PARIS — With a show that was dark and dramatic, but also strangely romantic, Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel ignited the autumn 2011 fashion season. The incendiary moment included smoke belching out of what looked like volcanic ash, while ghostly shadows of winter trees were reflected on the walls.
At first it seemed like an apocalyptic vision of the world and of fashion as the models trudged the wood runway apparently lined with hot coals. Far from the bourgeois Parisian world of Chanel’s Rue Cambon, the iconic tweed jackets were cropped breast high and worn over roomy jackets and pants, including dark shaded jeans.
A mannish, haute boiler suit look ran through the collection — but for evening, this down-and-dirty style was made up in fabrics that were the antithesis of that factory concept: layers of satin, lace, gazar and other couture materials. At night, at least for some of the time, the stout walking boots were replaced by low-heeled court shoes.
What did it all mean?
Mr. Lagerfeld seemed to have caught the end-of-an-era melancholy of this troubled fashion season. But he had a less dark explanation for the forest: memories of his Hamburg childhood, of the poetry of Paul Verlaine and of Fritz Lang films.
“It is the right thing for the period. I did richness with the Byzantium collection and I was tired of bright colors. And it is not black, but gray,” said the designer, who himself was dressed head to toe in smoky colors.
The collection was not entirely dark. It had a dab of forest green and red at the inside of a tweed cape, as though embers were glowing. Sparkly surfaces also lighted up the clothes, as though erupting from the heart of darkness.
It was a somber, but perhaps visionary, Chanel show from Mr. Lagerfeld, who seemed to have captured more powerfully than any other designer this turbulent, unsettling fashion moment
The Yves Saint Laurent show was on a more upbeat note. It is a happy coincidence that the designer Stefano Pilati hit a high dynamic note of austerity chic just as the YSL foundation has opened an exhibition on the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, style that was invented at the end of the 1960s.
Mr. Pilati produced a sharp, smart collection that was definitely on the right bank of the River Seine, which is where the fashion action now is. The rigorous clothes, with that touch of priestly perversity, as in a Federico Fellini movie, made for a streamlined and sensual wardrobe for a modern woman.
The strength of the show was in its day wear. The tailoring had the same boyish look as the models, with their sleek hair, while the brief, low-buttoned jackets in Prince of Wales check with a kicky pleated skirt was the essence of masculine/feminine style.
Geometry was the story, as Mr. Pilati twirled a compass to create rounded shapes for a soft white satin blouse, fur sleeves or a cape-back coat, while the check pattern and the overall cut was drawn with a square. The subtle balance included gilt chains worked as belts, pockets and as a teasing pair of straps holding up one of the snow white evening outfits, where the bodice was cut with twin rounded curves.
Mr. Pilati seems to have channeled the YSL spirit through Helmut Newton images to inject sexual tension into regular clothes. Although this collection plucked a few elements from the designer’s glory years — say, 1970s culottes or the famous parakeet-green fur chubby, made over in white feathers.
There was no attempt to recreate the juicy, romantic and artistic palette that was once the house signature. Just a single papal purple coat and royal blue for a dress and the hem of a skirt broke the monochrome color. But if Mr. Pilati chose to draw his vision of Saint Laurent in black and white, he couldn’t have done it better.
It was not exactly royal wedding fever at Valentino , but the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton next month and Prince Albert of Monaco and Charlene Wittstock in July are affecting the fashion house.
“We have done a year’s business in six weeks — with young clients and with the princesses coming back,” said the brand’s chief executive, Stefano Stassi, referring to the success of January’s couture collection with the European royalty whom Valentino used to dress.
The new confidence showed in the work of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, who said backstage that they wanted to soften up the daytime tailoring by using double-faced cashmere to make a suit or coat dress as soft as a cardigan. But on the runway, the tailored pieces were planted with studs to sharpen up the look.
The duo’s interesting angle on embellishment was to modernize it as digitally printed lace on a plaid dress — or actual slithers of lace inserted in a leather skirt.
There were not too many surprises, except in the palette, where the familiar cappuccino of the early pieces moved into darker tones of Bordeaux and teal and then, for evening clothes, “off” colors like lichen green.
One might wish that the design duo would show a mad streak. But their faint dashes of daring were just the meld of a rose-embellished blouse with a feather skirt or visible bra tops, which are yesterday’s trend.
Yet this line now offers a Valentino style genuinely refreshed for a new generation — but with plenty to lure back faithful former customers.