PARIS — When U-2 played Madison Square Garden in October, No Doubt opened. While that band’s offbeat-cute music can send some audiences into euphoria, it wasn’t really working for the Bono-loving crowd. “You know,” Gwen Stefani said sweetly between songs, “we know you came here to see U-2. But, well, we’re here, too.”

Going into this couture season, we all knew that it would be one of the most memorable ever, and in that context, everything that happened before tonight at the Pompidou Center can be looked at as a warm-up act. A three-day, elaborate, expensive warm-up act, with all of the players vying jealously for one-upsmanship with their covers of a single tune: “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”

Another issue loomed far more heavily. In addition to being the season of Yves, this is the first post-Sept. 11 season with a little distance. With a war on and the economy in full stinking flower, how would designers respond? Would they shelve flamboyance in favor of restraint or even sobriety? Or would they embrace the normalcy of couture — if anything about this tiny little world of indulgence and opportunism can be considered normal — and celebrate the good life with typical haute indulgence? Right from the start they answered resoundingly, beginning with Donatella Versace, who opened the season on Saturday night with a circus act on her runway and a celebrity glut — if, mon Dieu, there can be such a thing these days — in her front row, and going on to John Galliano’s wild Russian-plus romp at Christian Dior on Monday. Obviously, many feel, as Donatella does, that “couture has to be a dream.”

Of course, in a perfect haute world, the dream and reality converge. And the collection that John Paul Gaultier showed on Sunday was near-perfect. Who would have predicted years ago that so rambunctious a designing youth would become one of the standard-bearers of couture? But then, the great couturiers all broke old molds and recast their own before embracing traditional notions. Gaultier celebrates the dream of couture, its aspirational aspect and its historical position as the laboratory of fashion, while designing for real women. Accent on women. He knows that girls don’t buy couture, and his runway cast included such thirty-somethings as Ines de la Fressange and Carla Bruni, both of whom looked fabulous.

With his imagination and superior skill, Gaultier can take a classic concept and make it new, as he does season after season with the smoking, the trench, his beloved jeans. He opened with assorted tuxedos, each cut with distinction, with a surprise angle or a chic quirk. While most were black, he showed one ivory stunner, a shirred-torso jacket on Naomi Campbell. The menswear influence continued throughout, in ingeniously crafted dresses and a halter tunic made from multiple neckties, and in a casual-sexy nod to Hugh Hefner with richly printed smoking jackets and robes, usually layered over jaunty knee pants. And since women’s fashion is so strongly influenced by men’s wear, why not the reverse? Gaultier showed a number of haute looks for men on men, all worn with high heels.

But he filled his runway with all sorts of digressions, going nice with nauticals and naughty with a tres-cheeky short skirt. In fact, his posterior penchant went both ways, as he cut a jumpsuit and a long evening dress with backs low enough to reveal tush cleavage. He shredded and fringed denim, and showed a dream of a gown in puffed green tulle encasing a bower of flowers. And for couture clients with a practical streak, he offered a two-fer: a handbag that transformed into a giant feathered hat. Who doesn’t want more for their money?

More is what chez Versace is all about. More heat, more fun, more frivolity, along with a total convergence of style with celebrity. Talk about an opening act with muscle; as usual, Donatella delivered the best front row in the business. Madonna, sensationally chic in Versace’s white fringed leather coat. Ever-dazzling Gwyneth Paltrow. (Yes, she’s been everywhere this week, working the couture circuit for In Style, but there’s a diminishing return after the first appearance.) Budding fashionista Chelsea Clinton, showing off a sleek, stick-straight bob and smoking eyes. The ever-ghostly Ron Wood. And for those who like the alternative side of fashion, Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11; he took the second giant leap for mankind right behind Neil Armstrong. Even more off-topic, his mother’s maiden name was Moon.) and his fashion-loving wife, Lois.

They all settled in for Versace’s circus soiree. Never a shy girl, Donatella lives the more-is-more philosophy to the hilt, and for spring she embraced a circus motif in all its glitzy glory. Glamour! Color! Razzle-dazzle! Swarovski-studded stilettos! Just tread that tightrope with care, ladies! It was all shown, appropriately enough, under a big top, in this case riotous cascades of curls that Versace had to charm Orlando Pita into doing.

