"It's a big mix—a street mix, with symbols and colors that are very multicultural," said Nicolas Ghesquière at the Balenciaga rehearsal an hour before the show. Then Led Zeppelin kerranged on the sound track, the girls started loping by, and he grinned, "It's like in your room, on campus. It's about how girls become themselves." In other words, this was Balenciaga brought back to the realm of the casual and young, but still just as layered, complex, and resonant as any Ghesquière projection into sci-fi.

Well, what does that mean? Practically speaking, clothes to wear—as simple as a tight little peak-shoulder jacket, a pair of narrow jodhpur-ish pants, a college-girl scarf wound up high, and killer athletic-techno sandals (some colored as brightly as Legos). Or, as the alternative choice, a mixed-print patchwork dress. As a look, it all hung together with a clarity that doesn't take a master's degree to understand. Still, there was enough to study in there to make a complete thesis on Ghesquière's ability to relate what he's doing to his past body of work and then to add to it, bit by bit, without ever saying the same thing twice.

Using multiethnic fabric references—Eastern European folk embroideries, ikat, kimono, and African, Peruvian, Mongolian, and Balinese patterns—is a tricky business if you want to articulate something cool that hasn't been done by everyone else. But Ghesquière has his own conceptual compass—it was set when he used a Palestinian scarf in one of his early collections, and it turned up this time in a different print, elaborated with gold fringe, as a takeoff point for the fluttery multipieced dresses, as well as the sculpted peplum jackets at the end of the show. As a counterbalance, there were all the traditional Western roots in the jackets: English men's tailoring in green velvet smoking-jacket tail coats, Tyrolean boiled wool dyed magenta, boating-blazer stripes, and, lastly, bouclé tweeds of the sort associated with Chanel (though Ghesquière notes that Balenciaga was neck and neck with Coco on that).

Suffice to say, it is a major achievement to make all of that coherent while also producing a collection that isn't overly prescriptive, locked into a head-to-toe look. When all's said, the real cleverness of this show wasn't even in its impressive levels of intellect or craft: It's in the fact that so many women will be able to reach in, grab a jacket or a towering pair of Balenciaga heels, and make them work with whatever else they own.