PARIS — The couture — such a narrow, specific world. Or is it? Although it’s been slow going in Paris this week, whatever is ailing haute — and perhaps it’s nothing more than the inevitable, occasional off season — the couture does not suffer from a lack of diversity, at least in terms of vision if not price point. Though few in number, the major couturiers represent a broad spectrum of creative and philosophical ideology, and that range is one of the couture’s core strengths. Cases in point, Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix, who each showed their collections on Tuesday. Both insist on the sanctity of the client, but their similarities end there. Season after season, Lagerfeld masterfully reinvents one of fashion’s most honored looks, and no matter how out-there his seasonal swings, a strong strain of practicality always runs through it all. On the other hand, Lacroix engages in the couture of total abandon.
Some people think that Karl Lagerfeld walks on water. He doesn’t, but his models did, in the public swimming pool where he staged his Chanel show on Tuesday morning. Just what the setting had to do with the clothes isn’t quite as clear as the floating Plexiglas runway that created the illusion, except that both were exercises in wit and ingenuity. That’s not to say that the show was perfect, as the fall season found Karl swimming both upstream and down. After spring’s remarkable homage to haute elegance, here he chose to go feistier and a lot less refined. On their own, the clothes were plenty tony, but the deliberate elimination of haute attitude was missed, especially in this comme ci, comme ca season. In fact, one could call this couture a-go-go, with simplified lines set off by knee-high clear plastic boots and overdone Sixties socialite hair. But while even current clients may relate to the coif, they’re hardly likely to pick up on Karl’s new beauty idea: Crayola makeup, the most bizarre of which was thick green lips and eyes. They will, however, love his new, straighter suits. They feature longer jackets and put the focus on the hips, with bright metallic cummerbunds played against those vibrant Chanel tweeds — electric lime on blue, blue on pink. A trickier version revealed only a section of the belt, the rest disappearing through slits of fabric at the sides, but clients can have that awkwardness rectified in a snap. Sometimes, the designer added fluffy tulle appendages tied attached to long ribbon ties, the handiwork of his new young accessories find, Laetitia Crahay, formerly of Olivier Theyskens. While they didn’t always make sense, they added a girlish zaniness. Lagerfeld’s coats were beautiful, and while he kept most lengths around the knee, he also showed a long, frayed-edge tulle skirt with a fluffy tiered top. Lagerfeld has always been a man of eclectic references, and for evening, he floated all over the place. Where else can a ballerina and a disco goddess both find the perfect dress? And why would anyone want a black number with two white tulle bubbles for sleeves? On the other hand, his tulle cape offered an amusing alternative to feathers, and the white gown of gathered tiers was the stuff of a dream.
Christian Lacroix maintains that “couture clients are, for the most part, classic and conservative.” Perhaps so, if one’s definition of those concepts includes the kind of flamboyant romanticism that rushes through Lacroix’s work. It’s a mood he delivered for fall to near perfection.
Lacroix has been on an essential journey of late, trying to reconcile his artistic vision with the realities of a world in which simplicity rules, and until very recently, embellishment in fashion was considered passe. Along the way, he has toned things down a bit, relatively speaking, experimenting with more relaxed shapes and concepts. But last season, the search turned to struggle, and his collection lost its magic.
For fall, it was back in full force in a show that indulged fancy while retaining a measure of control. While Lacroix rarely plays to a theme, he came close here, focusing on a palette of black, white and red, but digressing freely. He opened with a sleeveless, elaborately bustled orange mink coat over a jersey dress. Then, just to prove he can keep things simple, he sent out a smart tweed coat over an utterly indulgent little dress — in pink mink. After that, he was off and running, ornamenting lavishly as suited his whim, sometimes a single, heavily sequined cuff on a black overcoat, sometimes all-but-the-kitchen-sink pilings of feathers, fringe and beads, a model’s every turn revealing some intriguing touch.
So much stuff, so many possibilities. Lacroix’s legions included ballerinas, a milkmaid in shirred organza and velvet and even an out-of-place biker — more couture crasher than one of his classic client types. And there were breathtaking gowns, from a sort of simple black-and-white ribbon lace sheath to a fluffed and feathered ballgown and a remarkable “grand dress,” with an elongated platinum corset over a patchwork quilt skirt. It all made for visual delight: a fine romance, but one powerful in its eccentricity.

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