While the early days of Paris Fashion Week offered a glimpse of what women will be wearing next spring, an exhibition representing the 32-year career of Azzedine Alaïa at the Palais Galliera speaks volumes about fashion's enduring allure.
It is impossible to view the 74 creations displayed at the newly restored fashion museum without likening them to sculpture. Houppette, the name of his body-skimming powder-puff dress from 1994, features fluffy and flat textures rendered in white and black. His manipulation of crocodile – a challenging material even for something as boxy as a bag – allows a coat to morph into armour. The skimpy beaded dresses custom-made for Tina Turner are arguably more impressive as objets d'art.
The Alaïa homage continues across the street at the Musée d'Art Moderne, where a half-dozen additional designs occupy the Salle Matisse, a gallery devoted to two enormous murals by the artist. Tunisian-born Alaïa, who does not abide by the conventional show schedule and often presents his collections to a select group of friends and editors once the Fashion Week crowd has gone home, created three dresses specifically for this setting. Their rose-hued velvet echoes Matisse's pink pigments, and the Godet pleats – flared inserts at the waist and hemline – offer volume in a way that the artist could only hint at on his canvases.
The retrospective's curator, Olivier Saillard, has also overseen another exhibition, devoted to footwear maverick Roger Vivier at the adjacent Palais de Tokyo. Like Alaïa, Vivier trained as a sculptor before applying his skills to design.
Both shows offer access to the fashion world in a way that the invitation-only prêt-à-porter shows do not, but then clothes aren't usually made to be worshipped in a museum. Not only do they exist to be worn, they must embody l'esprit du temps.
Back on the Paris catwalk, the Balenciaga show addressed the challenge of seeing fashion as a two-dimensional image.
Within the airy stone hall of the Observatoire de Paris, two full-length mirrors straddled the central runway so that when the collection was photographed, it appeared from three perspectives. It was a clever staging device that allowed viewers to better understand how Alexander Wang developed the silhouettes in his sophomore turn as creative director.
You can see how he rounded the shape of a perfecto jacket in tightly woven leather, updating a house classic. After viewing a final group of jackets from the side, you might also conclude that the beautifully caped backs softly transition the looks from suiting to ultrashort dresses. Wang's only misstep was a trio of mini-dresses that layered mismatched rococo ruffles around a sporty, contoured bodice.
Dries Van Noten positioned his audience on a long row of bleachers so that they faced a massive slatted folding screen flecked in gold leaf. Models in loose coats covered in a dark tulip damask walked past Colin Greenwood, the bassist for Radiohead, who played a live set. Instead of a final walk, models lined up and braved a barrage of smart phones snapping at their light poplin blouses and side parts.
In an Instagram age and with his upcoming retrospective at Les Arts Décoratifs in February, Van Noten seemed especially aware of the added value of close-up access.
For Marco Zanini's final collection at Rochas, he chose a salon within the Théâtre National de Chaillot that provided a winning Eiffel Tower view as a backdrop for puckered pastel coats and filmy brocade dresses accessorized with strands of glimmering necklaces and floppy ostrich-plumed shoes. It was just the type of surrealist elegance that makes him a solid choice for the house of Schiaparelli, where he is headed.
Hussein Chalayan, who showed striped beach towel-inspired dresses, blurry seaside prints and clear moulded sunhats affixed to umbrella handles, could have also taken on the Schiaparelli job with the necessary combination of irreverence and grace. Chalayan had his museum moment back in 2011. And like Alaïa and Van Noten, he is among the handful of designers who considers relevance irrelevant.
Rick Owens pushed the envelope on what fits on Paris's runways with a show that no one expected. He recruited four groups of steppers who specialize in a style of dance drawing from military drills, stomping and cheerleading to appear in the collection while competing in a sort of runway showdown. They scowled and pounded their full-figured bodies with the type of emotion and brute physical force rarely expressed by today's models, who are all too often presented as porcelain robots.
Owens gave these women a uniform of compact leather vests, skort dresses and sporty versions of his monastic tunics that amplified their warrior attitude. In the past, the designer showed precarious, unwieldy footwear but these girls wore space-age sneakers. After ending the show in a snaking conga line, the dancers left the impression that this was neither lofty performance art nor conceptual fashion; this was a shape-shifting, fantastically choreographed moment that people will be parsing for some time yet.
Meanwhile in Milan
Sandwiched between the quirky offerings on the London Fashion Week catwalk and Paris's polished collections, a trio of maximal spring shows in Milan earned oodles of buzz.
Miuccia Prada pushed her ugly-pretty aesthetic light years forward by layering bralettes over mod coats, presenting off-season intarsia fur outerwear and styling it all with striped leg warmers and haute versions of athletic sandals.
Dolce & Gabbana's gilded cocktail dresses and antique coin prints had some catwalk-side tweeters wondering if the designers' gold fixation has anything to do with their ongoing squabble with Italian tax authorities?
Finally, the label MSGM earned best up-and-comer kudos for a riot of relaxed separates in floral prints and mismatched stripes.
Honourable Milan mentions go to the voluminous mini-skirts at Fausto Puglisi, the tuxedo-tucked shirt-dresses at Ports 1961 and the refreshingly minimal nineties spirit at Max Mara.