PARIS -- The first person on the runway for the Jean-Paul Gaultier show was a zaftig woman in a big skirt and peasant blouse playing folk songs on the accordion. As she made her way slowly toward the photographers, fast-stepping models in jackets (which are actually bodysuits), tights and high-heeled high-tops passed her by. It was Gaultier's way of saying that the much-touted folkloric styles of other designers, particularly Christian Lacroix, are out of step and out of tune.
While Lacroix is the new hero on this very competitive turf, his froufrou party clothes are for a very special, very small audience.
The other Paris collections this fall are largely a mix of old and new, ethnic and spare, masculine and feminine. And no one does this counterpoint better than Gaultier, who places lace aprons over pin-stripe suits, attaches scarfs on shoulderless jackets and puts lace edges on stretch leggings.
Karl Lagerfeld stirs up another spicy mix. He's clearly influenced by the paintings of the 18th-century artist Fragonard, whose work is featured in an exhibition that opened last month at the Grand Palais. Lagerfeld calls some of his styles -- like the stand-away necklines (filled in with flowers) or boned bustiers and panniers -- "Fragments of Fragonard."
But his long pouf skirts, striped gauntlets and striped shoes move two centuries into modern times. In fact, many of these have miniskirts underneath. He's also big on the petticoated bell-shaped skirt of other eras, but Lagerfeld's are a mix of zany prints -- like Polaroid portraits of the model Marpessa -- and they break ties with any earlier time.
Lagerfeld also updates some of the style he introduced while he was at Chloe' -- such as the navy lingerie dresses with lace trim. "The collection looked very Chloe', which is a compliment," said Saks-Jandel's Ernie Marx, who found Lagerfeld "back in top form."
There are hints of the Lagerfeld collection in his designs for Chanel. But the anchor for the Chanel look is, of course, the Chanel jacket -- brightly colored this season. Even Chanel's signature white camellia shows up dipped in color in this collection. If the basic jacket design remains sacred, however, Lagerfeld goes wild with its complementary skirts and slacks. The traditional Chanel skirt, hemmed just below the knee, was abandoned several seasons back and the new length skirt is short, short, short -- like a mini square dance skirt, tiered and full -- a surprising contrast to the tailored jackets. On the occasional long skirt, buttons were left open or the side deeply slitted to show a lot of leg.
For those who find most of the Chanel skirts too short and flippy, Chanel's wide or straight-leg pants may just be the answer, even for evening.
Most revealing of all at Chanel are the designs in lace. Lagerfeld's love affair with lace began at Chanel seasons back, but now this ladylike fabric is given a modern look. Over the shortest lace skirts he pairs a long satin jacket, and with lace knickers he puts a leather jacket. Many of the models wore or carried beautiful long lace stoles.
The two buzzwords for next spring: color and short. They are handled impressively by Claude Montana, whose brilliantly colored and very brief styles, often shown with short shorts, will have one of the biggest impacts for spring. He uses citrus colors, acid colors, tomato, spinach and carrot colors. There is some navy, but remarkably little black.
Like Lagerfeld, Montana likes sculptural clothes this season that seem to fall off the shoulders and swirl around and drape away from the body rather than being plastered against it. In another period we called these standaway styles "crumbcatchers." Montana says simply that he is fascinated with necklines.
That's obvious, too, because there is very little left to the skirt to distract him. And even more than other designers, Montana is showing shorts for next spring. They, too, often stand away from the body, the hems stiffened with deep quilted ribbing to get this effect.
Aside from short clothes and shorts themselves, Montana also offers wide-leg pants, a popular theme with many designers not only in Paris, but also in Milan and London over the past two weeks. Chanel and Gaultier, too, liked wide-leg pants, and Sonia Rykiel offered pants with deep, soft pleats down the outside of the leg as well as narrow styles. Many of the pants are not full-length but rather "floodwater" style, cut off above the ankle.
One of the less fortunate trends of the season is the return to the splashy, spectacle fashion show. Thierry Mugler scheduled two in the African art museum on the outskirts of Paris, one amid such tangled logistics it started two hours late. While there were some excellent suits in the collection, it was difficult not to be distracted by the flamboyant costumery, the sedated tiger cub, piles of jewelry and wild hair styles -- all to inspire an African mood for the clothes. Grace Jones, who was in the front row with designer Azzedine Alaia, madly applauded the most ingenious of all the designs, the leathers worked to look like tribal body scars or like a crocodile pattern on the models' bodies.
There may have been more flesh showing at the Mugler show than at the Lido that night, peeking through sheer fabric and, in one sequence, around little bikini diapers. In fact, in the opening scene, which Mugler called "the ideal couple," two models, male and female, appeared on a darkened stage in what seemed to be total nudity. An interesting twist for a designer in the business of selling clothes.