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Economic woes drive the fashion pack underground

Paris fashion week A lemming-like rush of guests running to reach buses before they left revealed just how few attendees are willing to expense cabs and chauffeurs this season.

As a pack of howling fashionistas scrambled through the gates of the Paris Metro at Chevaleret at rush hour on Friday, dressed to their weirdest nines and watched by gawping locals, it seemed that we were, courtesy of Lanvin, at the sharp end of prêt-à-porter. The official shuttle buses between the shows not only now lack the miniature patisseries and beverages offered en route last season - enough of a privation in itself - but there are also simply not enough of them this time around. The result has been large numbers of helpless and hysterical drama queens stranded in some unlikely parts of Paris, with just a few minutes to get to the next event. After the Maison Martin Margiela show, in the slightly seamy Bercy area, a lemming-like rush of guests running (actually, it was more of a stilt-like totter in five-inch heels) across a perilous road to reach the buses before they left revealed just how few attendees are willing to expense cabs and chauffeurs this season. Are economic cutbacks leaving fashion, in the fine tradition of Zoolander, derelicte?

Well, no, actually. There might, this season, be a distinct lack of the flamboyantly dressed hangers-on that usually populate Paris Fashion Week, but with a Gallic shrug, the designers here are affecting a studied indifference to la crise économique, producing shows that are commercially viable but never safe or dull. That defiance has taken the form of a hard-edged martial glamour in many shows so far, combining strong, aggressive silhouettes and stark palettes with fluid swathes of luxurious fabric draped, sculpted and wrapped.

Vivienne Westwood on Friday showed her customary urban soldier looks to a keen crowd assembled at a stripped-down hall on the Place Vendôme. Those unlucky enough not to have received an invitation (oh, the shame) pressed their noses and cameras against the giant glass windows, vying with passing tourists for a glimpse of Westwood's new top model, Pamela Anderson. In spite of the hype, though, it was a case of no alarms and no surprises, with enough of her favourite motifs - pirates, swags of silk, tutus, distressed knits - to keep fans happy, but little that was truly new.

The biggest controversy, indeed, was the presence of a Peta demonstration outside the venue, protesting against the newly fashionable wearing of real fur. Westwood went fur-free in 2007 (according to Peta her last fur items, eight bunny-fur bags, were donated to a wildlife sanctuary to comfort orphaned baby animals), so it was a peaceful protest intended, said one of the participants, to appeal to the influential fashion crowd.

"We don't want to distract from the Vivienne Westwood show, because she's fur-free," said a protester, Libby, who withheld her surname. "But 10 years ago, no one would wear fur, and gradually it has come back. Christian Dior uses fur, so when we protested at that show earlier today, we shouted out to fur wearers, to shame them. We will be at other shows too, but I can't tell you which." No wonder many of the fur-wearers were huddled against the other side of the courtyard.

Fur did indeed make an appearance on John Galliano's catwalk for Dior, but it was just one part of a beautiful Far Eastern fantasy harking back to the 1920s, with exquisite hats by Stephen Jones, that mimicked Louise Brooks-style bobs, and lavish brocades, draping and beading. This was by far the most luxurious show of the week so far, with designers elsewhere concentrating on harsh power-dressing in black, black and more black. At Gareth Pugh and Anne Valérie Hash on Wednesday, Balmain, Nina Ricci and Balenciaga on Thursday and in Lanvin's outstanding show on Friday, the palettes were almost entirely limited to charcoal, black, oyster, grey and stone, with the occasional blast of bright colour.

Heels soared, models stalked, shoulders were extended and waists cinched in a series of collections that drew on the 1940s and the 1980s for their silhouettes and their look-but-don't-touch attitude. The Lanvin show drew shouts and cheers as the designer Alber Elbaz took his bashful bow. With flawlessly pneumatic dresses in silks, wools and tulle, waisted with skinny belts and constructed from sculpted folds of fabric, these were certainly more wearable than his pieces over the last few seasons, but just as spot on in terms of mood: dark, aggressive, vampish and powerful.

Taking the war-like approach one step further, Dai Fujiwara's collection for Issey Miyake opened and closed with a powerful display of karate by four martial arts champions wearing his specially designed cropped trouser suits - some testimony to the strength and flexibility of the designs. The beautifully cut grey suits, brought to life by turned-up sleeve and trouser cuffs lined in vivid shades, and neon pink and yellow flashes against rich black dresses and knits, brought to mind the great Japanese designers of the early 1980s, a look that is gaining ground against the flashy power-dressing side of the Eighties revival.

Harsh realities seem to be focusing designers' minds on creativity and wearability, rather than the sleek complacency of fatter times, and that can only be a good thing. *

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