A fashion show can be a powerful form of communication. Designer Dries Van Noten made a persuasive argument this week for the romance, strength and artistry that can be revealed through the theatrics of a perfectly executed runway show. He celebrated his 50th fashion presentation Wednesday with an evening that combined bracing cocktails, a dinner table almost as long as a football field, and compelling, romantic clothes.

The team of Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren made splendid use of their presentation with a revolving stage and a minor explosion to announce the arrival of their fragrance, Flower Bomb. And at Christian Dior, for the first time in far too long, designer John Galliano put clothes -- not costumes or ego -- on the runway. It was a lovely sight.

Fashion shows are often rightly denounced as expensive displays of hubris. Only occasionally are there wonderful shows that connect a series of dots from politics to sculpture to film and on to fashion.

The runway can be an ungainly way for designers to present their work. Simple clothes do not benefit from the scrutiny they receive when shoved into the spotlight. The catwalk can also lure designers into engaging in sweeping displays of silliness and absurdity that overshadow the clothes; put a barnyard animal on the runway and no one is likely to remember whether the skirts had pleats.

But this season, designers have been making smart, compelling use of the catwalk. It has been a fine tool for surprising, entertaining and romancing the audience. But most important, designers have not forgotten the crucial element in the runway production: quality clothes.

Rarely does an entire evening make an evocative statement about the way a designer views his work. But for Van Noten, fashion shows have held a particularly important place since he founded his company more than a decade ago. The designer does not advertise. There are no starlets associated with the collection. Britney Spears is not nuts for his embroidered scarves, Gwyneth Paltrow didn't wear his floral tunic dresses while she was pregnant, and Madonna did not wear any of his full skirts while on her Re-Invention tour. Runway presentations are Van Noten's sole method of communicating his aesthetic sensibility to media, retailers and ultimately the customer.

For the spring 2005 collection, he chose the setting of an old boiler factory in a Paris suburb and organized a seated dinner for 500. An expanse of white linen covered a table that extended the length of the warehouse. An army of waiters in black aprons marched out to serve each course -- one waiter for each guest. Not a wineglass was out of alignment. Not a seam was visible in the smooth tablecloth. At dinner's end, after the plates had been cleared, the chandeliers were raised, spotlights were switched on and models marched down the center of the table.

Van Noten's practice of serving food and drinks at his presentations is a way of making them less formal and more reflective of the elegant nonchalance that has always been a part of his work. The location reminded one of the sometimes rough and imperfect nature of his clothes. And the precision with which the evening was executed spoke volumes about Van Noten's attention to detail in his designs.

His collection for spring is filled with full skirts. There are small jackets that tie or are belted at the waist. Delicate slip dresses sit just low enough on the torso to reveal the top of a delicate pastel bra underneath. Saronglike skirts wrap around the body but have been reconfigured so that they don't require a master's degree in origami to tie them.

Van Noten indulged in his traditional mix of exotic prints, florals and brocades and decorated many of them with hand embroidery and splashes of beading. Most enticing and surprising, however, was a group of bleached floral prints that looked as though the patterns and colors had begun to age and bleed beyond their borders.

It was a cheerful collection that evoked the celebratory nature of the evening. Even the models' path was meant to suggest a party turned wild. The drinks are flowing, the conversation is spirited -- and by the end of the evening, everyone is dancing on the table.

Viktor & Rolf

The inspiration for the Viktor & Rolf collection was bows and ribbons -- including the kind that would be used to wrap a bouquet of flowers.

The collection presented Wednesday was divided between stark black and festive pink. Part One was devoted to dark-as-night attire: a short black leather trench coat , a glossy black suit with whip-thin trousers and a shirt with kimono sleeves, a tiny jacket with waffle-texture sleeves, an evening gown with a portrait neckline and a bow twisted sideways.

Black ribbons adorned both the clothes and the models. But there was nothing sweet about the bows. They were worn with a sense of irony and aggressive attitude by models whose faces were obscured by motorcycle helmets. They stalked the runway like angry bikers and charm school dropouts. Then they retreated to the stage, where they posed on prop ladders as if they were organizing themselves for a glossy magazine photo shoot.

When the last of the black-clad models had had their turn on the catwalk, the lights dimmed and there was an explosion. Sparks sprayed skyward. The stage swiveled 180 degrees to reveal a set adorned with models in sparkling pink makeup and dressed in shades of strawberry, raspberry and cotton-candy pink.

There were ribbon print dresses with ruched bodices in bubble gum pink. A pale pink tuxedo mixed traditional masculinity with a brush stroke of sweetness. There was goofball hyperbole, too. Models were dressed like enormous Christmas packages, with strips of ribbon or a big floppy bow bouncing atop a shoulder.

When the designers took their bows, they walked out to an explosion of flower petals. The collection was a well-balanced blend of extravagant proportions, attention to tailoring, wry humor about commercialism and the joy of the absurd.

Dior, Gaultier

One feels like standing up and shouting "Glory, hallelujah!" for John Galliano, who at long last set aside the garish makeup, the exaggerated garments and the ankle-twisting shoes. He put clothes -- simple and pure -- on his runway. There were pale denim jackets infused with ivory lace and ribbons, argyle-print leather jackets, Dior logo dresses embroidered with flowers, and chiffon hippie dresses with silver sequins in the pattern of sunflowers.

His shearling vests and tunics embroidered with sequins and flowers brought the wrath of PETA. Protesters lined the entryway to the show with signs plastered with a particularly unflattering photograph of Galliano in too much makeup and a fur coat. They read: "Fur is worn by beautiful animals and ugly people."

