The room was all white, with every pillar deeply garlanded in giant paper flowers, tables covered with laser-cut paper cloths, and the staircase laden with yet more cutout roses and camellias. As the girls started to descend in pristine, precision-cut silhouettes, heads decorated with exquisite paper-flower tiara constructions, it was clear this was going to be a Chanel moment to treasure.

In splendid defiance of the darkness of the time, Karl Lagerfeld said he'd cleared everything away and "started with a clean sheet of paper." An all-white collection sounds like an exercise in clinical minimalism, but it wasn't. It was rather like an uplifting rite of spring, perfectly pitched between graphic modernism, ravishing romance, and astonishingly innovative detail.

From a distance, the collection was disciplined into simple planes, the silhouettes cut in an A-line tapering upward to meet cropped jackets with flat, squared-off shoulders and standaway collars. Close up, though, the minutiae became mind-spinning. The classic Chanel braid was minimized to millimeters of handwoven fluff and the embroidered flowers modernized in weightless 3-D montages of organza and cellophane. The paillettes were microdots of matte plastic, and the lace shivered with tiny crystalline beads.

Key to the show's success was the involvement of Kamo, a Japanese hairdresser and Lagerfeld discovery whose team scored and scissored out—while sitting on the floor of a Chanel backroom—the incredible constructs of paper roses, camellias, leaf fronds, and feathers that adorned each girl. Photos of elaborate eighteenth-century white porcelain figures pinned to the studio wall were another source of inspiration. But research can only take you so far: The real genius is in the transformation that takes place in the making, a result of the Chanel workers' ability to push their craft to points of innovation never quite seen before. That, and Lagerfeld's deft tempering of extravagance with a sense of freshness and restraint, made this fragile collection one of the strongest arguments for the value of haute couture in the whole of Paris.