With the entire fashion world in flux, style has triumphed over trends as the dominant factor in driving desire.

Fashion, as Coco Chanel said, changes. Style remains. She also noted that elegance is refusal.

Style, in Chanel’s eyes, was a many splendored thing, and one that provided an endless stream of soundbites in creating its definition.

The creation of a style is a house’s particular strength, no more so than in these trying economic times. That collections can vary dramatically from season to season but that clients can still identify a signature style – perhaps through a specific handling of color or the shaping of a sleevehead – bodes well for a house’s cohesive continuity and the establishment of enduring appeal and a loyal fan base.

Style, as vague and imperceptible a quality as it may be, is handled in radically different ways depending on whether the designer is a man or a woman. The disparity in vision can produce strikingly dissimilar opinions of what style is or isn’t depending on how the designer views women and womanhood. Chanel herself often said that her motivation for reopening her house in 1954 was to rally against the male couturiers who were creating tightly-corseted fashions for idealized women. In a time where trends die before they even hit the stores, style has taken on a new importance.

At Chanel, the arrival of Karl Lagerfeld in 1983 was greeted with puzzled reactions. Was he trashing Chanel’s legacy as a liberator, or pushing it into a new direction? In the intervening decade-and-a-half Chanel has become the powerhouse of fashion, and Lagerfeld’s irreverence and showboating haven’t hurt it one bit for behind the publicity-getting and runway fiascos the house style endures based on luxurious construction and the best of fabrics, the limited color palette that always seems just right, and the savoir-faire that to classically-trained Lagerfeld is as undeniable as breathing.

John Galliano’s inroads on the Dior style bear similar fruit. The unimpeded theatricality of the shows gives way to beautiful clothes in the stores, the signature style of Dior – that nipped waist, the sharp jacket, the full skirt, Galliano’s own bias-cut gown addition – is the lodestar of the reinvention of a maison for a new century and a newer clientele.

Miuccia Prada is more often than not regarded as the Coco Chanel of our time. Her hugely influential collections, which have a tendency to pull the rug from other every other unsuspecting trend-follower, never betray women, even if at times they pose many challenging questions. This season’s unabashedly sexy and disheveled – a hard-to-pull-off mix – was expertly handled with the addition of loose bows and python print and chignon hairdos. Her Miu Miu collection took feminine silhouettes and distressed the burlap fabrics. But Prada is smart enough that, whatever the direction, she will always fill her stores with great classics in the Prada vein – the perfect sweater, the pleated skirt, the clunky heel, the glitter of smoky crystal, and black, black, black. Her style, season in, season out, remains remarkably seasonless.

Marni’s style repeatedly changes and yet somehow stays the same. Designer Consuelo Castiglioni, whose company has its roots in fur, reinvented the label as a bohemian closet for smart women who care more about looking and feeling comfortable and individual than about being arm candy. While the heavy input of UK Vogue fashion director Lucinda Chambers the label has off-handedly been at the forefront of fashion for over a decade now, but it mirrors the customer and the world that Belgian designer Dries Van Noten has created in his own unassuming manner over twenty years. Van Noten’s fashion speaks to women in a way that’s champions the personal and covetable, a hard task to pull off as a male designer, but his eye for embroidery and print mixes and simple silhouettes that become building blocks of a woman’s wardrobe make his success a no-brainer.

Jil Sander’s aesthetic created a style that slowly but surely seeped into the female consciousness since she formed her house in the late 1970s. The mantle at that eponymous label has been taken by Belgian designer Raf Simons who has injected equal intellectual rigor and curiosity into the brand to critical and client acclaim, and Ms. Sander herself has suddenly resurfaced on the fashion scene as creative supervisor and potential creative director of a new line for Japanese fast fashion retailer Uniqlo. Her first efforts, which will debut for fall, are being eagerly awaited by a fashion world thirsty for her intelligent take.

Stella McCartney has triumphed over all naysayers with a mini empire that sells clothes that women want to wear. The easy style sells up a storm in tony department stores because McCartney follows the simple maxim of always asking herself the question, “Would I wear this?”

That’s a question that male designers of womenswear can’t ask themselves with much conviction. And yet Alber Elbaz of Lanvin is everyone’s favorite. His soft draping and powerful color sense, allied with exceptional accessories, makes for powerful fashion that can also play a subtle hand. When he took over at Hermès, Jean Paul Gaultier had a style framework to work within. The Hermès legacy is one of the surest in the fickle world of fashion. In fact it has almost nothing to do with fashion, it is above it. Yet Gaultier’s couture hand brought to bear a new energy on the house, elevating white shirts and khaki cotton to unforeseen heights. That ease pulsed through Gaultier’s own-name summer collection where dancers inspired the bodysuits and masterful, sinuously scissored jersey dresses. Ease is not something one associates with Alexander McQueen. His clothes have a hardness and structure that can be overwhelming, but that belies the technique and cut that form them and the details they contain. Whether sci-fi, Amazon or coquette, McQueen’s stock-in-trade is an empowering style that provides an armor against the world.

The US market, which so long was lauded and demonized in equal measure for its friendly sportswear, has found itself in a position of strength as it relies on building empires based on a communicative style. Ralph Lauren’s world owes a debt to Gatsby and to Brideshead, to fictional worlds that may never have existed, but that we all aspire to on some level or other. Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein is building upon that house’s minimalist code, exploring architectural forms and revolutionary fabric treatments. And Donna Karan, the eternal friend to women, continues her exploration of the possibilities of fabric and the female form. For summer charmeuse poured over healthy, tanned bodies, and for next fall her handling of timeless tailoring and draped jersey in a season of gimmicky excess was a triumph of style over substance.

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Hats off to Stephen Jones