In his final ready-to-wear show, Italian couturier Valentino Garavani drew on his most iconic looks: red gowns, white lace and elegant bows.

“It seemed without a doubt to be a collection of his greatest hits," said Robert Burke, an independent luxury goods consultant in New York, who was at the Valentino show in Paris earlier this month./Content/Videos/2007-10-19/SS201007_Style.flv6f7e4a64-7d4e-11dc-95d4-000b5dabf636.flv

Fashion watchers come here seeking the newest, most avant-garde looks of the season, after the more commercial slant on the runways of Milan and New York. But this year, anniversaries and a high profile retirement steeped the French capital in nostalgia. Numerous brands paid tribute to their past with runway looks that heralded days of yore.

Earlier this month, Dior fêted its 60th birthday by channelling one of the label’s most famous clients, Marlene Dietrich. Christian Lacroix marked 20 years of his house with more of his quintessential flower prints in bold colours. Garavani, who will retire after his haute couture show in January, basked in the media spotlight after nearly a half century in fashion.

Looking to the past has a business objective. Established fashion houses are touting their histories as a way to distinguish themselves from flashy new brands that are entering the market amid the luxury goods industry’s recent boom. But a trip down memory lane can become a risky detour for brands competing in an industry fuelled by constantly changing trends.

“You’ve got to be careful, because you want to always be seen as going forward, not looking backward, in this industry," says Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer of Saks Fifth Avenue. “I don’t think our customers really care if somebody’s been doing it for a lot of years. They just want what they see in the store now."

Young designers who take the reins of established fashion houses are often under pressure not to wander too far from the signature styles established by the brands’ founders. Frida Giannini at Gucci, for example, has stuck close to the brand’s archive of designs, reviving the label’s popular Flora print, created for Grace Kelly.

The balancing act between past and present has become all the more delicate as brands seek to ensure that their business can outlive the comings and goings of creative talent. That is a dilemma Valentino will face next spring, when newly tapped designer Alessandra Facchinetti steps into Garavani’s shoes. Italian label Gianfranco Ferré will also have a new designer, Swedish-born Lars Nilsson, to interpret its founder’s angular looks.

Some designers, however, have begun to openly protest the reverence brands have for their past. In an interview after a fashion show for his namesake label, Karl Lagerfeld bemoaned what he called “the fashion of remembering fashion". Although Lagerfeld has struggled to find a commercial following for his namesake brand, he is credited with rejuvenating French fashion house Chanel during his 25 years as the brand’s designer. Despite that success, Lagerfeld sees no reason to commemorate his tenure: “There was never any celebration. There will never be any. I hate it."

A few designers have managed to score points with retailers for their ability to bring a fresh dose of creativity to storied brands. Although Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquière draws on a house with decades of history, fashion directors regard him as one of the industry’s most innovative designers for his groundbreaking use of advanced fabrics and rigid silhouettes.

In his recent show, he cut padded fabrics into bulging jackets, recalling the cocoon shape that made the label famous decades ago. “It was part of the archive interpreted in Nicolas’ way," says Ken Downing, fashion director for Neiman Marcus, swooning over the collection’s flower patterns.

At Dior, however, celebrations surrounding the house’s 60th anniversary this year have had a sobering effect on the provocative designs of John Galliano. The designer, who once updated Dior’s look with leather biker jackets and chunky boots, paid homage to the house in July with a couture collection inspired by the artworks of Picasso and Monet. At the start of the month, he sent a ready-to-wear line down the runway that evoked the Jazz era, with designs including a blood orange embroidered silk flapper dress and a narrow black pinstripe suit. Preparing for the anniversary inspired Galliano, says Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano.

In his runway show, Garavani capped off nearly a half century in the business with gowns for the red carpet—a style that has given the Italian designer some of his greatest success. As in the past, nearly all the outfits were dresses, many with polka dots or ruffles. A white empire waist dress recalled Garavani’s legendary all white collection from 1968.

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