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A model presents a creation for Dior during the Fall/Winter 2011-2012 Haute Couture collection show on July 4, 2011 in Paris. (FRANCOIS GUILLOT/FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
A model presents a creation for Dior during the Fall/Winter 2011-2012 Haute Couture collection show on July 4, 2011 in Paris. (FRANCOIS GUILLOT/FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)

What we learned at Paris Couture Fashion Week 2011 Add to ...

Fall high fashion reflects a wide range of influences, from Russia, Japan and the 1950s to a late, great design icon known for her way with draping and pleating. And if you like feathers, you'll be tickled pink

All over Paris right now, there are posters for the Madame Grès show at the Musée Bourdelle, which has been extended an extra month until Aug. 28. It's an especially timely one. Born Germaine Emilie Krebs, Grès was a couturier to the bone and only reluctantly introduced a ready-to-wear line in 1980, four decades after launching her label. Because of the novel way she worked with draping and how she used it to define the body, largely without additional adornment, her dresses look as current as anything paraded during this month's Paris couture shows, echoing through the lush series of presentations staged July 4 to 6.

The Grès technique was particularly evident at Anne Valerie Hash, who kicked off the shows on Monday morning with a collection of 10 looks acknowledging her 10 years as a designer. In her collection notes, she thanked Olivier Saillard, who also happens to be the curator of the Grès retrospective.

Hash used draping as a starting point, although mostly as a means to explore asymmetry. Up close, a full-length black dress evoked a draped pant (there were belt loops and a button along the neckline) held up by two angel-hair-thin crisscrossing straps. Jacket lapels became a diagonal detail focus across the side of another floor-length dress. Blouses that appeared to be perfectly tucked in were actually attached to their skirts.

Bouchra Jarrar may not be a household name - yet - but, before going solo, she honed her skills at Christian Lacroix, having already spent a decade as Balenciaga's studio director. Her minimalism - vaguely Japanese with a soupcon of sportiness - has appeal; unstructured shift dresses were secured with side belts for flattering effect and judiciously slashed tops resulted in panels that revealed a hint of exposed back.

Despite their impressive output, these two female designers clearly chose wearability over the kind of painstakingly intricate but breathtakingly beautiful creations of Giambattista Valli. Formerly at the helm of Ungaro, Valli has always approached prêt-a-porter with a couturier's eye and his foray into haute territory proved an equally striking success.

Valli's balancing act between exquisite and playful was embodied in a sleeveless short cocktail dress with his signature tiered skirt, "pearl necklace" beading on sweater necklines and the use of "angel skin" (which is really just elegantly shirred chiffon). His diaphanous dresses also showed off a sophisticated series of prints, including snow leopard and black and white peonies.

Valli would be a welcome addition to the roster of red-carpet designers. For the time being, however, Elie Saab is among the top go-to guys for starlets who want the dazzle. This season, he took his collection to new levels of ethereal: It is a testament to Saab's understanding of embellishment that so much beading and sparkle could look so light.

Giorgio Armani's woman, meanwhile, embodies an altogether different guise. He mined the formal garb of the Japanese geisha, respecting the ceremony behind the attire while interpreting it innovatively. His take on the kimono, for instance, was notable for what it lacked: fullness. Instead, Armani streamlined the silhouettes, making floor-length gowns more tubular, less padded. He also had a go at origami, creating a pleating effect at the back of at least one coat that billowed and folded in on itself with stunning fluidity.

A curious pattern of peplums began to emerge over the three days, but none were more prominent than Karl Lagerfeld's flared jackets over pencil skirts so narrow the models wearing them rehearsed with their legs tied together. Titled Les Allures de Chanel, the collection hop-scotched through the early 20th century, summoning everything from beaded 1900s dresses to 1950s tweed suits. And even when he attempted potentially unflattering proportions - boxy jackets with three-quarter length sleeves, flared mermaid hemlines, capelets over jackets - the Kaiser pulled it off.

Among the unfortunate fallout from the first Christian Dior couture show sans John Galliano is the fact that most people seemed happier not to talk about it. Without any official fanfare, Bill Gayten, who has worked behind the scenes at the house for years, was suddenly thrust into a lead role and may ultimately take the bullet for a collection that sounded more compelling in theory (referencing architects and designers Ettore Sottsass, Jean-Michel Frank and Jean-Paul Goude) than in its chaotic execution. No one summed it up more concisely than Cathy Horyn of The New York Times, who tweeted, "Lots of strangeness here, folks."

The vision also seemed muddled over at Alexis Mabille, whose show - based on La Fontaine's animal fables - suggested a couture version of Garanimals costumes. Think black wolves (with shoulders encrusted in Swarovski crystal "fangs"), foxes (complete with bushy fur sleeves) and a swan sporting unflattering mustard-yellow tights. Surprisingly, the most elegant look - a morning jacket atop a white crepe sheath - wasn't a penguin, but a magpie. The moral: Despite Mabille's valiant attempt, the haute creature approach can be risky - a frog dress does not a princess make.

By contrast, Jean Paul Gaultier took a played-out theme like Swan Lake and turned it into a goose-bump-inducing celebration of fine-feathered fashion. Plumage appeared everywhere in the Russia-evoking show - on collars and décolleté, poking out from beneath a hoop skirt, even hemming a man's skirt - but the master technician also made silk jersey drape, sequins drip, velvet liquefy and fox fur envelop: It was a feast of textures and applications. Three weeks ago, Gaultier insisted to journalists in Montreal, where the Museum of Fine Arts has launched an exhibition about him, that the show should not be considered a retrospective and this collection confirmed why: The designer's creative tank is still very much full.

Gaultier's nod to Russia was echoed at Valentino, where Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli conjured up their own Old World winter fantasy, layering on the decadence - extensive handiwork was required to produce the bronzed metal embroidered lace and hand-painted velvet flowers woven into tulle - but without any gaudy pretension. Indeed, the lightness of their princess dresses might have been attributed to magic were it not for the hours of embroidery revealed in the press notes. (Most averaged around 350, with a minimum of 150 and an astounding maximum of 2,300 hours for a crystal encrusted-dress.)

Such artistry is often overshadowed by the carnival-like atmosphere that afflicts the couture shows, especially when celebrities make an appearance. (Among those swarmed by photographers this time around were Milla Jovovich at Gaultier and Katie Holmes at Armani.) But as Nina Garcia, the fashion director at Marie Claire, said after the Elie Saab show, "couture should be [appreciated for]what it was meant to be - a specialized lab of ideas that are experimental and very high-end. [Fashion]needs to start with those very big, fantastic ideas and go from there."

Just when this season's lab seemed to have concocted everything it could, however, Azzedine Alaia showed a 37-piece collection on Thursday to an intimate, no-cameras-allowed gathering of fashion power players (plus Kanye West and Sofia Coppola). Like a palate cleanser after an indulgent French meal, the pieces were impeccably streamlined, with curving seams that recalled vintage cars. Mostly, though, the outfits comprised a flawless overview of his signature cutout fabrications, clingy knitwear and tiers of knit ruffles - the ne plus ultra of soigné style.

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