PARIS — The ninth and final day of Paris' grueling ready-to-wear marathon was reminiscent of Sergio Leone's classic 1966 spaghetti western, with good, bad and downright ugly displays.
With an average of 11 shows on the calendar daily, every day is, of course, a mixed bag. But because many top fashion editors tend to cut out early, there are fewer top-tier labels on the last day and more emerging designers who don't have the deep pockets of the majors, which makes for an uneven experience.
Two shows Wednesday made it into the good category: Louis Vuitton — which won a pre-emptive round of pre-show applause for its set, a life-size spinning merry-go-round — and Elie Saab, the unstoppable red carpet steamroller who continued to churn out his signature ravishing, high-wattage gowns, this time in saturated jewel tones.
Most of the rest was bad, as designers of little means tried to imitate the slick, hyper-produced style of the luxury supernovas' shows, with sometimes snicker-producing results.
Amid all the cash-strapped pretentiousness, Agnes B.'s earnest and unself-conscious display came as a breath of fresh air. The French high street retailer has been churning out the workaday basics for decades, and she sees fashion shows not as make-or-break trials by fire but rather as an opportunity to have fun and promote young and up-and-coming artists.
Sure, the clothes that came down her catwalk weren't particularly noteworthy — just the kinds of cute printed summer dresses or tie-front cardigans that you might throw on to go buy milk or walk the dog. But there's something touching about a show where a puppet-maker and his clever dinosaur marionette take a bow, or the designer herself gets on the P.A. system mid-show to instruct guests on where they can buy the music.
The ugly was Miu Miu. The clothes were so frumpy and the styling so actively unattractive there was no way it was an accident, a collection that somehow went pear-shaped despite the designer's best efforts.
Miuccia Prada, the critical darling who's also behind Milan-based supernova Prada, is too smart for that. It actually felt like she was thumbing her nose at the fashion establishment, daring them not to like clothes that were trying their best to make themselves as undesirable as possible.
Paris is known as the most creative of the fashion capitals, and there are usually scads of brilliant shows here. This season was a bit of disappointment, with just a handful of collections that had people buzzing. Dries Van Noten was a winner with his sheath dresses in colorblocked silk printed with photo and etchings. Givenchy got top marks for its tuned skirt suits, as did the frothy dresses with a dark side at Alexander McQueen.
The saga of former Dior designer John Galliano's fall from grace continued to captivate fashion insiders. The extravagant designer was dismissed from Dior last March after a video showing him praising Hitler went viral on the internet. His successor has yet be named, and speculation over who it might be continued to dominate the small talk benchmates make as they wait — sometimes interminably — for shows to start.
Trade publication Women's Wear Daily reported in August that Marc Jacobs had been tapped for the plum Dior post, but weeks have dragged on with no announcement, prompting some to think the negotiations have stalled.
Asked about the report in a backstage scrum at Vuitton, where he's been creative director since 1997, Jacobs demurred and reminded journalists that it was a Vuitton show and he was there to talk about Vuitton.
Much of the fashion crowd flew the coop after that show, with many heading straight from the venue to the airport.
They'll be back in January, for the fall-winter 2012-13 menswear displays, followed immediately by the spring-summer 2012 haute couture shows, where a handful of wildly wealthy women are presented made-to-measure garments with prices approximating those of a luxury car.
The set — a gleaming white merry-go-round with a cast of fresh-faced models astride its horses — was somehow the perfect metaphor for fashion itself: an industry in constant motion where everything eventually comes back around.
The collection saw the return of the polite, ladylike dressing of the early 1960s, with demure skirt suits in a pretty palette of pastels. Although it was a radical departure from Vuitton's fetishist wares of last season, spring-summer's polite wardrobe was nothing terribly new: The label served up similarly retro ladylike styles just a couple of seasons ago, though this time around they felt lighter and more youthful than those heavy tweeds.
Feather-light organza wrapping enveloped dresses and skirts in lace laser cut with oversized daisies, sometimes embellished with sparkling rhinestone centers. Round lace collars gave a schoolgirlish touch to the crewneck sweaters and proper button-down shirts.
Jacobs played with the volumes, sending out skirts with stiff pleats in front that made them pouf out. The sole faux pas was an abbreviated babydoll dress with such a pronounced pouf that it looked like a serious baby bump.
