PARIS — "It's all cinema, it's all from film," said Jean Paul Gaultier, summing up haute couture.
Paris' enfant terrible seemed to have a point, speaking on the last day of fall-winter shows that have seen spectators transported from apocalyptic opera houses to the circus and flung across the four corners of the globe.
Gaultier's feline-infused couture collection - Wednesday's highlight - took for inspiration Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini and "The Pink Panther."
The references merged with theatrical panache to produce once of his best shows in seasons.
But the cinema continued throughout Wednesday. In Valentino's encyclopedic show, continents and eras were merged and had Baz Luhrmann in delight.
"Haute couture, like cinema, is unreal. It's theatre - a romantic aspiration that's more beautiful, more extraordinary than reality," said the burlesque "Moulin Rouge" director who sat on the coveted front row.
JEAN PAUL GAULTIER
With a delicious purr, Gaultier pounced back into top form with a feisty couture collection, proving that despite a couple of off seasons, he still has a lot of tricks up his embroidered sleeve.
This fall-winter's muse was the female panther, which inspired a slew of fresh ideas, including plenty of new ways to wear leopard and how to dress in feathers to look like a cat.
If it sounds eccentric, it was.
Leopard print featured cheekily on tights below one stylish all-black crepe dress, and there were several incredible couture coats. At first glance they looked like fur but were made entirely of feathers, speckled like a big cat pelt and with white feathers at the edges to resemble skin.
Gaultier, ever the showman, ensured the wackiness infused the show's presentation as well.
Forty-three looks filed by to the infectious theme of "The Pink Panther," showcased on models who clawed as they walked. Guests looked on from stalls divided into lionesses, panthers, lynx and leopards. Sometimes they applauded, sometimes they simply laughed.
But aside from all the fun, there was some serious couture at work here.
Inspired by clown costumes, Gaultier showed flair with a new silhouette produced by dramatic 1980s-style ice-cream cone-shaped chaps.
It was fresh and engaging, and it seemed to say one of the big cats of Paris is back.
As guests arrived at Valentino's show, they glanced inquisitively at the zebra heads and gold-rimmed fisheye mirrors mounted on the walls of the "Hotel de Rothschild," transforming the 19th century mansion into a vintage-style cabinet of curiosities.
"Enchanting, encyclopedic couture," the program notes promised revelers.
When the first tight gown swept by with the image of orange rhinoceros on 3-D bed of myriad earth brown lacing, apparently inspired by a painting of Elizabeth I, it was clear the show would follow through on the promise.
Designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, in the process, seemed to have pulled off their most eccentric and imaginative show to date.
Oriental motifs and arabesque patterns fused with Scottish herringbone tweeds and Renaissance capes were thrown into the creative cauldron. This appeared alongside embroideries of lion's heads, bees, beetles and dragonflies, often to luxurious effect.
That's not to say all the looks worked. Some were too austere, and on the more elaborate silhouettes the patterning at times came across as busy.
VIKTOR & ROLF
Returning to the couture stage after a 13-year hiatus, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren used a raked Japanese garden as the vehicle for their shadowy, minimalist creations.
In an unusual presentation, the Dutch design duo meditated back-to-back in the lotus position before the collection showcased the 20 black, architectural creations. (Twenty represented the amount of years they've been in the fashion industry.)
Sluggishly from the backstage darkness, the dresses appeared in stiff technical silk with Oriental, almost organic silhouettes. They cut some beautiful and contemplative shapes.
The models then dropped to the floor one by one and the designers molded the dresses with their hands into various abstract forms. It produced a striking visual landscape: An interlocking mound of black with model piled upon model in several heaps of black fabric.
Lebanese designer Elie Saab unabashedly celebrated the glitz of the red carpet in a couture show which used the exact color the A-listers tread.
The first series of sweeping embroidered silk gowns brushed the red-colored catwalk as they filed by, merging with it in a "trompe l'oeil" effect.
It could be said that Saab - famed for dressing royalty and celebrities for the red carpet - is finally embracing the color that made his name.
Pearlized hues followed, with delicately cinched waists and glittering with thousands of embroidered sequins - as is the Saab signature.
Several looks in rarely used jade green were the highest point in the show, cutting a striking image against the red of the runway.
However, a series of gowns in ultramarine were so bold they might be hard for mere mortals to pull off. Perhaps it was a reminder: This show is not for mortals; this is haute couture.