Fashhion Review A Playful Romp for Chanel

As often as Karl Lagerfeld used to be chided by some of his peers for being a mercenary and not owning a house of his own — at least not one as successful as Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino — it’s interesting how well he understands Chanel.

More than understanding the iconography of Chanel, a house that first opened its doors at 31, rue Cambon in 1921, he knows what the name means in the history of Paris. Unlike many other houses that have disappeared behind corporate facades or disappeared altogether, Chanel still sits like a white-gloved lady on the Rue Cambon. And probably to a great many young tourists who come to take pictures of its famous entrance and the Cassandre-designed logo, the Rue Cambon is Chanel.

Today, after it was reported by Women’s Wear Daily that Alessandra Facchinetti would be replaced at Valentino after just one year (Stefano Sassi, company’s chief executive, has been vague about plans, but indicated that a change was likely and that a lack of confidence in Ms. Facchinetti’s approach was an issue), an executive associated with the Rome-based company said, sadly, “Valentino is like Alitalia to Italy.”

Well, Alitalia has its problems, but certainly Valentino is a name that resonates beyond a chic little suit scattered with seed pearls. Ms. Facchinetti presented a charming, well-received haute couture collection in July. Friday, her ready-to-wear show of casual tunic dresses and soft shorts combinations with gold braid struggled to say something new.

But Ms. Facchinetti’s brief career at Valentino, as much the company’s owners poor handling of it, is proof that you need more than deep pockets to preserve a great name. You also need to recognize what it means in the popular imagination, and then seize it.

Mr. Lagerfeld had the idea to recreate a full-size facade of 31, rue Cambon inside the Grand Palais — and not only the building but also the street, complete with curbs. The models left the maison and hit the street. There was even the suggestion that four models strolling out together in mini knit dresses and fancy net hats might be representing the hooker element. If you’ve lived in Paris, and around fashion, as long as Mr. Lagerfeld has, you wouldn’t judge women that harshly.

He seems to regularly ask himself the question “What is Chanel?” — as if he knows it’s a living thing. This season, tweeds are more graphic; there is the new proportion of a cropped jacket, over a ribbed knit or blouse, and a slim embroidered skirt, shown with two-tone black stockings that modify the actual length of the skirt.

There are plays on transparency and shine. And maybe only Mr. Lagerfeld can show, at one extreme, silvery platforms with pink powder puffs at the heels and, at the other, a gorgeously severe black evening dress with a shadow layer of tulle and a taut, sheer neckline.

“Our house, in the middle of our street,” went the corny, if upbeat soundtrack from the 1980s hit by Madness, and in the models’ hands was one of the most coveted symbols of luxury and pleasure: the Chanel shopping bag, now rendered as a leather sack. The street, one can argue, is Chanel’s real stage.

Stefano Pilati has done a lot to reignite Saint Laurent. His spring collection is a solid continuation of the graphic modernity of last season, with more of an Eastern influence. Wool crepe trousers have a dropped crotch (but are the most flattering of that trendy style). Jackets have a slight kimono look, though Mr. Pilati keeps the volumes from exploding. There are matching bras under sheer, almost iridescent blouses and new, somewhat conceptual versions of the safari jacket — now with a kind of stiff peplum laced to the body of the jacket.

Mr. Pilati offered a lot of appealing clothes — smart, wearable but somehow missing that real Saint Laurent sex appeal and mystery. Maybe he intellectualized the process too much, but you didn’t feel he grasped or took advantage of the big story that Saint Laurent is.

It takes a special woman to wear a Giambattista Valli dress, because in most respects the dress wears her and sometimes it makes her a victim. Mr. Valli has an attentive young clientele, and a press agent’s e-mail message in advance of the show announcing that Natalie Portman would be traveling to Paris to see the collection had the weird archaic import of a 1950s Pathé newsreel.

But then Mr. Valli’s clothes seemed stuck in the glamour of that period. Five decades of women being a good deal more than prized possessions have apparently escaped Mr. Valli’s consciousness, or so it would appear from his crinoline dresses, fussy necklines and tulle outfits with the wooliness of a poodle’s back. Their fingertips extended over their wide skirts, their high heels made more perilous with the addition of a recessed platform, the models seemed instructed to look elegant and unobtainable.

A more accurate word for this tranquilized mood — and the collection in general — would have been Valium.