Two years ago the avant-garde Japanese designers stunned the fashion world with their formless, somber clothes, all in shades of black or gray, in fabrics remarkable for their texture. The models wore no makeup, never smiled, and the entire look was considered disturbing and outrageous. Many pegged it "the bag lady look."

When the Japanese presented their curtain-raiser collections here this week, the audience of buyers, journalists and fashion groupies were dressed mostly in black, often in huge coats or jackets, long skirts and baggy pants, with big, lumpy black bags slung over shoulders exaggerating the free-form silhouette. On most the makeup was natural and unnoticeable.

On the runway, however, the designs of Rei Kawakubo were mostly slim and often white, to balance the black and navy. One could safely identify some familiar pieces -- polo shirts, culottes, trench coats -- and the models wore lipstick.

Have the Japanese conquered the fashion world? Have Japanese designers conceded to tradition? Probably a bit of both.

The fall shows got under way here in three tents pitched in the Tuileries Gardens in the center of the city. Store buyers and fashion press from all over the world -- many midway through the trek from Milan to London to Paris to New York in late April -- can see almost 50 designer presentations in these tents, and dozens more by smaller design houses in nearby hotels and showrooms.

As in the past several seasons, the opening shot was saved for the avant-garde Japanese.

Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, the front runners of the avant-garde crowd, both pared down their voluminous shapes. Kawakubo, whose collection is called Commes des Garcons, did it by simplifying her cuts. Yamamoto did it by getting trickier.

Opening her show with skinny, almost knee-length ribbed sweaters worn with flimsy fabric skirts, black hose and flat shoes, Kawakubo anchored all of the designs to familiar shapes, then experimented with them by way of panels, wrapping, bunching and asymmetrical cuts. A pleated schoolgirl jumper was followed by variations that sometimes looked as though the model had forgotten to button them or had buttoned them wrong. A navy trench coat was followed by others with added panels, often unmatched, and the sleeves of one shawl-collared overcoat looked like fins.

Even the fabrics were more familiar, at least half of them man-made. Some had flat pleats or tiny Fortuny-like pleating. The panne' velvets probably wouldn't turn heads at a Washington party. Some synthetic sheers in acid colors looked like tissue paper, layered and scrunched up for tops.

Japanese clothes used to be the ideal disguise for the not-so-slim, but no longer. At Commes des Garcons a normal female form was occasionally too much for the clothes. In fact, they fitted transsexual model Terry Toye better than some others with fuller figures.

Yamamoto pointed up the new skinniness with tight-waisted highrise skirts and trousers. But if the waistline, sometimes marked with a belt, was familiar, the rest of the design was often pure fantasy.

The first clue was given away by the bright yellow swallowtail coats the Yamamoto staff wore as they helped people find their seats. A questionable idea for cold weather, the cutaway was a recurring theme in the collection, working well as a frock coat over skirts and pants.

The fantasy continued in an amusing mix of Edwardian and Dickensian costumes, often topped by Mad Hatter oversized hats and accessorized with canes. Asymmetrical cuts, draping, uneven hems and intentionally misbuttoned coats made the models look like kids playing dress-up.

Yamamoto likes a lot of color, sometimes pairing it with black, as in the opening red and black sequence, and other times showing his rather askew silhouettes in peach, teal and blue. He has brightened his prints for next fall, some of them squiggles, others that appear to be big animals in white or colors on black grounds.

A group of brown pin-stripe jackets was paired with prints that contrasted in color and mood, the mix always unexpected and untraditional. Almost as big a surprise was when Yamamoto used something as familiar as a bow -- he did it once -- or a paisley print.

Quite a contrast to the Yamamoto show was the Thierry Mugler collection. Mugler, one designer who would rather look to the past rather than the future for ideas, dipped into the 1960s for inspiration.

Remember Courreges architectural cuts and Sassoon geometric haircuts, Afro wigs, minis under maxi coats, little black dresses, bell-bottom pants, psychedelic prints, spike heels and Nehru jackets? They were all back on the runway yesterday. Even push-up bras -- or at least the effect of such contraptions -- and doubleknits.

If the audience missed the '60s message in the clothes, a Paul McCartney-esque character in a double-breasted mod suit with purple shirt and a James Brown impersonator with a global-size Afro wig helped make the point.

It all worked, oddly enough, because it was done with exaggeration and humor. The clothes looked quite modern, updated with 1980s shoulder pads and opaque or fantasy-printed pantyhose that weren't invented the first time the 1960s look went down the runway. And the gloppy, glitzy, oversized jewelry -- a fashion favorite of the past few seasons -- made the whole affair quite theatrical.

The audience appreciated a little fun. By the time the designer started down the runway, the packed house was on its feet cheering.