-- Popular culture assumes that both men and women long to be physically attractive. A woman may seek power, demand respect and delight in her intellect, but her desire to be pretty is such a natural assumption that it goes unspoken.

Three designers who opened the spring 2006 fashion shows here pose a rhetorical question: How important is "pretty" in an industry based on appearance? The designers Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto, who showed their collections Sunday night, and Jun Takahashi, who showed his Undercover line Monday, all approach fashion from the point of view that clothes can be camouflage, they can be confrontational, and they can be a shrill announcement of one's presence. They do not always have to make one look desirable, pleasant or even approachable. These designers take a risk. Few women -- or men -- are willing to dress the part of the contrarian.

Pause on the streets of Washington -- or New York or Paris or most any other city -- and watch the passersby. Most are dressed to blend into the crowd, to uphold the status quo or, perhaps, to attract a discreet, admiring glance.

But occasionally, one spots a rebel.

Standing and waiting for the Owens show to begin, one scans the rows of empty chairs and the crowded aisles. (For some reason, the organizers have told the guests not to sit down just yet. No matter that it is time for the show to begin and there we all are staring at the empty seats awaiting our eager derrieres.) Then one sees a fashion regular -- she is a designer, retailer and consultant -- gliding around the room. She is, as always, dressed in flowing black clothes. She has mounds of jet-black hair piled high and topped with the equivalent of a mantilla. She is the fashion infanta. Call her mysterious, bleak, even a bit frightening.

(And at Yamamoto's show, photographers snap pictures of a gentleman dressed in a tiger-striped suit and leopard-print hat. He is cartoonish, foppish, even a bit sad. And at a Left Bank hotel over breakfast one morning, the quiet is broken by a dilettante in black, his long hair twisted into a loose bun and held in place by a decorative chopstick. His gray beard trembles from his incessant chatter about his creative needs; his demeanor is so akin to a character from the "Saturday Night Live" of yore -- the "Sprockets" man -- that one half expects him to ask the waiter, "Do you want to touch my monkey?")

None of these characters has turned to attire to pretty herself or himself up. None looks particularly attractive.

They are the sort who would be drawn to designers such as Rick Owens, whose signature shorn jackets twist around the body with angled zippers and fabric ties. His long skirts slither down the legs leaving a trail of halfhearted ruffles and unfinished hems. In shades of black, white, taupe and ecru, his collection is unhurried and distracted.

Owens is a designer who does not envision his clothes on fast-moving city dwellers but rather on those well-to-do rebels who slouch through life fueled by organic produce, yoga and cigarettes. They are a contradictory lot, spending large sums of money on clothing designed to look as though it has been pulled from a 2-for-1 bin. It is expensive dishevelment, for those who have the kind of wealth that allows them the luxury of complaining about the lack of fulfillment in their lives. While the less-well-off are fretting about how to pay the light bill, they sit around over $20 mixed drinks, wearing sad-sack faces and $300 self-consciously wrinkled tops, cursing the relentless march of gentrification and the dislocation of the poor.

No, these aren't clothes meant to make anyone look pretty. They are costumes for those seeking a connection to something they perceive as less processed, less commercialized and somehow more real.

Undercover, Yamamoto

What sets many of the designers in Paris apart from those who show their collections elsewhere is the desire to create clothes that are more than decoration.

It is an enormous burden to place on a few yards of chiffon or silk. Often these designers get overwhelmed by their own big ideas and turn out garments that look silly and leave the casual observer to mutter about how ridiculous it all is.

So laugh. Get it all out. And then consider their point:

Jun Takahashi expresses modern tribalism with a collection derived from T-shirts. A T-shirt is rarely ever worn to be pretty but is often donned to communicate a message, whether political, social or humorous. It connects strangers of like minds with a word, a brief phrase or an image. Takahashi's T-shirts (and ultimately the clothes made from them) look faded and worn, as if his raw materials had been pulled from one of the many pallets of old clothes off-loaded to the poor.

He opened his Undercover show with a group of models in white skirts -- one could see vestigial sleeves hanging loosely along the hips. Their chests were bare except for the chalky white dusting across the torso -- a white stencil of a tee. Simple tops stretched into long dresses. ("Chuuuut!" reads a silkscreen of a screaming woman on one tee; on other garments, the words are nearly illegible.) They are stitched together into jackets and twisted around the waist into skirts. Takahashi put shirts on the models' heads, sometimes draped over cones so they looked like medieval maidens, or wrapped and tied with a glimmering string so their profiles evoked that of an African woman.

With his models walking between thick ivory candles (some of which were elaborately carved like totem poles), Takahashi underscored the connection between T-shirts and the basic power of communication, suggesting that in contemporary times, a T-shirt can be as personal and evocative as the beating of a drum.

Go ahead and chuckle at the Yohji Yamamoto collection, with its giant dog-eared collars, bat-wing shoulders and jagged trains that look like dinosaur tails. The shapes are crazy and exaggerated; they are meant to be. Can you handle his intellectual come-on? Be confident enough to call some of it dreck and independent enough to declare other pieces masterful?

After all, that's why some people love his work, just to show how smart they are. (How absurd is that? To wear a dress with a tail to prove that one is an intellectual giant?) Others love it because they can't stand the thought of a white shirt that's so straightforward it looks like it came from Thomas Pink. They can't stand looking like everyone else.

Yamamoto's skirts have wired hemlines, so they stand away from the body and make it look as though the model's torso has poked its way through a pup tent. Midnight blue dresses are adorned with cables that wrap around the shoulders like a stole.

With their slicked-back hair -- wrecked and splashed with paint -- muddy eye makeup and glowering expressions, the models looked like angry urban refugees battling modern life. With a group of garments stitched from camouflage fabrics, one infers references not just to warfare but also survival. Yamamoto juxtaposes the harshness of camouflage trousers with heavily ruffled jackets and even a camouflage ball skirt with an enormous bustle. His use of cables feels makeshift, as if a woman has simply made do with whatever material was available to construct some semblance of elegance or propriety out of wreckage.

Much of this collection left one uncomfortable. Some of the silhouettes were silly -- such as the saber-tooth-edge trains. But other elements suggested a kind of longing to create order out of chaos. Yamamoto implies that long before some people can even consider trying to be pretty, they must first find their dignity and their humanity, so they can make themselves whole.

A jacket by Rick Owens, far left, angles its way around and down, while a Yohji Yamamoto dress gets an electrical cable "stole."

Beyond decorative, clockwise from above: Yohji Yamamoto's ruffles and camouflage flourishes; Jun Takahashi's Undercover collection stretches the tee; a shorn jacket by Rick Owens with a signature twist; and the exaggerated lines of Yamamoto, bound to cause a flap.