PARIS - Alexander McQueen stole the other Paris designers' thunder on Tuesday with a darkly beautiful pret-a-porter collection that couldn't help reminding the viewer of just how grand fashion can be.
That the eccentric Englishman managed to outshine other Paris designers was a feat considering Tuesday included displays by heavy-hitters Chanel and Valentino - which both sent out strong collections that remained true to their heritage.
Chanel delivered dark tweed suits dressed up with removable frills, while Valentino's new design duo served up impeccable 1960s glamour.
Another eccentric, France's Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, also delivered a wildly inventive collection, his featuring the Muppets - with Fozzie Bear-emblazoned suits and a rock star shag coat made from stuffed Kermit the Frogs.
But none could rival McQueen, whose darkly ingenious and bizarrely sublime show garnered cheers, hoops and whistles of approval from the normally tepid fashion crowd.
Paris's winter 2010 ready-to-wear shows continue Wednesday with displays by Kenzo, Hermes, John Galliano and red-carpet favourite Elie Saab.
A dress made entirely from slick black feathers, with oversized bouffant sleeves sculpted to suggest a swan hurtling into flight. A cocktail dress with a bust made of a jumble of leather straps and a full skirt of tight looping ruffles with a garbage-bag black sheen.
These were pieces that cried out to be worn - with extravagance and wild abandon - but probably belonged more in a museum than in a closet. It was fashion as art - wearable art to be lusted after.
Working with a palette of graphic black, red and white, McQueen took tactful staples like the skirt suit and the strapless cocktail dress and pushed them beyond the boundaries of politeness.
He nipped the New Look suit's wasp-waist even further, inflated its square shoulders and fluffed up the crinoline skirts. He padded the cascading train of a strapless evening gown until its skirts turned into a sort of bean bag that the model struggled to shuffle around the runway.
The black and white houndstooth checks that opened the show gave way to a red and black M.C. Escher-inspired print of ducks in flight that morph into houndstooth. McQueen also heaped on metalwork-studded hardware and feathers.
Hats made from open umbrellas, lampshades or a sculpture of found objects wrapped in clear plastic film topped off the looks.
Models, their faces covered in white and their mouths an oversized smear of red lipstick, picked their way around a huge pile of stylized rubbish in the middle of the catwalk and stopping in front of the photographers, leered.
It was beauty transformed into ugliness and then back into beauty again.
At Chanel, they left out the ugly part.
Practical chic was the name of the game the prestigious French label, which played it safe with a lovely collection of classic black tweed suits whose main innovation was a line of snap-on cuffs and collars.
The jackets - some cropped, some shimmering with intricate beadwork - were paired with short pencil skirts, A-line dresses, cuffed trousers and long, flowing chiffon skirts.
Accessories, like belts, flattop full-brimmed hats, chunky rings and knit arm and leg warmers, figured prominently in the collection.
But the show's real stars were the extravagant collars and cuffs. Made from accordion pleats, starchy lace, feathers and papery white flowers and adorned with contrasting black ribbons, they attached to the looks with a simple snap, said designer Karl Lagerfeld.
"It's a kind of new jewelry," he told The Associated Press in a post-show interview. "With one dress, you can have two lives, a business life and then you can add all those things" for a dressier look.
Jade green and baby girl pink added a welcome touch of colour to the black looks and infused the label's hallmark tweed jackets with an optimistic freshness.
"Slumdog Millionaire" star Freida Pinto called the show "wonderful."
Chanel "is never a letdown, it's always up there," said Pinto, who looked radiant in a white tweed dress by the label.
Asked whether her sudden status as a global superstar had changed her style, the Mumbai, India, native replied, "All I can say is that I've cleaned up pretty well."
Other front row guests at the mammoth show - held beneath the steel and glass dome of Paris' Grand Palais - included models Kate Moss and Milla Jovovich and British singer Lily Allen.
Looking at the collection of A-line day coats, rhinestone-emblazoned sheath dresses and chiffon evening gowns, one could be forgiven for mistaking Tuesday's display for one that took place nearly half a century ago.
Designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, who were appointed last October, delivered a collection steeped in the sophisticated elegance of the 1960s, when founder Valentino Garavani established the house.
Day coats in a rainbow of rich taffetas and brocades, some with fur-trimmed hems, were calling out for a French New Wave starlet. The sheath dresses, with their perfect sun-pleats, had Jackie O. written all over them.
Still, Chiuri and Piccioli didn't just blindly copy a bygone past. The duo's inventive, clean-lined day coat-cum-capes had a contemporary feel.
Asked about the philosophy behind their designs, Chiuri responded, "We like gorgeous."
JEAN-CHARLES DE CASTELBAJAC
Was it a fashion show or the Muppet Show? Jim Henson's fuzzy creations ran amok at Castelbajac, their googly-eyed faces emblazoning sheath dresses and sweaterdresses while their stuffed bodies became muffs or even a necklace of stuffed Kermit the Frog heads.
"I like to take institutions and shake them up," Castelbajac told reporters in a backstage interview, adding that his collection was made up of "classic looks that are a bit off."
That was the understatement of the century.
OK, a sequin dress with Animal's red furry faces splashed across it - that's a "bit off."
But an oversized glam rock coat made entirely from Kermit the Frog stuffed animals? Well, that's off the charts.
Other demented-but-brilliant pieces included a snarling tiger bubble skirt that looked like it had swallowed the model up to her thighs and a trench that layered long locks of blond hair beneath clear plastic.
As the Castelbajac models took a final spin around the runway, they showered the audience with fake dollar bills with U.S. President Barack Obama's face replacing that of George Washington. A guest dressed in an orange panda costume cheered them on.
Hair was all over the young Saint Petersburg-based designer's show.
Long dark locks cascaded down the front of her little knit dresses, spilled out from beneath belted woollen coats and were turned into a pair of unorthodox epaulettes.
Hair has proved a popular material among edgy Paris designers this season. Besides Castelbajac and Akhmadullina, Givency also turned out a series of perfectly tailor cocktail dresses covered in swirling black locks.
Other, less hairy looks shown by Akhmadullina included an oversized, manly overcoat in peacock blue and square-shouldered, belted jacket in pumpkin.