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Jean Paul Gaultier: Call it theater verité. There’s a bit of the showman in Jean Paul Gaultier. He savors the power of the dramatic turn, the sleight-of-hand trick, to infuse a collection with the proverbial wow that makes for great press. Yet Gaultier is a true couturier at heart, one with a reverence for the art and craft of his discipline. Thus, while he savors the theatrical flourish, he keeps his focus always on the clothes. He can roam the world for inspiration, mix it, bake it, shake it and transform it into an utterly French soufflé. That’s what he did on Wednesday, in a splendid collection that made big use of — and took bigger liberties with — samurai and various tribal motifs. And if the forced intimacy of his venue, a large space curtained off into a series of little sections, proved a sometimes inadequate canvas, the clothes were beautiful enough to withstand the awkwardness.

This story first appeared in the January 23, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Gaultier’s models wore piles of ivory and horn jewelry and a beauty look that featured hair sculptures made with elaborate constructions of common combs and, sometimes, vibrant face paint. And he unleashed a primer on contortionist construction, twisting, turning, molding his materials — silks, leathers, stingray — with euphoric precision. That wealth of lacing, layering and latticework played into the warrior motif: A lattice corset went over a weighty pleated skirt in printed silk; the samurai-turned-sex-kitten in a mini froth of organza appliquéd with croc. A voluptuous Mongolian coat looked lavishly undone, and, for a fleeting moment, Gaultier even hinted at the return of the cone bosom.

Yet not for a minute did Gaultier forget the everyday needs of his precious couture clients. While they may on occasion go warrior wild, more often they favor très chic tailoring by day and all-out allure at night, and Gaultier indulged both needs perfectly. He used voluminous bows to transform perfect dark suits to something approaching flamboyance. As for evening, an embroidered skirt rustled with haute attitude and a bohemian spirit. But for those women who say bah, humbug to boho after dark, Gaultier’s gowns — in violet velvet faced with chartreuse silk, chinoiserie embroidery edged in fiery tulle or red layered over blue silk — will transform the urban warrior into a goddess of glamour.

Chado Ralph Rucci: Call him cool-hand Ralph. Though his models were burdened with clear vinyl gauntlets, for the most part Rucci chilled out this season, offering his fawning clientele more fluid and less forced fare than in the past. To put it simply, Rucci’s look was younger, while still benefiting from the designer’s high-minded inclinations. A decadently draped caramel suede shirtdress demonstrated Rucci’s new laid-back mood, while a pleat-front chiffon top and filmy matching skirt were fantastically featherweight. And for evening, his blouse, made from delicately suspended strands of tiny pearls, made a case for full-out, fabulous folly.

While Rucci’s tailored looks still follow the strictly structured, more serious approach, they were also more pared-down than in seasons past. And he continues to explore new avenues with his trademark graphic effect, slicing everything from boxy crocodile jackets to traditional ladylike suits along the seams, then stitching them back together with the precision of a surgeon.

Some pieces, however, were a little too complex for their own good (take a jacket with lining done up with dangling strands of faux lilies of the valley) and suffered from overthought. However, with his new angle — one that’s measured, inventive and composed — Rucci could broaden his client base.