It was tough concentrating on the earnest protesters, however, as there was a Galliano doppelganger wandering through the crowd. He was dressed in leopard print, a fedora and a purple pirate bandanna and was wearing a significant amount of makeup. He was accompanied by a puffy-haired woman wearing marabou. Each was more dramatically attired than any model on the runway.

Jean Paul Gaultier's collection soared on the strength of his designs and the mix and match, layered frivolity of the styling. Charcoal gray pencil skirts fit snugly over frilly Gypsy dresses in a riot of colors. A mermaid dress slithered down the body and ended in a puddle of multi-patterned ruffles. Halter dresses in sunburst pleats topped flowing Gypsy skirts with their tiers of ruffles.

Gaultier presented this collection in his new offices, where the long, narrow setting pushed the audience up close to the clothes and it was possible to appreciate the details as well as the interplay of patterns, colors and textures. The close quarters also meant that one was sitting so close to Catherine Deneuve that it might have been possible to count her pores if they were not exquisitely, amazingly invisible.

In recent seasons, it seemed as if Gaultier was a bit uninspired, maybe a bit tired. His collections relied on old ideas or elaborate mechanical tricks that distracted from the clothes. Recently, he sent a collection out on a revolving dry cleaning rack. There were more clothes on hangers than on models, which made the collection seem two-dimensional and lifeless.

This season's collection introduced a renewed Gaultier. It was filled with the energy of ethnic prints, abstract patterns and the joyfulness that one might find walking through a garden in full bloom.

Costume National,

Helmut Lang

Light and color have also entered Costume National by designer Ennio Capasa. The collection is known for its lean tailoring that is almost always in black. For spring, however, Capasa was inspired by Africa. His interpretation of the continent's colors, traditional prints and crafts is among the most sophisticated to come out of the fashion industry. He offers his crisp tailoring with trouser suits in iridescent blue -- a shade reminiscent of a clear sky just after dusk. His cocktail dresses have been crafted of red and blue Ndebele beadwork and of brown and taupe sequins laid out in a pattern mimicking mudcloth. There are silk dresses with ribbon-wrapped straps that call to mind the handles of a handwoven basket. Other dresses have insets of Ndebele beading at the neckline. Tiny pinpoint beads are sewn together in a flexible field of pattern and color.

It was splendid to see these references to Africa woven into a collection of tailored suits and sexy dresses with the same nonchalance and ease that designers incorporate references to the Sicilian countryside or New York City. Too often, fashion turns Africa into something exotic that has to be set apart. (Drum roll! Here comes the African portion of the collection!) Or mudcloth, batik and beadwork become cliches or stereotypes. (Call the black models! Africa is in vogue!) Capasa treats Africa with sophistication and urbanity. There are no safaris in his vision of the continent.

Helmut Lang's style of presentation still helps to define his clothes. The models move by quickly as if they've got somewhere else to go. They are too busy to dally. The clothes are always relentlessly urbane, never sentimental. His romantic notions are filled with restraint and control. There is no reckless emoting on his runway.

His clothes are best when they are tailored. His ivory-and-chocolate pinstripe suiting underscores a woman's clear-eyed power and authority in the same way that a man's suit emphasizes his. Lang cuts a sexy suit. But the subtext is more about power than sensuality. His sense of romance for spring is revealed in simple sheaths with knotted pieces of fabric that look like tiny rosebuds.

But dresses are not Lang's forte, and a number of those on his runway -- in foggy blue and pale peach, with puzzlelike pieces dangling here and there -- seemed to droop and drag in unflattering ways. The more formal dresses were weighed down by strands of beads wrapped in netting. They formed a kind of nubby armor across the model's torso.

But as the models trotted by at top speed, there was the sense that what the audience thought of their attire didn't particularly matter. They had more important things to do than to stand quietly and be judged.

Stella McCartney

Stella McCartney had a toe-tapping soundtrack and a regal backdrop at her presentation Thursday morning. Her new boss, Gucci Group's recently named chief executive officer, Robert Polet, sat in the front row. Who wouldn't want her to have a splendid show?

But the collection was built on a slim and shaky foundation. As a way of expressing informality and comfort, McCartney cut the clothes in oversize proportions. Sundresses hung loosely around the body to reveal a decorative bra. A swingy tank top toyed with propriety, and a white trench coat had a gathered hemline and ruching around the pockets. But the dominant silhouette of billowing shirts and oversize trousers with a low-hanging crotch simply was not flattering. As a rule of thumb, no one should be wearing such baggy trousers unless they are on stage wearing a do-rag and exhorting an audience to "wave your hands in the air like you just don't care."

Women generally prefer trousers that have a more intimate relationship with their derriere. Indeed, careers and companies have been built on the ability to cut a pair of pants that fit like a glove. McCartney long ago proved herself as a tailor. One wishes that she would put some of that inspiring expertise on the runway instead of leaving it in the showroom. And do it quickly. Talent doesn't necessarily fade over time, but unless it is regularly on display, it can be quickly forgotten.

Dries Von Noten's spring collection is cheerful and romantic, with full skirts, exotic prints and florals. From left, John Galliano finally sets his ego aside and puts strong, energetic designs on the runway; Ennio Capasa evokes Africa with Ndebele beadwork and sophistication; Helmut Lang's collection is, as usual, urbane and unsentimental; Stella McCartney missteps with unflattering, oversize proportions. Viktor & Rolf enters its Pink Period: A tuxedo mixes masculinity with a stroke of sweetness. The designers decorated models with giant bows, like enormous Christmas packages.