The models wore riot helmets with face masks and foot-long gold fingernails for the opening of the Kansai Yamamoto show. And though it was done for the costume effect on the runway, it would have been appropriate gear for those trying to shoulder their way into the show.

This is fashion's rite of spring, round three for buyers and press who make the biannual pilgrimage to the shrines of fashion in Milan, London, Paris and eventually New York. And though the wallet-emptying expense of the trip, as well as the cost of clothes being shown for next fall, has pared down attendance this year, the cult heroes of the fashion business -- Claude Montana, Thierry Mugler, Kansai Yamamoto and Kenzo -- have, true to form, sparked an opening scenario worthy of a Hollywood crown scene.

Amidst the hoopla and fanfare of the first of the Paris fashion showings for next fall, the trends were slowly emerging -- hemlines jumping either above the knee or down to the ankle; pants cut in more variations than have been seen in some time, from the ankle-length variety to mid-calf; big collars, and loose chemise dresses.

But some store buyers were almost too exhausted to spot the major theme of a collection by the time they staggered into their seats at a showing.

"I was just ripped apart," said Joan Karl of Garfinckel's, who finally squeezed through crowds and barriers, ripped stockings and all, into the Montana show at the Salle Wagram.

The Salle Wagram, a wooden building that houses events ranging from boxing matches to rock concerts, achieved a minor stardom of its own as a backdrop for "Last Tango in Paris." and is one of several halls being used by designers for their shows.

Last year's shows, held, appropriately enough, in a series of tents set up in the old Paris market area, kept the proceedings more or less under one roof.

This year, shows are scattered between the National Theatre of Chaillot, the Salle Wagram and the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, keeping press and buyers on the run and out of breath. Buses cart some of the press from place to place, while stores have commandeered Rolls Royces, Mercedes stationwagons and Cadillacs to ease the trek.

Even so, several Harper's Bazaar biggies got slamed out of the Montana show when they rolled up two minutes after the scheduled starting time. Dozens of others didn't make it either.

The shows themselves, like some of the clothes, have been shortened this season. Designers are using fewer models, scaling down on the extravagance of styling and banking on more salable styles to offset the pinch of a tough economy.

But there are always the exceptions. Like the breastplates trotted out by Mugler, Kansai and Issey Miyake, an obvious spinoff from the current Dali show at Beaubourg. Or the Mugler skirt that unsnapped to reveal -- voila -- a pleated patriotic banner.

Mugler also dreamed up a space-age gray suit with a hidden Isadora Duncan-style scarf. (One model, in freeing the scarf, inadvertently revealed a breast as well.)

Jean Charles de Castelbajac, who last year latched onto whales, this season picked seagulls as his pet for cutouts, appliques and prints, with full program credit to Jonathon Livingston Seagull. At the end of the show the models stepped carefully down the runway with white pigeons in their hands.(One fluttered loose before the finale and was never heard from again.)

The grandstand play, so far at least, was Mugler's parade of Goldwyn-type girls, swathed in pastel sequins at the end of his show. Bloomingdales will import the Mugler show -- breastplates, scarf tricks, MGM-style finale and all -- to New York in May.

But if none of these showpieces ever make it to the Kennedy Center, they will undoubtedly crop up at the round of parties organized for the press' benefit this week. Swanky private disco queen Regine and Le Palace's Fabrice Emaer will hold their own glitter bouts, while eyeing the new kid on the block, and coming contender, Club 78.

Regine has corraled several designer chums, including Claude Montana and Chantal Thomass, to host her big number. Valentino will throw his bash at Club 78, and the glossy invite from Le Palace says, "Come to a fish buffet as Ether Williams," who is pictured in full color as a mermaid on the front.

Despite the appearance of frivolity, the serious business of fashion is not forgotten. Designers are fiddling with hemlines again, moving some up above the knee, some down to the ankle -- take your pick. It's reminiscent of that confused mini-maxi period 10 years ago, when designers jolted women by suddenly yanking minis down to calf level.

Designers like Karl Lagerfeld say, "Isn't it time for women to have a choice?"

"It will undoubtedly encourage a lot of women to go back to wearing pants," says Mimi Liebeskind of Ann Taylor. But pants have hemline hangups too, and rise from the classic trouser to ankle-length to midcalf (not unlike the old pedal pusher) to knee pants.

Waistlines are hidden under chemise dresses or blousons that cling to the hips. Collars are huge and sometimes develop into capes. Shoes are flat, hat mannish, and Buffalo Bill and Heidi give many of the shows their ethnic focus.

But the French version of Austrian Tyrol dress or American Western bears no resemblance to the original legends. Montana, hands down the best of show (and clothes) in Paris so far, sweeps loden colored capes over matching loden-leather short jumpsuits; he shapes his western look with short pony skin jackets and camel suede caps.

Montana's recent management and financial difficulties have provoked a more restrained show this season. His shoulders are rounded, his collars tall, and his black embroidered leather short jackets over tafetta skirts are standouts.

All of Montana's clothes are extensions of the winners of past collections done in fresh ways. Even his black leather jacket, once a shocker with all its tough, aggressive overtones, is no longer such a turn-on. It's not only because he's tamed the big shape, but because there are so many men and women in Paris wearing them now. (It's hard to find black leather jackets threatening when the three French girls seated next to you are all wearing them.)

But even if his clothes seem more mainstream and salable, he hasn't toned down the drama with which they are presented. Exaggerated hats, one even papal-like (perhaps a bow to the upcoming visit of the pope to Paris), his use of makeup, bold jewelry, and really every accessory still make his the hottest ticket in town.

"There is a quality and perfection of detail, and a continuity of past ideas that are valid, artistic and contemporary," said Geraldine Stutz, president of Henry Bendel. "It's not an ego trip. It's theatrical with the fullest use of France's craftsmen and artisans, all put to the use of a modern tailor. Such perfection is very rare," she said emphatically.

"Even when the French do a sweatshirt," says Bernie Ozer, the Sherlock Holmes of fashion for Associated Merchandising Corporation, the largest advisory service to stores including Woodies and Bloomingdale's, "they smock it, paint it, embroider it, zipper it, pleat it and wear it inside out. That just forces Americans to push the existing trend and make it more interesting. The minute fashion stands still, we're in serious trouble."

With any luck, fashion will stand still long enough to let the breastplates and mermaids pass by.