- Associated Press - Monday, October 3, 2011

PARIS (AP) - Even the gorgeous silk blouses and skirts in saturated jewel tones weren’t enough to divert the audience’s attention from the pink elephant in the room Monday at the Yves Saint Laurent spring-summer 2012 ready-to-wear show.

Everyone had of course read International Herald Tribune’s story last week quoting unnamed sources as saying that YSL designer Stefano Pilati was on his way out, to be replaced by Raf Simons, currently of Jil Sander.

Pilati, a temperamental Italian known for his impeccable tailoring, has garnered mixed critical reviews over his years at YSL, and the rumor mill has insisted he was halfway out the door for several seasons running.

But Menkes’ status as a living fashion legend and rock-solid reporter gave the story an almost bankable credibility _ despite a suspiciously toothless denial from the brand.

And so it was that the audience took in Monday’s YSL display with pre-emptive nostalgia, as if they were already missing the man they’d had such a hard time liking in the first place.

Two storied Paris labels that have both struggled in recent years to recapture their erstwhile days of glory, Chloe and Emanuel Ungaro, both fielded the debut collections of their new designers on Monday.

Chloe’s Clare Waight Keller shrugged off her predecessor’s heavy looks, sending out feather-light pleated dresses and chemisiers that tapped into the house’s ultra-feminine legacy.

The situation at Ungaro was murkier: After pinning their fortunes to a series of well-reputed designers, who ended up cycling in and out of the label at dizzying pace, the label’s officials have plotted out a new course: Teamwork.

They stressed that Jeanne Labib, the little-known 29-year-old who took over after the latest designer deserted just weeks ahead of the spring-summer collections, is not actually replacing the decamped creative director but simply leading the studio as “chief designer.” The hope, apparently, is that by prioritizing the actual clothes over the people who design them, they’ll be able to jump-start the stalled brand.

Stella McCartney and Vanessa Bruno both delivered solid collections that looked like surefire commercial successes, while Italy’s Giambattista Valli refined his retro-fabulous vision of haute bourgeois dressing.

Paris’ most timeless brand, Leonard, served up appealing variations on the flower-covered jersey silk dresses they’ve been making _ largely unchanged _ for more than half a century.

Exhausted fashionistas approaching the end of the grueling monthlong multi-city exercise (some would say torture) that are the ready-to-wear collections have a good reason to wake up early on Tuesday: Chanel, possibly the most highly anticipated show on the calendar, kicks off day eight of the Paris collections, which also includes displays by Valentino and Alexander McQueen.

YVES SAINT LAURENT

The fallout from Suzy Menkes’ bombshell of a story hung over the show like a pall, obscuring the collection _ which, despite a few faux pas (a pup tent-sized day coat, anyone?) _ was a strong one that showcased the kinds of rigorous but structured clothes Pilati does best.

He whipped up stiff silks in the kinds of saturated jewel tones one usually associates with fall into pretty blouses that puffed out through the back and shoulders and into little skirts and jackets with panels of scalloped ruffles. There were palazzo pants in fluid paisley printed silks and halter tops in rich sapphire, amethyst and turquoise.

And let us not forget the black pantsuits that somehow managed to be even steamier than the ones from last season _ which several of the guests, including Elettra Wiedemann, Isabella Rossellini’s model daughter _ were rocking.

The audience applauded Pilati heartily, almost urgently, as he took his post-show victory lap, as if they were already feeling nostalgic him.

CHLOE

The new creative director, Waight Keller, peeled off the thick ponchos and woolen coats that shrouded the Paris label over seasons past to reveal light, girly looks that tap into the romantic, feminine charm that have historically been at the heart of the brand.

Drop-waisted apron dresses in ivory and tan crepe de chine were layered over linen blouses, while slouchy trousers and shorts were paired with boxy button-down shirts.

Everything was covered in pleats _ tiny bicolor accordion pleats that shook seductively as the models walked and wider ones that gave the A-line skirts a school-girlish charm.

With Waight Keller’s feather-light touch, the collection marked a return to the house’s signature romantic roots _ which her predecessor, Hannah MacGibbon, had sometimes smothered under thick woolen capes, leather paper bag-waisted pants and oversized shirts in thick chambray.

It was a strong debut from Waight Keller _ a British designer formerly of knitwear label Pringle of Scotland _ and a good sign for the label, which has struggled in recent years to duplicate the success it knew under two former designers turned fashion superstars, Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo.

Still, it’s possible that Waight Keller got a boost from circumstance, and that a last-ditch face-lift performed on the show venue helped enhance the light and airy feel of her debut collection: After guests at earlier shows in the same tent in Paris’ Tuileries Garden came close to passing out from the heat inside, organizers striped the tent of its roof, allowing humidity out and the sunlight to come streaming in.

