At the start of the Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion show here Friday night, the sultry French model Ines de la Fressange, this year's favorite with designers in Paris and Milan, walked down the runway wearing a blue kimono, her arms folded in front of her. When she got to the end of the runway, she ripped off her kimono, rolled it up in a ball, shoved it under her arm and strutted back up the runway in the white trenchcoat she had been wearing underneath.

This was Gaultier's way of poking fun at the Japanese designers, who are showing their clothes in force in Paris this season. But to many other French designers, genuinely afraid of the Japanese invasion of France's most vulnerable turf--the fashion runway--this is no laughing matter. Not only is French pride at stake, but something even more painful, the pocketbook.

This is the third lap of the biannual fashion marathon, which has taken buyers and press to Milan, London, and now Paris. It will wind up on Seventh Avenue in New York at the end of April.

The 50 or so fashion shows here, nine of them by Japanese designers, are taking place in four tents pitched for this purpose in the courtyard of the Louvre museum, appropriately at the back door of the French Finance Ministry offices. And while the shows have never been better organized, there has been no sign of France's Cultural Minister Jack Lang, the godfather of this event. It was Lang who gave his blessing to this attractive and convenient setting for the shows. But while Lang is popular with the fashion crowd, he is apparently a little less popular on the home front, where he recently lost the election for mayor of his hometown. He's been on vacation ever since.

Still the usual shenanigans go on. An art student was forced off the tent where he had been trying to cut his way into the canvas roof and see the Thierry Mugler show. And a young British punk was found tucked under a row of seats at the end of the day on Friday. He had no ticket for the Claude Montana show the next morning and he figured that bunking overnight would assure him a place. Apparently, Gaultier gave tickets to his 2,000 best friends, who shoved and pushed for an hour before getting into his tent. And the photographers threatened to strike when they were asked to provide more identification than just a photo pass. But the name of the game is publicity as much as fashion, so, Gaultier gave in.

With the more than 1,300 accredited members of the press and 600 buyers, plus the designer's assistants, manufacturers and hangers-on, the buzzing was all about the Japanese fashion. After the first two days of the collections by Japanese designers, where the clothes were often oversized, layered and in dark colors, the French press dubbed the Japanese clothes "la Mode des Clochards," which means fashion for beggars or bag ladies. In spite of their leeriness about the total look, many of the French designers have begun to adopt the looser fit, the wrapped styles, kimono sleeves, obi sashes and dark colors. Just how much of it is from the general drift of fashion and how much can be credited to the Japanese is hard to say. But the influence is obvious.

"Japanese fashion is changing the look of women all over the world," said Jean Rosenberg of Henri Bendel after the Issey Miyake show Saturday. She called Miyake the granddaddy of the current wave of Japanese designers and the most elegant and refined of them all. "Even the best French designers are being influenced by the Japanese," said Rosenberg, who was reluctant to say just which ones she had in mind.

Karl Lagerfeld, the designer for Chloe' (and also for Fendi and Chanel Couture), sent his Chloe' models down a runway marked with a center line like a modern thoroughfare. His clothes, one of the strongest collections so far, straddle some of the soft unconstructed elements common to the Japanese and impeccable rich-lady clothes that are strictly French. He's partial to gray and black, along with brown, in his wonderful ribbed knit. His jackets that start with strong broad shoulders sometimes finish with loose ends meant to be tied at the waist. Very long lapels give his suits a lean line.

Lagerfeld has a way of making his clients laugh, even when they're paying his huge price tag. He gives them a fashion shower with applique's on gowns of a shower head and spray all in rhinestones. Umbrella handles, earrings, even jeweled embroideries and applique's are in the shape of faucets, wrenches and hammers. "Everything is falling apart so we really need all these things," teased the designer before his show.

Emanuel Ungaro, a favorite designer among Japanese women, has done his entire evening collection in black. Said Ungaro, who was wearing a black pullover for the show, "black is a color, black is sexy and women always look elegant in black."

His daytime clothes are in a mix of prints and silk blouses and wool challis skirts in which he excels. His wool sweaters and chemise dresses seem less complicated in style and easier fitting than in past collections. "We need simplicity in all phases of our life today. We need simplicity in dressing as we need it in living and loving," said Ungaro.

Claude Montana showed clearly his love of black and gray and his continuing passion for leather--how about a man-tailored black leather suit as the last word in executive power dressing? One of his strongest groups in the collection includes heavy ribbed knit dresses in mouse gray. The designer, who took his bow as usual in an army surplus jacket and jeans, now has a weakness for the aviator look, which he salutes in a range of colorful leathers. His clothes are strictly the rich-lady variety, particularly the fingertip-length coats. For evening, the alternative to black is champagne-colored satin.

Even the Japanese designers, who have been showing in Paris for years, are getting more Japanese these days. Kenzo, who always spotlights a remote area of the world as the source for his ethnic designs, here focused on Japan. And Kansai Yamamoto's designs have never looked more Japanese than this week when he showed loose, free-form sweaters in a mix of textures.

But peace between East and West was assured on the runway during the Issey Miyake show. The French loved Miyake, who came to Paris more than 10 years ago and continues to show his collection here twice a year, though he has moved back to Japan. The French don't see him as an intruder because he creates fabrics and cuts based on the tradition and craftsmanship of ancient Japan, enhanced with 20th-century technology.

His textiles are remarkable. He has found a new way to achieve texture by shrinking the fabric and has discovered a method of weaving tube-shaped fabric so there is no seaming in a group of pliable, versatile dresses. And he has created the ancient Ikat pattern totally by computer technology.

He experiments with cuts and shapes that explore all segments of the body and combines narrow and large shaping through overlapping, shirring and layering. The total effect, however, is usually oversized, but he is always conscious of the body. In his finale, the models wore wire "body bracelets" formed to the shape of the body over sexy black silk dresses or prints and feathers that gave the total effect of a bird. At the very end the models took off these gold wire torso shapes and held them over their heads. Even the French couldn't help but cheer.

Officially, the French are totally in favor of Japanese designers in Paris. "Japan is an important market for us. We sell 15 percent of French designer clothes in Japan," said Jacques Mouclier, the dapper head of the federation of couture and ready-to-wear designers. "In fact, in Japan we are the Japanese."