PARIS, OCT. 24 -- The French ready-to-wear shows ended today on a mixed note, as though all that was right and wrong about the clothes women will be wearing next spring was expressed in the final act, the collection of Yves Saint Laurent.

Coming at the end of a nine-day run, the Saint Laurent show is often looked upon as a catalyst, giving the season a sense of coherence. Only that didn't happen today. Until the last 25 or so outfits, a rich oasis of harem costumes set to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint Laurent seemed to be lost in a sandstorm without a compass.

He started out well enough, with fine blue-and-white striped knits slouching off the shoulder, gliding over short navy skirts. Then he meandered. A sensible khaki pantsuit was followed by long peasant skirts, then corset bustiers and hot pants, followed by baby-cake dresses and -- why not? -- slithering black lace minis blobbed with giant maribou pompoms. All this was paced to Elvis Presley's greatest hits.

How Saint Laurent got from "Blue Suede Shoes" to "Scheherazade" is anyone's guess. In a wider context, though, the performance heightened the feeling that the fashion spectrum is more fractured than ever. There are plenty of pretty clothes for women who don't mind spending $2,000 for a suit, but they don't suggest a direction that others can follow.

Gianfranco Ferre's collection for Christian Dior, for example, offered sleek shapes with gusts of luxury. He had his usual pencil-slim trousers, and many tailored suits in such gentle colors as taupe, peach and apricot, piped in black or ivory. A wickerwork theme evolved in silky prints and raffia textures, a consistent pattern for spring. But aside from these pretty pieces, there wasn't a compelling idea to draw upon.

Alistair Blair, the new designer at Balmain, offered conventional clothes that failed to rise above the commercial. Every trend was there: bare midriffs, the big shirt, slip dresses doused in lingerie lace. At one point a group of models came out veiled in tall elephant grass. This attempt to introduce some exotica into ordinary swimwear prompted one observer to whisper, "Chive talking." It all added up to an identity crisis.

Then there are clothes that break free from the past, as though the designer were suffocating in his own metier. Claude Montana's futuristic collection -- rigorously cut but stunningly simple -- is a perfect example. Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix pursue modernism from different directions. Lacroix's strengths are the graphic print, the willy-nilly clash of patterns and the feeling that, through color and detail, new ground can be broken without taking women too far. Lagerfeld may be the last homeboy of the Western world, but his sense of timing is still his strength. His collection for Chanel injected still more street life into jackets and pleated tunics that fly away from the body over box-pleated skirts or biking shorts. Putting biking shorts under hot pants isn't novel, or even appealing to a lot of women. But it gives Chanel an air of hip immediacy that, for now, makes the chain belts, sequined "scuba" jackets and funky bags sought-after kitsch.

And then there is the avant-garde, perhaps the most fertile and least commercially acceptable end of the fashion spectrum. When so little fashion this season warrants being mounted on a grandiose runway, the ideas put forth by designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Romeo Gigli and Martin Margiela are all the more refreshing.

Their experiments range from transparency -- Galliano's layered chiffon slip dresses -- to bookish adornment -- Gigli's murky African embroideries and luminescent fabrics. And if clothes are one measure of social change, Gaultier's thrift-shop remixes of '70s fashion seem to express the attitudes of the disenfranchised. On the other hand, maybe that's all that was left in the thrift shops.

A soft retail market and a weaker dollar also put a bit of a damper on the spring collections here. A number of retailers said privately that design houses had offered various price concessions, such as more favorable currency exchanges and discounts for larger orders, to encourage business. One store executive, Terry Lundgren, president of Neiman Marcus, said prices were up as much as 20 percent. Others concurred with that figure.

Fortunately, the strongest ideas of the collections could easily work into one's wardrobe or be adapted in a more individual way. Chief among them is the softer, looser jacket or blouse that plays best over a minimal skirt or skinny pair of pants. Dresses are important too, ranging from cotton pique shifts and filmy slips to baby-doll dresses and daytime sarong numbers. Though some designers made a pitch for longer hemlines, they didn't get anywhere. Just as well. A more persuasive change is color -- crisp and true from Montana and Lacroix, sweet and subdued from Ferre and Gigli.

Blushing apricot, anyone?