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What a difference a year makes. Last autumn, the Paris Ready-to-Wear shows opened to a falling stock market and rising clamor from the White House aimed at Iraq. This year, the stock market is slowly rising, and the White House, falling in the polls, is eager to remake Iraq.

But in many ways, the luxury apparel industry is still caught in the crosshairs, caught between a stagnant economy and the fallout from geopolitical tensions, caught between uneven sales figures and faltering consumer confidence. Witness the labels not showing Ready-to-Wear this season in Paris - Lacroix, Kenzo, Balenciaga, and Scherrer (to name but a few) - and you get the sense that all may not be well.

The New York shows, and the Milan shows this fall, exhibited escapism, a collection of images inspired by the colors of an elusive fantasy island, a Shangri La far from desert-khaki and

  balance- sheet-red. Designers juiced up collections with tangerine, key lime, canary yellow and fuchsia, painting over doubt and uncertainty, a little like a used car salesman splashing on a new coat of paint atop an old jalopy, in an attempt to return to simpler, happier times. In the best sense, the spirit of American optimism came shining through the high gloss varnish; in the worst case, thinly veiled commercialism did little to move fashion one step further in a post 9/11 world.

So, the final word was left to Paris, and if Martin Margiela's show staged Monday evening at the Musée de l'Art Moderne is any indication, there is lots yet to be said. As guests milled about in the sprawling museum's white-walled undercroft, they were served young red wine in recycled plastic cups.
  A series of black podiums, shot with huge spots worthy of a Hollywood set, transformed the atmosphere into a made-for-TV reality show. And when it began, almost an hour late, longhaired models with hair pulled down to obscure their faces, were ferried about the labyrinth by male escorts dressed head to toe in black.

The collection was largely an asymmetrical mélange of old parts - men's tuxedo jackets, pin-stripe vests, and satin skirts - reassembled into new creations floating with the lightness of a mobile. New shimmering dresses of black satin were recast with various pieces in appliqué. Occasional black or white chiffon stoles bound around the arms and breasts creating a neatly tucked body wrap. Sequined necklaces and armbands brought sparkle to the otherwise flat finish.

In a reversal of thought, the color scheme held firmly to graphic black and white, with only dashes of subtle colors like pale sky blue, dark chocolate or oyster-gray used sparingly.

Martin Margiela's work exhibits a childlike simplicity, an innate ability to create pop art without a script. One recalls 1950s star and cult figure James Dean, who strung together chicken bones leftover from dinner and came up with a piece of delicately floating artwork. When complimented on his achievement, his response was right to the point: "What's a mobile?"