The backdrop to the Lanvin show was a weeping willow. "Everyone needs a tree," said an unusually low-key, flu-touched Alber Elbaz. "Branches, roots. We're getting right back to the roots of tradition." There were some of his own roots in the collection's echoes of his master, Geoffrey Beene. The New York couturier had always warned his protégé about the dangers of gazar. "So difficult," Elbaz sighed as he talked about the endless problems involved in working with one of fashion's most mystique-laden fabrics. That difficulty was captured in pieces that were sheer but somewhat stiff—alluringly so.

Their austerity spilled over into the rest of the collection, at least as it initially presented itself. Elbaz went atypically dark. Maybe it was that southern gothic tree, maybe the wide-brimmed preacher-proper headgear with its irresistible echoes of The Night of the Hunter, or the brilliantly mixed soundtrack by Ariel Wizman that plunged into moments of sonic darkness. Elbaz at first opted for plain, grounded, coated and caped looks, with pilgrim shoes and church-lady handbags as perfectly appropriate accessories. Metal trims were a suitably austere detail. But the severity begged for release. And the designer teased, first with metallic jewelry, then with textures, severe but sensual drapes, black lace, knit sheaths disordered by poufs of mousseline, and roses. It was positively Freudian the way Elbaz built desire into his clothes, especially with the simplest nip and tuck of fabric. Or zippers, like the one running down the back of a python tunic.

When release finally arrived, it was in the form of ten or so densely toned, couture-inflected confections. They gathered like strange, exotic fruit under the willow at show's end. Elbaz always insists on the reality of his clothes, but a burst of Twin Peaks on the soundtrack of this intriguing show might have been telling us that reality is whatever you make it. Like, for instance, the creative arc that runs from preacher man to party girl.