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(ART ADV: Photos XNYT7-13 are being sent to NYT photo clients. Nonsubscribers can purchase one-time rights by calling: 1-888-603-1036 or 1-888-346-9867.)

c.2012 New York Times News Service

Is it fair to ask, in the blur of fashion shows, if something can be new?

Designers make that claim every season, backed by the industry's tastemakers editors, photographers, stylists, bloggers and we usually take it for granted that a hot look or an exciting look is in fact a new look. Also, fashion has so many star players, with their own machinery and fan base, who is really an authority?

But it is a question that should be asked, and by the hardest, most self-demanding individuals.

Throughout his career, Raf Simons has given himself tough challenges. To be a fashion designer was the first, since he trained and worked in industrial design. Influenced by Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela, he established the skinny suit as the dominant menswear silhouette of the late '90s. Then, virtually unknown to the women's side of the business, he took on Jil Sander, and helped expand the language of minimalism in the post-'90s era.

But, as he said before his first Dior ready-to-wear show on Friday, "the perception of minimalism hasn't changed a great deal." With the exception of minimalism's practitioners, like Narciso Rodriguez, the designers this season giving their clothes a minimalist cleanup might be doing interesting things, but they are not really opening our eyes to what's possible with a minimalist form, if it even can be called that.

Simons' Dior show was a fantastic treat because he knew what he wanted to achieve and he did it with precision. He essentially continued with the styles of his July couture show, but he gave more attention to a Dior day look something that the house, unlike its rival Chanel, has fumble with. In doing so, Simons supplied Dior with the clearest road map for ready-to-wear it has had in years.

He zeroed in the Bar jacket, a shapely bit of tailoring that Christian Dior first created for full, postwar skirts. Simons skipped the skirts, as if to say, "Why bother?" The jacket alone says a lot. He also worked with some of Dior's other archival silhouettes, like the "A'' line and the "H'' line, but the upshot was an extraordinarily innovative series of jackets and mini coatdresses in black, cream and gray wool with subtly different shapes. Some were sharply classic and sensuous, with a small waist and bell curve over the hips; others had a gentle swing to the hem. Still another had tiny pleats worked into the hem.

Within a fairly narrow framework of tailoring, there was enormous variety, personality and freedom to choose. A jacket could be worn alone, as a sexy minidress, or with trousers or a skirt.

''Sex and freedom are two words that are taboo in minimalism," Simons said. Some minimalists might disagree with that view, but his point is taken.

In both color and shape, the evening clothes moved freely around the minimalist conventions without actually leaving them. There were lovely, spare silk tunics (worn with black shorts) with a contrasting color on a drifting panel. A strapless minidress consisted of wide satin stripes with a top shell of iridescent multicolor stripes blowing away from the model as she walked. The colors were improbable pink with deep brown, mint, yellow, radiant blue and just right.

Afterward, a European editor remarked, "It's a modern approach to dressing," adding, "And it didn't look cheap." Although almost no one admits it publicly, a lot of high-end fashion looks cheap, in lurid design as well as make. Simons' quality was as clear as glass. His shoes, though, need more work. Some of the models were struggling.

Before the start of the Lanvin show on Thursday night, people made quite a to-do about the raised catwalk Alber Elbaz installed in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Was it a statement? A riposte to Dior and Saint Laurent, where Elbaz once designed womenswear? Then again, maybe a high platform just made sense. The Beaux-Arts is a pretty lofty place.

With editors sounding like covert operatives because of the buzz around Dior and Hedi Slimane's show for Saint Laurent, on Monday, it's hard to accept things for what they are. Hussein Chalayan, for instance, designed a lovely collection, full of elegant silhouettes he makes gaucho pants look cool and lively uses of color. White shifts and jackets had what looked like a smear of neon, like a refracted patch of light, while a soft hoodie came with neon mesh sleeves.

If you step back from the tuxedos and satin halter dresses that Elbaz showed, you see, I think, a visual history of Paris glamour since the '60s: the Helmut Newton versions of YSL's pantsuits, the bourgeois ladies, the girls in their deep-V mini-shifts. Nothing was literal, no more than a sleek side-tied black satin dress, worn with little gold sandals, is an Asian style.

Elbaz skillfully deconstructed everything. Some beaded looks left me cold. Well, he included them for variety, but the muscular Lanvin tailoring was far more compelling.

Roland Mouret's clubhouse-green and Nehi-orange suits and dresses, sharpened with white, were a nice smack of spring. Just about everything was done very well.

Ann Demeulemeester's silhouette seemed '60s-haunted, despite the long smoke trails of chiffon. Underneath it all were cool, vented jackets and lean dresses.