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PARIS — There’s a cliché to the effect that adversity breeds character. That may or may not be true. But as a spectacular fashion season winds down, it’s clear that designers from New York to Paris have found inspiration in these challenging times, or at least have decided to tackle them head-on, with drama, excitement and exuberance. Paris designers face a particular burden — the expectation of forever fabulousness can make for one heck of an albatross — but, on Friday, three very different collections left us raving.

Alexander McQueen: Everything about it was remarkable — the clothes, the execution (Karen Elson on the dance floor — wow!), the audacity. When Alexander McQueen tells a story, he does so with a zealot’s passion and lack of restraint. So when he chose to show his spring collection within a retelling of the Depression-era “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” it had to be a stunner.

This story first appeared in the October 13, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Guests arriving early at the hot, dingy, former 19th-century dance hall that is the Salle Wagram were treated to the strains of the theme from “Deliverance” over and over until insanity was just a chord away. But then the show started as numerous couples hit the dance floor, each with hopeful eyes on the prize of free meals and the few bucks the marathon had to offer. By populating the scene with contestants from all walks of life, McQueen could flaunt a range of clothes. Thus, the silver-screen diva wore a long, slinky stretch of sparkly sequins; the sailor’s girlfriend, a silver lace trapeze, and the ballerina, a short bustier dress layered over workoutwear. One girl worked a ballerina look, another, a tight tango skirt that exploded into a froth of ruffles. And dance they did, each couple engaged in its own particular reverie choreographed by Michael Clark.

After the initial high-energy excitement, the now-weary contestants engaged in a derby for which McQueen combined athletic elements with the most delicate chiffons, tulle and lace, often working them into dresses of tromp l’oeil layers. Here, the couples ran around and around in a dizzying frenzy, the women sometimes falling off of their mile-high heels. This relentless playing out of the ultimate futility of the marathon set them up for the final act, when, their clothes now in tatters, the dancers were dragged offstage in utter exhaustion, leaving only Elson’s once impeccable glamour diva, who then died on the floor.

While the performance made it impossible to catch more than a few of the exquisite details McQueen worked into the clothes, their range was apparent. In addition to his glorious high-glam fare, McQueen showed off his beautiful tailoring in looks such as a light gray bombshell suit inset with nude lace; his penchant for intricacy of cut in a faux-undone patchwork motif and his casual side in some grounded plaid-and-denim combos.

As for the presentation itself, it was both fabulous and fabulously perverse. While many people loved it, some were insulted by its excessive self-indulgence. Sure, one could argue a practical angle in that clothes that looked this good moving, twirling, swirling and being dragged across the floor will be sure killers given a more conventional range of real-life motion. But it’s unlikely McQueen even considered that angle. Perhaps fashion’s most notorious reformed bad boy wanted to make another point via his collaboration with kindred spirit Clarke. Yes, he’s superserious about business (doubters need only to browse one of his stores), but for him, only one route leads to success: bravura or bust.

Chanel: Remember Old Blue Eyes’ refrain, “Fairy tales can come true…if you’re young at heart”? For a protracted fairy tale du mode, a designer needs a young heart, a keen mind and the mettle to weather fashion’s ups and downs, furious competition and pressure to grow, grow, grow, all while staying au courant. Karl Lagerfeld has the creative heart of a jeune fille, the mind of a wizard and the strength of U.S. Steel. Those gifts have created one of the most incredible waves fashion has seen in some time, one that shows no signs of ebbing. He may be into his third decade chez Chanel and his seventh chez Earth, but season after season, his work for the house continues to thrill.

On Friday, Lagerfeld staged another winner, which, though lean on eveningwear, was big on everything else. He sent the tweeds out in force — low-belted coats worn open over little dresses, jackets over skirts in contrasting textures, skirts under a veil of tulle or shredded into fringe, a notion carried over from couture. Yet he didn’t linger there, or anywhere else, for that matter, too long. This was Karl tossing out a thought a minute, while staying in total control. He addressed all of the house classics — black and white, camellias, knits (here crocheted divinely to resemble old bed covers), miles of chains dangling millions of pearls.

And he had some fun with the standards, for example, embroidering feisty “5s” onto a tank worn with an oh-so-chic skirt, and working up new takes on the Chanel bag, which became, at times, a Rubik’s Cube, a tape recorder and, in a rare moment of nostalgia, a 45 rpm record. He also offered an ode to Mademoiselle’s seafaring side, not only in swimsuits worn under fabulous cardigans, but in a presentation that bordered on camp. His runway was constructed like a boardwalk with a barrier down the middle across which his models laughed and whooped it up with each other as they strolled.

Of course, when a girl looks this good, what’s not to be happy about? True, she might have to shell out couture bucks for a big night out, because here, Lagerfeld virtually ignored evening, save for some little black dresses and some sweet, tiered frocks. Then again, if she’s lucky enough to get her hands on one of those spectacular tweed-trimmed trenchcoats, she’ll never want night to fall.

Viktor & Rolf: Surprise! It lies at the heart of every Viktor & Rolf collection. So do an extraordinary flamboyance and skill level to match, which make the work of Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren so special. In the collection the designers showed on Friday, they delivered a real surprise, backing away from the kind of grandeur that typically marks their collection in both scale and concept — and that is currently on view in their remarkable 10-year retrospective at the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs. Instead, the duo offered a saucy, even lighthearted, take on chic sportswear.

A cinematic theme ran throughout, in the red shoes worn with every look, in the soundtrack that lured the audience over the rainbow and in the models’ hair frizzed with a hint of Marlene Dietrich. And surely one found a certain retro glamour to the designers’ take on sportif, as they delivered a casual attitude with the kind of sparkle radiated by movie stars in the Forties. Pastel sweaters with graceful, shoulder-baring necklines slid over shorts or knickers; jackets were loose, and pants and dresses were sometimes secured with elastic at the waist. The palette worked a range of gentle pastels — pinks, blues, grays — and often, a bow at the neck or shoulder further softened the look. It all felt beautifully relaxed but not a bit haphazard — clothes for a woman who values polish as a way of life, even at its most casual moments.

By Viktor & Rolf standards, this show may have been low concept, but is was hardly no concept. While by day, Horsting and Snoeren only hinted at the chic side of gender confusion, by night, they reveled in it. Numerous tuxedos went soft and softer, until their jackets seemed ready to fall off the body and had to be secured with skinny straps. Conversely, splendidly graceful gowns looked the essence of feminine mystique, but for the brazen way their chiffon layers flowed into a single mannish pants leg. Somewhere, Dietrich was smiling big-time.

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