Once again rumors of mergers and buyouts and designers jumping from one fashion house to another have diverted attention from the clothes at this week's runway shows, and that's too bad, because today they were quite pretty.

But it is hard to concentrate on frocks when people here are busy spreading the latest gossip. Would Gucci's Tom Ford soon be designing at Yves Saint Laurent? Word on Gucci's possible purchase of Saint Laurent is expected after Friday's Gucci board meeting. Would Chloe's Stella McCartney step into Ford's shoes at Gucci? Or does she have enough clout to resurrect her signature line? And what would happen to Alber Elbaz, the current ready-to-wear designer at Saint Laurent?

This is the worst kind of fortunetelling, but it happens with regularity. It has folks being tossed out of jobs that they haven't even settled into, and it pressures designers to transform in one season a house that has been on a downward spiral for years. Not even the sports industry demands that a new coach bring home a championship trophy the first time out with a team coming off record losses.

There are always highs and lows for fashion houses. Some collections push every emotional button so that when the last model strolls down the runway, half the audience is ready to start fighting over the samples. But those times are rare. Most often, a collection is solid, with some enticing elements, some to be avoided and others that muster no response at all.

For designer Michael Kors at Celine, this was a season in which the collection was solid, with several strong pieces and fresh ideas. But they didn't make the heart race with urgent anticipation of the next item on the runway. Still, if a designer can stir up that kind of emotion once, twice, three times, then he is extremely lucky.

The best pieces that Kors created for Celine were his bleached denim jeans. They were cut to fit snugly and with a sexy leanness. The bleaching created an abstract pattern that ran the length of the legs, offering an alternative to the beaded and embroidered jeans that have dominated the industry. His perforated leather trousers and jackets looked from afar as if they were covered in the tiniest pinpoint dots. And his sarongs were tie-dyed to give them a lazy, beachcomber feel.

His gathered dance dresses with their wide belts cinching the waist had a feminine fluidity, but that didn't counteract all of that material concentrated at the torso. Mostly, the collection succeeded when the pieces were cut simply and with the intent of elongating the body. When the silhouettes started to float around the physique, they started to get unwieldy and a little too reminiscent of a part of the '80s that is better left in the past.

Cerruti, Guy Laroche

Designer Peter Speliopoulos at Cerruti and the design team at Guy Laroche (last season's designer, Ronald van der Kemp, was briskly let go after a disappointing first collection) offered pretty collections today. Both houses presented lines filled with delicate and sensual colors, flattering silhouettes and just enough adornment to add a bit of spice to the mix.

At Guy Laroche, the line had a more sophisticated edge, with sleek trouser suits, skirts with punched lace at the hem and elegant blouses for that final touch of refinement. At Cerruti, the look was much younger. It was charming gathered skirts embroidered with glittering flowers and camisoles decorated with an assortment of buttons.

Both lines, however, need a collection that reaches an emotional climax, one in which the clothes have suddenly become electrified. They need an unforgettable collection, because with so much being offered for spring 2000, a high-end design house must be more than sophisticated and charming. It needs a magnetism that captures the customers' attention.

Ann Demeulemeester, Martine Sitbon

Ann Demeulemeester has that kind of power. She stands out, if only because she refuses to fall in line. On Wednesday she presented a collection inspired by the words of musician Patti Smith and the photography of artist Jim Dine. Smith's poetry, treatises, curious ramblings--call them what you will--acted as the soundtrack for Demeulemeester's presentation of slouchy black suits with fine pinstripes, white blouses with shorn cuffs, and layered tank dresses veiled in white tulle. The trousers were belted with wide ribbons that had been embroidered with jet beads spelling out snatches of Smith's musings: "I did turn to wave as I ran and his open eyes caught mine." "Curious wishes feathered the air." "With eyes closed tight, with arms outstretched . . ." These snatches of romantic reverie--which became rather maddening as they rumbled on--were also embroidered on dresses and on thin ribbons that wrapped around the arm and held a pushed-up sleeve in place.

There were long aprons bearing photo-prints of Dine's pictures of eagles and walls etched with graffiti. The collection had a melancholy mood and offered a soothing moment of calm in this season of Latin beats, disco balls and beach parties. And while the collection did not expand Demeulemeester's repertoire, it reminded one of the enduring quality of her splendid suits.

Martine Sitbon had one strong idea for her runway presentation Wednesday: collage. She created dresses and shells and skirts using a multimedia technique. Fabrics of different shapes and texture were layered one on top of the other so that models looked as if they were wearing canvases plucked from the walls of a gallery.

Some pieces worked better than others. The finest kept the pieces of heavy fringe to a minimum. There were shirts constructed of multiple layers of chiffon and leather skirts pieced together to create intricate geometric patterns. The designer nicely merged her signature street cool with a low-key femininity that is in keeping with the mood of fashion.

Balenciaga

Nicolas Ghesquiere presented his collection for Balenciaga this evening and it had only the faintest connection to the Balenciaga legacy. There were a few sack-style dresses that fell loosely from the shoulders, slyly camouflaging the midsection and curving slightly to accentuate the legs. Ghesquiere cuts them out of flowing jersey in black or gray.

The rest of the collection focused on slim jeans and voluminous tops, using Balenciaga's inverted pyramid as a faint reference for his silhouettes. Ghesquiere is at his best when he keeps the ideas simple and the lines strong. He offered sleek trousers topped with a blouse with triangular sleeves and wrapped the neck in knit scarves that trail down the back. When he starts using rag braid for the front of a sleeveless top or drops the elastic waist on a gathered dress, the line begins to look dowdy, Gothic and, to put it bluntly, ugly. But when Ghesquiere hits the mark, he cooks up creations that, depending on the wearer, evoke late-night cool or early-evening cocktail parties.

The Paris collections have, so far, flaunted their creativity and daring. They have startled the eye, roiled the stomach and made one strain to keep a belly laugh from bursting free. But sadly missing, so far this season, is the designer who makes one gasp in awe.

CAPTION: Michael Kors's bleached denim jeans and tie-dyed sarong for Celine; and a melancholy Ann Demeulemeester.

CAPTION: Guy Laroche's sophisticated line included this sleek trouser suit.