The beauty of fashion in this city lies in the creative tension among designers who disagree on the fundamental nature of clothes. In a single day, it is quite a jolt to see Christian Dior designer John Galliano's puffed-up, cartoonish jackets, which look like the product of a collaboration between a geisha and a snowboarder, and only an hour later see a collection by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons with a jacket so spare that it has only one sleeve.

The two houses presented their collections Thursday, as the fall 2003 runway season got underway here. These extremes of philosophy coexist easily in Paris. "I think France is about romance and it's about poetry. I think if you do too much of that in the States, you get marginalized into an art school category. I think people look at things a little differently here," says the American designer Rick Owens, who decided to show his collection here after presenting his line in New York last season.

In New York and Milan, almost everyone agrees on the basics. A jacket has two sleeves. A sweater has a front and a back. Skirts have hemlines that can go up and down -- although not necessarily in coordination with the stock market.

But in Paris, even the most fundamental assumptions about garments are challenged. No one has done so with more intelligence and grace than Kawakubo. And while she remains the grande dame of counterintuitive fashion, the skillful Junya Watanabe and Martin Margiela also believe that there is nothing troubling about sewing a jacket sleeve to the neckline of a dress and calling it a collar.

Christian Dior

To understand designers such as Margiela, Watanabe, Kawakubo and Owens, it's essential to look first at Dior, the opposite end of the Paris spectrum.

It is a global symbol of a re-energized, remodeled French fashion system. Christian Dior Couture recently announced 2002 sales climbed 41 percent, a rise attributed to Galliano's work on the women's collection and Hedi Slimane's design leadership in the menswear division. No matter if one's taste does not run to rubber dresses, python miniskirts (which have an unattractive tendency to ride up the hips as one walks) and bold prints that play to fans of Japanese animation. Dior has struck a nerve.

The audience for the Thursday afternoon show was filled with women who pride themselves on their hard-won, unnatural perfection. An expensive hair colorist maintains the golden hue of their locks. Regular salon blowouts keep every strand immaculate. They endure bimonthly facials in which aestheticians wrestle the slightest blemish into submission with the help of metal extractors. Their faces are eerily unlined.

Their clothes reflect their expensive, high-maintenance attention to beauty in both their painstaking detail and in their self-conscious flourishes. They may not appeal to one's traditional sense of beauty, but they tap into something more powerful: class.

Sitting in a Dior show, it is hard to fathom what makes a well-to-do woman dress up in expensive clothes modeled after the throwaway fashion worn by teenagers. Why, for example, would she want to wear a purple rubber hoodie bearing the naughty number 69 on the back? It may not be particularly attractive, but it represents a safe way of dabbling in street culture without getting any grime on her $500 slingbacks.

Slipping into a pink python miniskirt or a rubber turtleneck -- both priced sufficiently high to maintain their aspirational quality -- is fashion's equivalent of partying in some far-flung warehouse juke joint while one's black Town Car idles by the front door.

There is an element of condescension in the Dior aesthetic. It is as though Galliano is leading an anthropological exploration in which he discovers the quirks of trendy Japanese teenagers: See how they enjoy platform shoes. Notice the way they style their hair in an ironic nod to childishness. He never bridges the divide between participant and voyeur. Everyone may be at the same party, but his customer never leaves the VIP room. And ultimately, that is how she prefers it.

The Dior presentation steers as far away as possible from the ladylike and the proper. Galliano makes sure that his models are styled in a manner that is, to be brutally accurate, raunchy. Galliano savors the impolite gesture because he knows that it make his clients blush with desire. A man goes to a bordello not simply for sex, but for a specific kind of thrill -- one that is free of responsibility, judgment and manners. A woman can turn to Dior's rubber trousers that lace up the front for a similar kind of wild dance. (And shopping in a Dior boutique is a much more pleasant experience than rifling through the racks of some shop with a variation on the name Pink Pussycat, where one's purchases are slipped into a plain brown bag.)

Dior plays with the complex nature of class. It allows those who are financially comfortable to feel as though they are stepping outside of their protected and polished shell to experience back-alley hipness without the broken glass, the vermin or the smell. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with putting a gloss on street fashion. Designers do it all the time and the results often come full circle, with those who helped to create the style happily buying the professionally burnished version. What is exceptional about Dior is that Galliano does not attempt a makeover. For the runway, he retains the tawdriness, the harshness and often the ugliness. That, after all, was the initial allure. Once the customer comes into the store -- and her nerve begins to wane -- he offers something a bit more palatable, something that will cause knowing winks, but not gasps of shock at the charity ball.

