought-provoking, lovely way without losing one iota of commercial savvy. The show was set up like a 10-act play, with each act musing on various questions de la mode. The first tableau addressed, "What is Tailoring?" In Undercover's world, it's jackets and blazers with nary a straight stitch, but rather curved hems and seaming. Next up: American traditional clothing. The answer: a khaki-and-sweatshirt combo and your old collegiate hoodie made architecturally chic. Other acts explored fashion basics like parkas, which got the draped treatment, and fabrics that were made to look and fall like knits, but were actually leather, silk and coarse cotton. He also offered tweaked takes on outdoorsy and natty boarding-school fare. With Takahashi's cerebral approach, it's no wonder he styled his models Planet Remulak-style, with android coneheads.

Maison Martin Margiela: For fall, Martin Margiela's always-anticipated concept appeared to be conceal and reveal, which he demonstrated with togalike netting and jerseys, some layered over body stockings, that were cut asymmetrically to reveal a leg or an arm. The look then progressed to printed territory, where Margiela mixed and matched all manner of optical-illusion patterns — chessboard checks, blurry dots and tapestries — sometimes limb by limb. It was wearable, but in an esoteric way that will undoubtedly tickle those who consider Margiela a fashion prophet, and leave those who don't get it feeling left out or bored. Likewise for his more demonstrative antics, in this case, collars up — way up. Tuxedo jackets and trenches were outfitted with necklines that extended straight up from the shoulders — one of his favorite body parts to build on, or bare, as he did with black tunics. These were worn over loose, sheer hose that appeared to have lost its elasticity. And for the grand finale: funnel necks that looked like they swallowed the model whole. Absurd, yes. But if the designer's trickle-down direction starts with an extreme detail, then expect to see cowls and turtlenecks go big next season. 

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