Color and Chaos in Paris at Fashion Week

From left: A model at Rochas Ready to Wear show during Paris Fashion Week.; A model at the Balenciaga Spring Summer 2012 show.; A model wears an outfit by Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten. From left: Chris Moore / Catwalking-Getty Images; Dominique Charriau / Wireimage-Getty Images; Eco Clement / UPI-Landov

As even the most casual consumer of popular culture knows, the fashion world, at its white-hot core, remains an old-fashioned hierarchy—and nowhere is that pecking order more evident than in a fashion-show seating chart.

But that rigorously protected ranking unexpectedly crumbled as the spring 2012 collections began in late September in Paris, the capital of international style. As guests settled into their assigned seats for the eagerly anticipated Balenciaga show, a black-lacquer bench in the front collapsed, taking with it a line of designer-clad editors.

After two more coveted benches went down with loud crashes, show organizers feared that such glamorous guests as Catherine Deneuve and Salma Hayek—wife of the brand’s corporate chieftain, François-Henri Pinault—might soon be splayed in a heap. The house asked the entire audience to stand, and thus the show began. When that first model appeared, we were just a bunch of folks watching some utterly glorious clothes pass by.

As designer Nicolas Ghesquière took his bows, he mouthed “I’m sorry” for the furniture’s failure, but really the audience should have been congratulating him for the upheaval. The aloof world of Paris fashion had momentarily become a little more democratic, a little less snooty, and no one suffered injury—except, perhaps, to the ego. The new vantage point seemed appropriate for Balenciaga’s wearable yet fantastical jackets with their broad shoulders, body-grazing molded dresses, textured jogging shorts, and fancy cargo pants.

Ghesquière tamed the season’s bold colors, which waged an assault on the eyes in New York and Milan last month, by stirring in undertones of black and gray. Deep reds and crisp shades of cantaloupe were warm rather than searing. The cheerful patterns of faces, appearing on blouses, were “stained-glass prints,” he said backstage after the show. “They come from scarves in the Balenciaga archives.”

Halfway through its show season, Paris has shushed the cacophony of color that has dominated spring 2012. The Belgian designer Dries Van Noten dazzled with woodland photo prints in black-and-white, and midnight skylines flecked with jewel tones, for example. Rochas (despite a few too many dowdy and midcalf hemlines) championed white and pastels.

And nearly unknown young brands like Limi Feu, Pedro Lourenco, and Nicolas Andreas Taralis raised a flag for the enduring appeal of black, neutrals and black.

But it was Balenciaga’s collection that stirred fantasies—and upended the power structure, if only for a moment.