Last time around, Alber Elbaz's fierce, streamlined, high-platformed collection raced ahead of the season, igniting a lady-versus-power-woman debate that has only just burst into flame on other runways. For fall, Elbaz turned away from that thought to engage in a less obviously agenda-setting round of small talk: the conversation about the legacies of midcentury haute couture houses that is currently mesmerizing many Parisian designers.

Thus, the collection picked up Christian Dior's New Look (hip-padding), Cristobal Balenciaga's volumes (flounced tent dresses and swing-back coats), Elsa Schiaparelli's surrealism (illusion effects), and Saint Laurent's pantsuits (tuxedo dressing). That set Elbaz up for a challenge: how to modernize those shapes, and how to meld them into the empathetic, wardrobe-building style that has been his personal gift to the modern Lanvin woman.

When he concentrated on easy-to-wear party dresses, Elbaz was on home territory. His ballerina-like numbers of draped tulle on nude backgrounds, a black silhouette with an inverted triangle for a top and a full skirt below, and slim black dresses with bright satin folds inserted into the front were all in that lovely vein. Elbaz's inventive jewelry—big neckpieces made from crystal and gem-set teardrops of jersey—also put him in a category of his own.

Elsewhere, though, the designer's more-intellectual experiments with form could end up leading him into an uncharacteristic collision with women's sensitivities. Those who dress to avoid broadness of beam and kindly inquiries of "When's it due?" may not leap to invest in molded, stand-out hips or dresses that swing (out, and out again) from the shoulder. Still, this collection held out a lot that was less assertively "fashion"-conscious—like the smoking looks and some great coats. These constitute the kind of personal, under-the-radar chic that makes women rave about Elbaz, even when he's not in ground-breaking mode.