Most of the girls carried handbags, the historic luggage-maker's bread and butter, and sparkling little tiaras — which were surely destined to be next season's most coveted accessory — topped off the looks.
It's not often that a show scores a round of enthusiastic applause before it's even begun, but that's what happened when the giant round scrim that shrouded the catwalk lifted to reveal the life-sized merry-go-round, models on all its 48 white horses.
One by one, they hopped down from their equine perches and traced a circle round the spinning carousel, like demoiselles out for stroll in a Paris park, before disappearing backstage.
In an industry built on beauty, it takes guts to field anything as boldly ugly as the Miu Miu collection.
Make no mistake, this was not ugliness by accident, as sometimes happens when collections go awry. This was ugliness on purpose — haughty, defiant ugliness that almost felt as if it were spoiling for fight.
This was a collection that looked you straight in the eye, raised its chin and asked, "Taxi Driver"-style, "Are you looking at me?"
The high-waisted skirts, with a pouffy, sculptural shape that was spot on-trend were fine. But patchwork coats were the size and shape of pup tents, and cropped shirts with jutting panels at the bust were downright dowdy.
Strange little shrugs that fit low over the models' shoulders like lumpy velvet curtains felt as if they'd been dreamed up for the express purpose of concealing any appealing curves.
The cast of normally sparkling top models were practically unrecognizable: Wet on top, their hair was plastered to the scalp and forehead but hung in dry tangles in the back, as it the two parts of their heads were living in distinct weather patterns. Flesh-colored lipstick hid their lips, and the rest of their faces were bare, save for angry strips of fuchsia on their lids.
It's hard to imagine anyone but Miuccia Prada, the Italian designer whose challenging, intellectual collections consistently win critical adulation, daring any such styling — or any such clothes, for that matter.
You had to admire her gumption. In a sector where anything goes in the quest for desirability, her collection refused to make even the slightest effort.
And there was something admirable about clothes that cared so little about what people thought of them.
What would the red carpet be without him?
The Lebanese designer is such a reliable purveyor of the dramatic, va-va-voom gowns that — with their curve-hugging shapes and generous sprinkling of sequins — are the bread and butter of black tie events, it's become nearly impossible to imagine one without him.
Critics lambast Saab as boring, saying his work remains static. That's true in a way, but it's also beside the point, as Saab has never claimed to be fashion-forward.
He's successful because his gowns tap a wellspring of timeless, classic glamour that makes women feel beautiful and sexy. Celebrities and civilians alike choose Saab for when they need to look like a million dollars — simply because he does make them look like a million dollars, season after season.
The same cannot be said, however, for other more fashion-forward labels.
So it was no surprise that for spring-summer, Saab stuck to staples like belted sheath dresses for day and sequin-covered gowns with long fluttering skirts for the evening.
All that changed, really, was the color palette: mustardy yellow, or a vibrant emerald that looked like it was straight out of Oz or a rich shade halfway between aubergine and midnight blue.
The colors were beautiful and so were the dresses.
Unsurprisingly, there were no surprises from Saab, and that's exactly the way his clients like it.
Arzu Kaprol, the Turkish designer whose Paris debut last March provided the season's unintentional comic relief, was back with a more polished display — this time, without either the audience or models breaking into laughter.
The clothes in the spring-summer collection were basically hard-edged clubbing gear, short sheath dresses and sharp-shouldered jackets in body-hugging fabrics. Much of the looks felt derivative, with precious little to distinguish them from similar sex-drenched going-out gear that floods catwalks and high streets worldwide.
But still, you could see a certain type of girl buying and wearing them — something that cannot be said of many of the Paris collections, which are utterly removed from women's reality.
Plus, there were a few standout pieces, like an ivory silk blouse with sleeves made out of little rolled tubes of fabric which had a vaguely Ottoman feel.
Last season, high-profile Canadian model Jessica Stam lost it on the runway when she had to don a giant plastic egg that looked like it had been home to the world's largest pair of pantyhose — and in truth it would have been impossible not to crack a smile.
But Stam continued to smirk away this season, shooting a sideways glance at a friend in the audience and laughing, even though there was nothing funny in Kaprol's much-improved follow-up effort Wednesday.