Before Paris's front-row fashionistas packed away their six-inch Nicholas Kirkwood heels for the last time on Thursday, the pre-season analysis for spring/summer 2010 had already begun. Some superb shows on the final two days, from Kenzo, John Galliano, Elie Saab and Hermès in particular, acted as confirmation of several major trends for next spring's season, including sportswear and romance.The truly fashion-forward were already looking significantly more on-trend than they had been at the start of the week. In fashion terms, they are now living somewhere in 2010, having left the rest of us trailing behind clad in our 2009 autumnal garb.
Whatever the look, from delicately floral to severely monochrome, the commentators seemed eager to attribute it to the recession: designers were, it seemed, either reacting to it, ignoring it or trying to party their way out of it. Perhaps it was that everyone was thrilled to have a legitimate chance to intellectualise what is, in the end, the business of clothes filtered through the business of show. Or maybe it was simply a way of explaining the fact that, while there were indeed some spectacular pieces, a number of the industry's favourite designers created some chronically dull collections, apparently terrified of rocking the consumer boat too much.
Bruno Pavlovsky, the chairman of fashion at Chanel, told me before the hugely elaborate and expensive show (which was, in fact, one of the highlights of the week) that Chanel had noticed a few consequences of the recession - at, for example, the Paraffection companies: the couture ateliers that the company owns but which provide embroidery and other craftsmanship to most of the other major couture houses.
"In this period of recession, the first tough feelings we have had are to see fewer and fewer brands interested by all this archive, all this know-how, because they have the feeling it's a question of budget. At the end of the day they think they can avoid the benefit of this know-how. We have seen during the recession a decrease in activity coming mainly from other brands, because of budget, so we have to be careful."
Certainly an emphasis on simple shapes, plain fabrics and a preppier look has been evident in many collections this season: cutting a garment well takes care and huge skill, but it costs far less to manufacture than embellished and embroidered pieces. With department-store buyers reportedly clamouring for more entry-level price points to cater to a wary consumer, it is no surprise that artisanal techniques are losing out to the more immediate and affordable pleasures of print, colour and cut.
In a similar vein, several designers have reprised their best-known styles and techniques, something that is highly reassuring to a customer who wants the most mileage possible from her expensive designer purchase. From Nicolas Ghesquière's return to his own brand of urban reconstruction at Balenciaga, and Jean Paul Gaultier's riff on his classic conical corset pieces, to Dries van Noten and Kenzo's ethnic prints and weaves, the constant search for novelty that has characterised the last few seasons has been largely abandoned in favour of designers' trademark shapes and colours.
For Pavlovsky, it is a question of balancing the consumer's desire for identifiable luxury pieces with the ongoing thrill of covetable fashion pieces, something that Karl Lagerfeld has got down to a fine art in his seasonal reworkings of the Chanel DNA into new silhouettes. "The most important thing for us today is to keep this very special positioning between luxury and fashion," he explains. "Luxury is obvious, but fashion is the fuel to the engine of the Chanel brand.
"People want to feel confident," he continues. "We are back to good values: the product is the key. If you continue to invest in the product, if we continue to have the right level of creativity, quality, know-how, I think that we can give the confidence to our customers. Even if we are in the recession, we see our customers react in the boutique: they want to feel safe about their purchases." For all that safety was a prevailing sentiment at many of the shows, the collections managed to be hugely diverse, with functional khakis at one end and lingerie-inspired nothings at the other. Yet picking out the key trends is not too hard - in a silhouette-driven season, the same garments popped up again and again, especially those that were developments on the autumn/winter collections.
The multitude of attendees who sported strong-shouldered tux jackets with the sleeves cropped and rolled up to just below the elbow, for example, were vindicated by similar pieces at Lanvin, Balmain and Ann Demeulemeester. Similarly the jumpsuit trend, which has been inveigling its louche way into stylish wardrobes - much to the horror of anyone under 5ft 9in tall - found expression in shows from Hermès to Stella McCartney (one of the style's original and most enthusiastic proponents).
On the whole, though, the catwalks could be divided into four broad moods: softly romantic, sporty, ethnic and minimalist. Among the latter, a rather wintry mood prevailed, with brittle black suits, functional khakis and pure white shirts or dresses appearing at Bruno Pieters, Rick Owens, Chloé, Junya Watanabe, Celine and even the usually glittering Elie Saab. Cacharel, too, made a break from the pretty, print-loving styles of yore, going for the pure lines favoured by the new creative director Cedric Charlier. After the past couple of frill-obsessed years, these looks felt like a blast of icy water on a hot day: refreshing, surprising and slightly shocking to our currently rather baroque aesthetic.
The romantics, led by Peter Copping, the new face at Nina Ricci, either filled the catwalks with frilly, floaty frocks in chiffon, silks and occasionally humble canvases in delicate shades of pink, oyster and nude; or they displayed more brightly coloured, tropical hippyish frocks like the smockish pieces by the newly feminine Stella McCartney. Slightly more developed versions included the colourful drapery on little puff-sleeved dresses at Lanvin, decoratively knitted crinoline minis at Chanel, softly gathered Grecian minis in pale, ethereal chiffon at Givenchy and, of course, John Galliano who, outside his Dior duties, displayed a Sunset Boulevard-inspired silver-screen glamour, with gossamer silks and colourful lace.
Jean Paul Gaultier went all out for sportswear, both in his chic, tennis-influenced collection for Hermès and his street-savvy early Nineties-style hip hop-inspired eponymous collection. Joining him were Stuart Vevers at Loewe, who showed perforated and laser-cut suedes in airy neutrals spiked with neon piping and accessories such as sun visors; Elie Saab, who used a colourful, hi-tech, pixelated print on a number of dresses, and Balenciaga, whose leather panels and strips were reminiscent of Sixties styles and colour-blocked rave-era minis and tops.
Most attractive of all - and probably the most forgiving for many shoppers - was the patchwork of world-sourced fabrics that made up swathed dresses, pleated cropped trousers and draped pieces at Dries van Noten, Givenchy again, Kenzo and, surprisingly, RM by the designer Roland Mouret. For van Noten and Kenzo this was a return to traditional form, with the former looking to the Far East and Africa for batiks and silvery weaves. Kenzo's creative director, Antonio Marras, meanwhile, was aiming to evoke an intrepid female explorer in the Sahara, starting with some fabulous prints and accessories in blue and sand using geometries reminiscent of Islamic art, which also featured in beautiful laser-cut leather bags that are sure to fly off the shelves come spring. The collection ended in an explosion of gold and vivid colour, wrapped around models as turbans, gathered trousers and tunics characterised by a joyful boldness not seen for some seasons.
Colour, in fact, is a trend that is slowly filtering through and will probably appear even more over the next couple of seasons. The neutrals and monochrome palettes that filled so many catwalks were punctuated with sparing but vibrant blasts of colour, with orange or coral, cornflower blue, teal green and vibrant red being the most popular. It's an optimistic look for an industry still in the shadow of recession. They may be dressmakers, not economists, but it's still a thrill and a positive sign that the fashionistas are already planning for a bright future.