Comme des Garcons

Other designers here -- led by Kawakubo -- pull down class divides by ripping the sleeves off jackets. If fashion is a way of connoting wealth, prestige and power, if it can differentiate between the comfortable and the suffering, between those who drive the fancy cars and those who park them, then perhaps, they argue, the fundamental aspects of clothes need to be reconceived.

Kawakubo has often talked about the intimate relationship between clothes, the body and the intellect. It is a discourse that ultimately refrains from aligning the person with any economic demographic. In looking at her collection for fall, with its slender trousers, uneven hemlines, modest rucksacks slung across the back or along the hips, it would be difficult to assign them to any class. Do they belong to the wealthy? Are the pouches of white cotton a flourish of the disadvantaged?

A retailer once shared the story of a friend who showed up in Paris at the Ritz Hotel in a Comme des Garcons ensemble and was turned away by a doorman who thought she was a street person. No one would be so dismissive of a woman who arrived at a five-star hotel with Dior labels blazing -- even from a ruffled rubber skirt.

Kawakubo turns expectations upside down, preventing one from making decisions based on assumptions or habit. At this week's show, Kawakubo played a game of musical chairs with the standard fashion pecking order. Guests arrived -- with their seating assignments clutched in their hands -- only to find that the chairs had been scrambled. Seat Four was suddenly by Seat 78. Seat 104 was now in the front row instead of in the third. Seat 10 was tucked into a dismal corner in the last row. It was amusing to watch folks stand helplessly in the middle of the room waiting for the social order to be restored. It never was. Ultimately, folks were forced simply to sit down. How did we become so controlled and defined by a number on a card?

In some ways, the clothes from Kawakubo are social camouflage. It is not that they allow one to blend into a crowd. Anyone wearing a one-armed jacket will stand out. But they allow one to be an individual, eccentric, but unattached to a bank balance or family lineage.

Rick Owens, Junya Watanabe,

Martin Margiela

It's no wonder that Owens, who is based in Los Angeles, has found a customer base among actors. His clothes cut a star's gloss, allowing them to be people rather than personalities. He made a strong showing in Paris, where he rightly concluded his clothes would take on a warmth and poetry that is more difficult, though not impossible, to discern in the States. His sweaters cuddle the body and his long jersey skirts, which drag along the floor, have a solemn grace -- although one does worry about how often they will have to go to the cleaners.

Watanabe boils down his moody collection of raw-edged wool jackets and skirts into a single word: classic. But it does not do justice to his coy plays on Dior's iconic New Look shape, his teasing use of Chanel's signature gold chains or his magical tailoring in which the seams of a dress converge to form sweet bows. Watanabe may not be dismembering jackets and shirts, but he shifts the static class markings that have become so reliable.

Margiela addresses class within the fashion industry, even as he is making angled cuts in his skirts to reveal the silk lining or stitching his coats so that their lining spills out along the edges. There were no seats at his show. Guests stood along the side as models -- sandwiched between men carrying light panels like backpacks -- walked along a stone path. A model wearing a beautiful skirt woven out of heavy oatmeal yarn wandered by. Another passed through wearing a pair of trousers that had been transformed into a top -- the waistband and belt circled her shoulders like a portrait collar.

In the end, as the models and staff paraded by, the audience applauded. The designer -- who cultivates an exceptionally low profile -- took no bows. (Perhaps he was leaning against a wall along with his guests.) And everyone left.

At Dior, after the last model had left the runway, the lights flashed dramatically, the music blared, and Galliano -- shirtless in a suit -- emerged. He stood for a moment, giving the audience a leering stare, then bowed. And everyone went backstage.

Previous stories and photo galleries from the fall fashion shows are available online at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/fashionshows.html

Despite this parade of look-alike models, Rei Kawakubo's designs for Comme des Garcons focus on the individual.Dior's fall collection draws on the throwaway fashions of teenagers.An angled cut in a Martin Margiela skirt exposes the underlying silk lining.This long, flowing jersey skirt by American Rick Owens possesses a solemn grace.With a raw-edged wool jacket and skirt, Junyo Watanabe defies class markings.