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In Paris, Some Teeter on the Edge, Others Hone Their Keen Wit

Like-minded designers, who showed on the opening days of Paris's fashion week and who might have once been called edgy or avant-garde, aren't odd for the sake of selling perfume to a coveted young demographic. They aren't showmen as much as they are intellectuals -- or occasionally tiresome pedants. They are asking themselves deceptively simple questions and then offering rich and complex responses. Is it edgy? No. It's better than that. Owens is gloomy and lyrical. Takahashi is a scientist -- asking precise and pointed questions about fashion. He tests hypotheses.

Yohji Yamamoto is a magician. He plays tricks on your eyes, merging past and present, making one garment look like two. He is a master at sleight of hand. And then there is Margiela: an idiot savant? Body stockings, one-sided caftans in spider web prints, fishnet skirts. There's a reason the house always serves skid row red wine out of plastic cups: Everything looks better in a tannin haze.

Rick Owens, Undercover, Yohji Yamamoto

The collection Owens showed on Sunday made one think of all the cliches of a society under assault -- the Mad Max theory of design. Warrior silhouettes, in which spears seemed to rise up out of the backs of the models' coats, gave way to enticing patchwork coats stitched together out of fur, wool and denim.

The fashion industry has borrowed much from Owens, including his languid shapes and the raw, barely finished earthiness of his work. He's no longer on the edge, but his work vibrates with anger and sorrow. And Owens transforms both into poetry rather than violent protest.

The collection Takahashi showed Monday under the Undercover label addressed 10 questions he posed to himself. What is tailoring? What is American sportswear? Is there such a thing as knitwear if it is not knitted? How is men's formalwear defined? And so on.

His answers were tantalizing, from his gray flannel parka to his tailored navy sweatshirt. Some of his responses seem to come from the gut, as when his definition of tailoring is distinguished by a wash of gray flannel trousers and jackets in nontraditional proportions. And sometimes his answers seem highly intellectual and baffling, as when the notion of knitwear becomes a mix of leather and fabric in silhouettes elongated into something that looks like a choir robe.

Yamamoto presented one of his best collections in a long time. Shown Monday to a soundtrack of his own guitar strumming, it was a swaggering display of full skirts with rolled-down waists; jackets with unfinished, almost torn hems; crisp trousers with dropped crotches. As always, Yamamoto's influences and references are oblique. The only real clue to his thinking were horses etched onto a skirt. The collection certainly alluded to the West with the stitching on the back of a jacket, for instance, but there were also dashes of ecclesiastical spareness and a couturier's attention to detail.

A group of coats, thrown over the models' shoulders, evoked the spirit of Yamamoto's best work from the past. They were tailored, but with exaggerated lines and details. They were accessorized with slim leather satchels -- the "Yohji" -- that are a collaboration with Herm¿s (they're available only by special order at Herm¿s shops in London, Tokyo, Paris and New York). Yamamoto absorbed the reserved, aristocratic aura of Herm¿s and gave it sizzle and dignity. He has increased its allure, instead of blithely exploiting it, until finally, it is utterly devalued.

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