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Certain designers favored romantic, even rose-covered pieces, while others transmitted racier messages with stripped-down, Eighties-style looks or souped-up, sci-fi styles.

Valentino: Defining his laid-back approach to spring, Valentino’s show notes described fashion as “a collage of souvenirs.” And indeed, the collection he showed on Sunday looked as if it could have been culled from a longtime customer’s well-stocked closet. Modernized Valentino classics included a black-and-white opening passage full of the clean-cut shapes that made him famous. A tailored white jacket was worn over pegged black pants, while a white gown with crystal straps took the sleek look into evening.

But with an ode to chinoiserie, Valentino took an eccentric turn. Kimono jackets, flounced dresses, high-drama gowns — just about everything — was covered with fields of oversized blooms, buds and bouquets of the sort found on import-export porcelains. Or, as Valentino’s notes put it, “roses, roses and more roses.” You could almost hear the bees buzzing. And it sure was sweet.

Lanvin: As his cult status mushrooms, Alber Elbaz’s challenge at Lanvin only becomes more acute. How to maintain all that steam? But with deft tailoring and a daringly stark look, Elbaz defended his position as a front-runner in the fashion pack for another season. He hurried on from fall’s beribboned faux-naivete. Gone was the ruffled romance, and banished were Elbaz’s bell-skirted belles. It was all replaced by a rigorous silhouette so pared down it was aerodynamic and a look that crackled with Eighties attitude.

With minimalist clothes that were searingly sexy, Elbaz expressed his dark and moody side in a new way. Sleek sheath dresses were cinched with industrial elastic bands wide as obis, and fluid men’s shirts were tucked into lean, mean pencil skirts that zippered up their back seams. Then, in a final fit of extravagance, Elbaz sent out a troop of dresses slick with glittering orchids or abstract swaths of color. As Elbaz explained, “It’s one of the most modern collections I’ve done — more strict this time.” And the better for it.

Alexander McQueen: Point-counterpoint. It’s what makes for good dialogue in fashion as in other disciplines. So it was probably inevitable that Alexander McQueen, a renegade at heart, would choose this moment of gentility elsewhere on the runways to brashly reexamine a favorite topic — sex.

This story first appeared in the October 10, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

It’s also possible that McQueen is grappling with issues of a different sort. Despite being among the most talented designers in the world and producer of some of the best clothes anywhere, his business remains miniscule, a perplexing reality in need of attention. In a brief preshow chat he indicated as much. “Women in power,” McQueen said, explaining his vision for spring. “Power dressing. I’m bringing sex back to the market. Women want to be excited again.” But in a fleeting crack in the bravado, he referred to the collection as a transition, and “almost like a rebirth. I’m trying to find my niche. What do I do best? Sexy tailoring, sexy clothes.”

On the up side, McQueen hedged no bets in his high-heat manifesto. Stripped of choreography and tricks, it insisted the audience focus only on the clothes that recalled the designer’s early efforts for Givenchy, though now more refined and resolved. He called the show “Neptune,” attributing its inspiration to Cleopatra and the Greek goddesses, but it felt like a meeting of Xena and a well-turned-out sci-fi high priestess. Tailored looks came short, tight and brazen, often cinched with wide, imposing belts. Jackets flaunted Eighties-worthy shoulders, and dresses, elaborately configured harnesses. There were some beautiful clothes — some of the suits, for example, as well as short, jewel-necked jersey dresses. And a severe white column spliced in front with a deep crystal wedge should prove hyper telegenic come red-carpet time.

On the down side, McQueen’s vision felt too much — too hard, too aggressive — yet oddly restricting in its yen to be commercial. (By comparison, fall’s Hitchcock motif offered an extensive wealth of wearable, salable clothes.) If this show was in fact a transition — terrific, all creative types need passages. But there’s a fine line between rebirth and regression. With his enormous talent and savvy, McQueen can find a route to mainstream success. Stifling his brilliance is not the road there.

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