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Balmain and Balenciaga: flashback and fast forward

Balenciaga combined leather and coarse raffia with plastics. Balmain had a military look with extreme shoulder lines, fringed epaulets and badges a la Michael Jackson.


PARIS — In fashion, there's a never-ending battle between the crowd-pleasing commercial and the boundary-pushing conceptual. And nowhere was it more clear at this week's Paris runway shows than at Balmain and Balenciaga, destined to be two of the spring season's most influential collections. Both emphasized a new urban sportiness, but in vastly different ways.

The flashy, trashy glamour of Christophe Decarnin at Balmain has been driving the fashion world of late -- the sequins, stripes, ripped jeans and fringed booties on the street and in stores right now are all from him. So Zara and H&M should be thankful for another hot Balmain show.

For spring 2010, he turned to the military look, with coppery metal mesh as the main stylistic element in his raucous collection, set to 1980s party anthem "Rapper's Delight."

The show had all the sizzle of a Hollywood event. There's also the matter of timing. If there is someone who has inadvertently benefited from Michael Jackson's death, it is Decarnin. (Jackson had been known to wear some of Decarnin's jackets.) And the designer continued to hearken back to the King of Pop with extreme shoulder lines, fringed epaulets and military badges on those now-famous jackets.

The 1980s flashback might have started to wear thin if the workmanship were not so impressive. Coppery mesh and sequins were masterfully draped into warrior princess mini-dresses, cinched with bullet-studded crocodile belts, while slashed T-shirts topped skintight, lace-up leather leggings and cargo pants.

It's not as if these clothes are new, but their brash sexiness is what's grabbing the attention of Rihanna (sitting front row), Beyonce and Gwyneth Paltrow. It is unapologetically in-your-face, look-at-me fashion for the celebrity era.

By comparison, Balenciaga was a burst of modernism. Nicolas Ghesquiere was ahead of the curve last season with his feminine print dresses, lace bandeaus and swagged silk skirts. So now that everyone else is feeling romantic for spring, he's moved on.

"I wanted something urban and graphic," the designer said backstage. "Collages of natural and synthetic materials, almost like toys." Ghesquiere combined leather and coarse raffia with plastics, blurring the lines between real and fake, new and old, couture and mass. I like to imagine him in art class with scissors, colored paper and glue, cutting and pasting the clothes. And indeed, there was a two-dimensional quality to them, as if they had been put together on paper dolls.

Motocross-inspired hooded vests pieced together from leather and textured jersey were worn with skintight leather leggings tucked into what are sure to be the extreme footwear of the season -- short booties with shafts covered in metal hardware.

Next up were sleeveless tops with racing stripes, skirts with haphazardly placed sheer and pleated panels, and a handful of snug-fitting leather jackets. Short dresses were collages of shiny, matte and transparent pieces. Plastic-y miniskirts in multicolored stripes came with sleeveless shirts in crisp white, slit open to reveal flashes of color.

These clothes were like nothing you've ever seen. The challenge will be in how they translate from the runway to the street, and indeed to Zara.


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