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Once upon a time, not that long ago – back at the end of the last century, in fact – it was enough for the big fashion groups to compete against each other for brands. And not only brands, but all that went with brands: retail addresses, celebrity endorsements, famous architects to create their flagship stores. But, as they like to say in this world, that’s so yesterday.

Now the behemoths of Paris fashion – Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton (aka LVMH, owner of Dior, Givenchy, Loewe, Céline and Louis Vuitton, among a lot else) and Pinault Printemps Redoute (aka PPR, owner of Gucci Group, which in turn owns Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, plus some more) – are also competing in the cultural sphere.

As fashion week kicked off on Monday, Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH, announced a plan to build the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, a Frank Gehry-designed cloud-like glass structure that will be located in the Bois de Boulogne. When it is complete in 2010, it will house the group’s, and Arnault’s, art collection, as well as temporary exhibitions of work at the junction of art and fashion. In Paris this was widely viewed as a trumping of François Pinault, chairman of PPR, whose own plans to build a museum outside Paris came to nothing and who instead opened the Palazzo Grassi in Venice last year – though Arnault’s camp, not surprisingly, denies any such rivalry.

The following day, Arnault hosted a dinner in honour of the opening of the Yves Klein show at the Pompidou Centre, underwritten by LVMH, while the day after that, François-Henri Pinault, chief executive of PPR and son of François, hosted his own dinner to celebrate the renovation and reopening of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which was partially sponsored by – you guessed it – PPR.

As to why this fine art one-upmanship between the groups is going on, no one will say. It may indeed, as those involved keep suggesting, all be coincidence. Tycoons have long attempted to legitimise their rise via the acquisition of art, and similarly the fashion and art worlds have always been synergistically involved. Even given all that, however, it’s hard not to think that there’s a subtext here – and the mediocre-to-truly-terrible collections of some of the groups’ smaller brands might have something to do with it. (Move attention to a game you can win.)

Consider, for example, Stella McCartney’s professional but workmanlike show. Though she is developing a following for her cool girl-meets-guy-wear – such as a terrific beige silk mini-dress, neckline decorated with tone-on-tone plastic discs, worn under a black man’s jacket – and is on track to reach the target of break-even set by PPR for next year (thanks in part to smart collaborations with Adidas and H&M), her clothes just don’t zing. They’re cute and they sell, but her two big ideas for the season – mini-shifts with enormous puffed sleeves and playsuits – feel limited. And although her trouser suits are notably grown-up, no one over the age of 10 looks anything other than a juvenile offender in a romper, even if it is made out of men’s shirting.

Still, McCartney’s presentation was better than the repetitive and uninspiring show by Loewe. Admittedly it’s tough for a leather house to figure out what to do in the summer, but the 50 (OK, that’s an exaggeration; maybe 15) versions of a white or sunflower print silk mini-dress with bell sleeves and a halter polo neck sent out by designer Jose Enrique Ona Selfa is not the answer. Things picked up a bit when the sunflower print got outlined in bronze beads on cream suede but, one cool pair of trousers aside, it wasn’t enough.

LVMH is clearly attempting to recreate the success it has had with Vuitton, another brand without a clear apparel identity but where a designer has been able to translate an accessories image into clothing that in turn creates enough heat to sell more handbags. The same approach doesn’t work for every brand, however, and in Loewe’s case it might be smarter to try to concentrate on the incredible leather goods – which many outside Spain are still unaware of – and leave the leather gowns alone.

Givenchy, however, is another matter. There a rich fashion heritage has been well and truly squandered by a revolving door of designers including John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Julien Macdonald and now Riccardo Tisci, who in his third ready-to-wear collection for the house produced the most tortuous, inexplicable work of the week.

Skirts that became knickers in front (just in case you like that oops-got-my-dress-stuck-in-my-pants post-bathroom look); ikat print shifts with folds of extra fabric on the thighs that were then drawn in to hobble the knees; skirts and jackets bristling with bathroom matt fringe; long johns/harem pants; and dresses strangled by nautical twine added up to – what? Well, the unavoidable conclusion that if you give a designer enough rope, he’ll hang himself.

But here’s the thing: if the designer has his own rope – if he’s at the head of his own company, responsible for realising his own vision and not forced to produce either extreme collections to make the front pages or boring collections to make a budget – then, judging from two such efforts from Dries van Noten and Hussein Chalayan, the results can be triumphant.

At Van Noten, easy trousers teamed up with sequinned bomber jackets and silken anoraks; sleeveless sac dresses fell in a graceful (read: non-hobbling) arc from bust to below the knee in a watercolour print, two giant blooms outlined in matte sequins; and an iridescent taffeta “parka” was belted tightly over a black sequin skirt to create a peplum. They had both van Noten’s now-familiar dreamy romanticism and the sportswear vibe that is shaping up as a trend for the season, and the two were elegantly, originally, combined.

As it happens, sportswear also popped up at Chalayan, though in a wholly different way. Using the 111 years of his sponsor Swarovksi as a starting point, the designer worked his way through fashion history – but it wasn’t retro. Rather, he used clothes to take the audience on a visual tour of how a designer draws on history and he did it in an ingenious way that managed to combine beautiful, wearable pieces with some of the most extraordinary things seen on a catwalk in many a season.

So two lovely, vaguely flapper chiffon dresses with ruffles extending from the shoulders into the cascade of a picture hat, making it impossible to tell where the garment ended and the accessory began (hint: it didn’t, the two were actually one), gave way to 1940s suiting, where slick trousers were topped by matching slick blouson jackets that hung, natch, from matching broad-brimmed hats. And the suits in turn gave way to a belted silver trench coat cloaked in black chiffon, and then a grouping of mid-century modern pieced chiffon dresses.

It all culminated in a series of five computerised gowns that morphed from one period – long, tiered 1895 over-skirted gown, for example – into another – the tiers getting sucked up to create a calf-length 1910 style, and then hiked up again into a 1920s knee-length shift. Long to short; Victorian coat to open-necked vest; voluminous skirt to mirrored mini; it was all, astonishingly, in there, the gowns controlled via robotics using crystals not only as adornment but as part of the mechanism. The result was a kind of time-lapse history of fashion reminiscent of old speeded-up films of the evolution of man. Just substitute clothing for the apes and you’ll get the idea.

The subject was “the fluidity of time”, said Chalayan, and it was hard to escape the feeling that, if anything fits the definition of what belongs in the new Vuitton Foundation – if anything is both art and fashion – it was those dresses. Dresses conceived and created, it should be noted, by someone who has never been part of any enormous Group. Just another coincidence? You tell me.

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