Her collection focused squarely (or roundly) on the bust, featuring more push-up action than a weekend at Crunch. The inhale-exhale flirtation that resulted would suit a bodice-ripper romance read, but why tear the goods when they’re already so sexy: jeweled trapeze dresses with hanky hems, slithery mermaid sequins, a ringmaster in bright pastel leather and ample decolletage. And throughout, Donatella worked a star motif, either emblazoned in crystals on jackets, or cut for provocation out of sexy chiffon gowns.

From the runway, the clothes flaunt all the typical Versace sex, spirit and girly wiles. Up close, they showed exquisite craftsmanship — fringed, festooned micro-beading; quilted silks, multicolored hand-painted chiffon, pieced together like a stained glass window, from the Church of Heavenly Delights.

Exotica is alive and well at Emanuel Ungaro. It’s also under control, which made for a beautiful collection, the designer’s best in a long time. Some designers view far-flung ethnic references as a trend, taking an opportunistic stab at living for the fashion moment. Conversely, for Ungaro, going global is a way of life. He has always mined various cultures, extracting, interpreting, recombining their diverse elements, and delivering them with his sophisticated Parisian flair. His ladies expect no less, the monotony of safety not their milieu de mode.

But sometimes Ungaro has gone too far, especially when he took to constructing elaborate, semi-kitsch sets through which his models meandered. Then the excess diluted the message. This time, however, he sounded it with full force, thanks to a new, subtle restraint. That’s not to say that Ungaro’s gone minimal; far from it. Instead he has clarified his elaborate point of view while still drawing from diverse, opulent themes — the Middle East, Africa, Japan and just the right hint of Eighties Paree.

Of course, he often showed them all mixed up. Ungaro worked in lavish prints for flyaway kimonos over girlish pleated skirts, and a racy bustier with a chi-chi birdseye checked suit. He accessorized with African tribal elements or playful arts-and-crafts touches, such as button decorations on the collars and cuffs of chic little jackets and cardigans. Throughout, he layered texture on texture, pattern on pattern, but almost always he stopped just in time, before visual plenty switched to overload. When he pared down completely, it was for a pair of micromini suits and sexy evening gowns. Here, Ungaro came through with a host of evening stunners, black chiffon and lace numbers, a white silk chiffon pleated dress under a black embroidered silk coat and a spectacular diva gown in glorious sapphire blue.

Innocence lost — or about to be? That’s the question Valentino was toying with for spring as he envisioned his woman, not as the know-it-all, done-it-all chic sophisticate one usually associates with him, but as a little girl on a virgin, so to speak, trip to the Playboy Mansion. And indeed, Val did manage to balance a sweet innocence with just the right dollop of sexiness.

This season, he focused on the bosom, often with a subtle hand as he fashioned dresses, coats and jackets with lifted Empire waists. When his petite Lolitas headed for Hef territory, however, the bosom came into full play, veiled in chiffon above a red wool jumpsuit, an ivory embossed taffeta suit or a saucy ivory tulle and gold lace cocktail shaker.

But Valentino is no johnny-one-note. So he also filled his collection with lots of those soft suitings and downright pretty dresses that women don’t have to intellectualize over, but simply put on and head for the nearest party. This season, Valentino fancies a tubular pleating which he uses in tiers for little dresses that literally float away from the body. He has also managed to take the over-the-top grandness out of his long evening numbers. Not that the Val woman would go unnoticed, heaven forbid. She can glitter in embroidered point d’esprit, blossom in bold florals or simply wow them in a dove gray organza with swirling panels edged in lace.

And then, there’s Givenchy. Recent history has shown that taking over a couture house is no romp in the Tuilieries. Julien Macdonald’s two predecessors clearly had trouble establishing their own voice for the house, and now it’s Macdonald’s turn. He is searching to establish his own vision for Givenchy under the intense, unforgiving glare of the couture spotlight. But one thing is certain: He won’t find it in Ghesquiere-ville. The collection Macdonald showed on Sunday picked up where his fall ready-to-wear left off, wandering in the midst of a Balenciaga fantasy gone wrong. He worked a collage motif into tailored looks, and showed gentle dresses in various states of distress, often oddly accessorized with surgical head wraps. But all the gauze in the ER prop room couldn’t infuse the collection with a feeling of freshness.

Nevertheless, the designer managed to create some lovely dresses, and ironically, the best piece in the show looked like, well, Julien Macdonald — a terrific languid, unconstructed coat over a black dress. Now he must build on the strengths of such individual items and focus on developing a clear, distinctive vision. And although after only two seasons, at the age of 29, he’s still something of a babe in the couture woods, he’s got to show progress fast. Once a leisurely enterprise, the couture world is far less patient now than ever.

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