Rumor has it they made the welcome change after Vogue editor-in-cheif Anna Wintour threatened to boycott any future shows there.

EMANUEL UNGARO

After blowing through more designers than you can count on one hand in nearly as many years, and following the spectacular implosion of its partnership with starlet Lindsay Lohan, Ungaro has decided it’s time to prioritize product over personality.

Instead of the dramatic but hard-to-sell looks that its last designer, the now-decamped Giles Deacon, served up over his two season-long tenure at the brand, Monday’s collection was full of pretty, wearable cocktail dresses and pants in ravishing liquid silk prints.

It was not clear how much of the collection was Deacon’s work, but it was a worker bee _ and not an industry star _ who ducked out Monday for a post-show bow. Press handlers for the label stressed that Jeanne Labib, a 29-year-old who hails from Giambattista Valli, has not succeeded Deacon as creative director, and is just “chief designer.”

Weakened by the constant changes in the personnel and the collections _ whose style and tone have fluctuated wildly from season to season _ the label can only hope the new strategy proves the right one.

With its fetching cocktail dresses and hip-looking pants in teal silk, the collection was certainly a step in the right direction. Still, it must be said that there was little to distinguish it from the chic, urban fares that flood other runways worldwide, meaning that the label’s the main challenge _ reconstructing an instantly recognizable Ungaro look _ is far from accomplished.

GIAMBATTISTA VALLI

A signature style is something the Italian designer has in spades.

Each season, Valli manages to push his trademark look forward without really touching the shape of the short, boxy cocktail dresses he built his reputation on.

This season, it was the fabrics that did the heavy lifting: In addition to his usual animal prints, feathers and furs, there were rich, flower-strewn brocades shot with Lurex and gorgeous ikats made from silk fringe which pushed the collection into uncharted territory.

Strips of burnished silver lame served as frames, separating out the patchwork panels of brocades, fluttering silks and zebra-striped satin. The eyepopping patterns on the swingy, square-cut coats in silk shag evoked the wings of a particularly exotic specimen of butterfly.

Valli made a grand entrance into the exclusive club of Paris’ haute couture purveyors last season, and Monday’s ready-to-wear collection had a very couture spirit about it: You could feel the work and minute attention to detail that went into every look.

VANESSA BRUNO

It was like a neglige chic Paris version of the Valli collection.

A-line dresses in crisp Liberty flower prints _ given a sophisticated touch by strips of shimmering silver lame _ were paired with fringed poncho-sweater hybrids in nubby oatmeal yard which looked like they’d been knit by granny. Boxy little dresses were made out of colorblocked panels, some printed with rosebuds, others with what appeared to be T-shirts that had been washed to the brink transparency.

It takes a special girl to pull off an outfit that looks like it was made out of grandma’s old quilt, and Bruno’s ability to take what would normally appear to be dowdy pieces and infuse them with a uniquely Parisian bourgeois bohemian chic has won her legions of fans in France and a growing number in abroad, too.

One of a several French retailers who are popular Stateside, Bruno opened a boutique in Los Angeles last year.

STELLA McCARTNEY

McCartney delivered a collection fit for sexy sleepwalkers that was full of relaxed chic pieces that looked like they’d been made from silk sleepwear.

Models wore abbreviated slip dresses, like little nighties, embellished with fancy arabesque embroidery and slouchy pajama pants suits in printed silks.

The collection was all about the prints _ little crosses, dots, fancy wheel shapes and paisleys in navy and maroon _ which McCartney wielded with a deft hand, sending out looks that mixed and matched clashing prints or unified head-to-toe outfits, where even the handbags and sunglasses were served up in the same patterns.

It was an appealing collection from McCartney, whose Beatle father, Sir Paul, as well as an A-list roster of top photographers _ Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman _ were on hand for the show.

LEONARD

It’s always spring at Leonard, the Paris house that has been serving up variations on the same exuberant flower prints since its founding in 1958.

Sure, things vary slightly from season to season. For spring-summer 2012, designer Veronique Leroy added sprinkling of studs and sequins and graphic black stripes. But fortunately for the label’s fans, the essence of the house remains largely unchanged.

All the Leonard staples were there: Pantsuits bloomed with oversized chrysanthemums, and floor-length sundresses were covered in wildflowers in bright red, blue and yellow. Besides the sequins, studs and stripes _ which were worked into the flower prints _ the other main novelty of the season were the wide shapes.

Swingy jackets stood sculptural out from the body, and a tunic shirt in flower-embellished terry cloth looked as if it had been made out of an extra-wide beach towel. It was hard to imagine that such bulky looks, which made even the rail-thin models look voluminous, could have much commercial appeal.

Those pieces aside, Monday’s collection had the timeless beauty the house is built on.