Designers talk about all sorts of inspiration--Barbie, beaches at Saint-Tropez, schoolgirls, a piece of ancient tapestry. Knowing about these energizing images can be helpful in understanding a skirt length or why a particular color was chosen.

But only the designer knows exactly what prompts him to send a woman down a runway dressed in a ballerina ball gown with a pair of satin trousers stitched to the rear end like a bow--a painful reminder of what can happen when static cling gets out of hand.

This was one of the looks that designer John Galliano put on his sloping catwalk Thursday. As usual, Galliano served up a breathtaking drama of models in chic biker gear, debutante crinolines and trim-fitting working girl suits. But Galliano turned everything upside down. He made a portrait collar out of the waistband on a pair of pants. The train of a dress is actually constructed out of the sleeve of an asymmetrical jacket.

As when Alice stepped through the looking glass, when a viewer steps into Galliano's world, nothing is as it seems. Bottoms become tops. What should be straight now spirals. What should be clothes becomes showmanship.

A viewer must become a detective searching for clues to the frocks that Galliano actually intends to sell. Could that bit of satin sleeve refer to a beautifully fitted satin jacket? Do the fussy crinoline lined skirts mean that the designer is enamored with a fuller skirt silhouette for spring 2000? Does that shredded mohair party dress mean that knits are a focus of the collection?

Of course, there's always something wearable back in the showroom. But part of the high-end fashion game is astutely stirring up consumers' inner aspirations. A designer has to give them something to lust after. Galliano fails to offer the tiniest ledge to cling to in tackling his massive imagination.

To be sure, Galliano offered a dreamlike vision of '50s bikers and punks, ladies and debutantes, as if they were all gathered together in a time warp sock hop. But he fails to suggest how that fantasy could connect to a woman's clothes. Watching Galliano's elaborate presentations leaves one torn between the sheer thrill of the spectacle and the realization that his stage is an impediment to seeing how he can transform a woman for her night at the ball. He's proved over and over that he can do just that. Consider the actresses who have worn Galliano's work, whether under his own label or through his work for Christian Dior: Cate Blanchett donned one of his spectacular embroidered gowns for the Academy Awards and looked breathtaking. Nicole Kidman wore a Christian Dior couture gown of chartreuse satin and mink trim and caused heads to swivel in admiration.

If Galliano stripped away just a bit of the fuss--to take it all away would be to force the designer into being something that he is not--and sent out models dressed in the best clothes that he has to offer, it would be hard to resist such jewels. And even if a woman couldn't afford the dress, at least she'd have something to dream about.

Chanel

Karl Lagerfeld, in his work for Chanel, offers a lesson in finding the right mix of fantasy and reality for the runway. In typical fashion, he floods his runway with ideas. There is such a host of them that Lagerfeld must have sent out a few simply for his own amusement. But then, every designer deserves a few indulgences. Yet Lagerfeld also is about business and never misses the point, which of course, is to tell the audience about the clothes.

The message he put on the runway today focused on using the signature Chanel quilting to add texture and sportiness to jackets, vests and even leather trousers. He offered quilted jewel-neck jackets in bright hues, quilted vest and tank tops that fit snugly through the torso and topped long evening skirts as well as skimpy bikinis.

He embraced color and patterns with a Chanel floral print in the style of Henri Matisse. Bold, simply realized flowers decorated pleated skirts, bell-sleeved blouses and modest day dresses. Some of those dresses, with their sewn-down pleats and cinched waists looked too prim and proper, transforming youthful models into severe matrons. But the chiffon blouses, light and breezy, accentuated their young spirit.

The collection often got bogged down with quilted leather trousers or weighty dresses and jumpers that looked too authentically like something from the back of the closet--more consignment shop than vintage. Lagerfeld also made liberal use of snakeskin in jackets, skirts and trousers, often mixing a floral blouse with the distinctive mottled skin. It's a look that worked for a striking runway effect but, like the sight of one bit of front row camera candy--her generous bosom barely tamed by the straps on a tight-fitting Chanel dress--one viewing is enough.

Loewe

The soundtrack made clear the inspiration at Loewe, designed by Narciso Rodriguez. With a bass beat thumping out "white lines . . . blow you away," the models marched down the runway in white leather halter dresses, white suede jumpsuits, laminated white leather skirts and white leather sheaths splashed with clear crystals. The sheer multitude of stark white leather garments left one snow blind, unable to discern much texture or detail amid so much spotlessness.

When Rodriguez laminated his leather, delineating patterns through alternating planes of matte and shine, the collection had more verve. It was no longer simply a series of basic sheaths. And Rodriguez's use of crystals on leather was enchanting when there was enough of the leather visible to make the contrast of delicate sparkle and dense material evident. When the pieces were fully coated with jewels, the juxtaposition with the leather was lost and the pieces looked like any of the festive frocks that have been on the runways here. Rodriguez also had a delicate hand in creating gentle washes of color, such as pale yellow, on suede.

With all of that expensive leather on the runway, it was disconcerting to see problems with fit: skirts that did not lie smoothly against the waist, others that rode up on the hips as the models walked. As the models streamed out for their finale parade, and one watched the subtle shifts from white leather and suede to powder-colored leather to pale yellow suede, it looked like a sand-covered landscape with its many shades of white and its soft, curving shapes. But taken individually, the pieces slipped quickly from memory, like a single grain of sand disappearing between one's fingers.

Vivienne Westwood

God bless Vivienne Westwood, for without her, where would fashion groupies go? If you are a gentleman who likes to wear suits with lapels as wide as the palm of the hand and ties that are even wider, if you like to wear an awning-striped waistcoat with a gingham-checked shirt, if you like to strut about with an umbrella as big as Paul Bunyan's walking stick, you could find no more comfortable place than the anteroom of a Westwood show. She is the last remaining refuge for those who view fashion in bold, eccentric terms, who don't feel fully dressed until they are decked out in something that hints at the extreme.

But even Westwood has scaled back. Fashion may have fallen head over heels for disco beads and ruffles, but it has been steadily moving away from the sideshow era. And so today, Westwood presented a straightforward--for her--collection of dresses with draped necklines, jackets with regal swirls, clinging metallic knits, ruffled bustiers and ball gowns with wood block prints. While there were still plenty of Westwood's signature grand dame jackets and dresses with a million tucks, folds and knots, there were also simpler pieces, such as blouses with only a subtle gather to lend them an air of grace.

Westwood finally took a break from contorting the female form, allowing it more movement and more room to breathe. The torso is not cinched tight as if in bondage. There are no bustles or distressingly voluminous cleavage. (There are only extremely figure-revealing, short knit dresses.) For spring 2000, at least, Westwood has not sacrificed the female physique for the sake of fashion extremism.