Paris designers were in top form Monday as the spring-summer haute couture collections kicked off in the French capital, despite fears of war and the sluggish world economy that are casting a pall over the luxury-goods industry.
British designer John Galliano showed a virtuoso collection at Christian Dior that filtered visions of the Orient through Alice's looking glass, launching a condensed season designed to spare editorial budgets as economic growth wavers.
Shows by the major French fashion houses, usually spread out over four days, take place over just 48 hours.
As fears of a war in Iraq dampen market sentiment, most celebrities opted to stay at home. The Italian house of Versace, which counts pop diva Madonna among its fans, scrapped its catwalk show in favour of a small in-store exhibition.
Despite the dour mood, and the presence of a handful of anti-war protesters outside, Jean-Paul Gaultier put on a whimsical display that confirmed the French couturier as the heir apparent to Yves Saint Laurent, who retired last year.
In Gaultier's skilful hands, nothing was as it seemed.
Models wore miniature shirts and jackets strapped to the body like bustier tops. A crochet bodice was woven into a spider's web, while an oversized black lace cartwheel hat that doubled as a dress drew waves of enthusiastic applause.
A long white tutu made the transition from stage to ballroom thanks to the addition of a purple satin corset. Twenties-style flapper dresses were festooned with mother-of-pearl buttons that clicked with every move.
Gaultier, who took on many of the skilled seamstresses who lost their jobs when Saint Laurent's workshop closed in October, paid tribute to the legendary designer with a simply draped shocking pink chiffon evening gown.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was a slate chiffon dress festooned with tiny butterflies, worn with a tongue-in-cheek hat made of broken shards of blue and white "azulejo" tiles.
With his front row flush with former Saint Laurent clients, Gaultier can hope his flourishing house will keep expanding.
Guests braved heavy wind and rain to trek to the hippodrome on the outskirts of Paris where Dior staged its show.
There, they were greeted by a group of garment industry workers protesting against a wave of factory closures in France.
By the time the show began, almost two hours behind schedule, spirits inside Dior's custom-built tent were almost as damp as the weather outside.
But the storm clouds soon lifted as shadow monsters, Chinese acrobats and plate spinners appeared silhouetted against two red screens on either side of the catwalk, to the delight of guests including actress Liz Hurley and rap singer Eve.
As the bulging figures emerged, it became clear that Galliano's recent trip to China and Japan had yielded a treasure trove of fabrics and he was determined to use them all at once.
This was Asia viewed through the prism of the 18th century French court of Versailles.
Kimono prints competed with hand-painted silks and brocades in concoctions that could scarcely be described as outfits. Instead, it was as if the models were swathed in giant fabric sample books, each layer peeling off to reveal another beneath.
Silver butterflies clicked in elaborate hairpieces inspired by the costumes of traditional Chinese opera. Flowered silks frothed over crinoline skirts in a twisted take on the milkmaids immortalised by 18th century painter Fragonard.