Fashion & Style: Dressed for excess

Couture clients are the world's most demanding shoppers. Susie Rushton finds plenty to please them in the Paris shows

I played a little game, at the haute couture shows last week. Every time another amazing, eye-popping confection swerved past me along the catwalk, I tried to imagine in what possible context that dress (for it almost always was a dress, and not a practical pair of cropped trousers) might be worn in real, as in non-catwalk, life (or whatever gilded existence passes for real life if you're a couture client.) At a time when a big question-mark is hanging over the future of fashion's most hallowed craft - with a Paris haute couture "week" of just three days and featuring just six big names - wearability seems as good a measure as any.

My game, in fact, proved quite a challenge. At catwalk shows - and at haute couture shows in particular - the whole aim of the proceedings is to whip spectators into a frenzy of sheer fashion-for-fashion's sake hysteria. In ready- to-wear fashion, the clothes you see in a store are invariably taken from a "selling" collection.

At an haute couture show, decadence is just about the whole point. Nevertheless, there's something about the idea of a gown, painstakingly fitted and adapted to a client's every curve, which suggests that, couture isn't an impulse buy. And there's no "selling" collection - it's up to each client what they want to alter.

The women who have the means and desire to invest in, say, a hand-made Chanel haute-couture wool boucle suit - this season gossamer-light, with a full skirt and a soft jacket with bracelet sleeves - probably don't intend to leave their purchase lingering, unworn, at the back of their wardrobe. Couture is a major investment and clients want to wear it, whether on a red carpet, at a deb ball or at their nuptuals with a bewigged billionaire.

"Today the ladies don't only buy couture," noted Didier Grumbach, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, on the eve of spring/summer 2005 couture week. "They are episodic or occasional clients, for one or two events in their life."

So although a function of haute couture is to burnish the brand image and thus flog numerous tubes of Maximeyes mascara and Hydrabase lipstick, it isn't simply a three-day photo-call advertising French chic. For around 2,000 lucky ladies - the private clients - it's a bona-fide shopping trip.

Karl Lagerfeld, in particular, knows this. His collection for Chanel, although utterly feminine and opulent, had a modernity in the swing of a drop-waisted tulle dress and ease in the aforementioned wool boucle suits, this time around offered in ever-intensifying shades of pink. Taking his inspiration from formal French gardens, fine porcelain and 18th-century court life, this was a deliberately mannered offering. However, his predominantly white or black collection never once descended into pastiche - which is more than can be said for the fountain on his catwalk that spurted water from a double-C logo, or his black box-trees that bloomed white camelias.

Chanel, now the proud owners of the haute couture workshops including Lesage (for embroidery), Lemarie (for feathers) and Massaro (for shoes), are in the best position to flaunt the unique savoir-faire of Parisian workshops. Neon-pink beads, sprinkled like toxic sugar at the edge of a jacket, or the elaborate frothing of Chantilly lace pleats on a black gown, were just two fine examples of the work of the petites-mains. In a sack-backed tweed coat, or a golden brocade dress-cum-cape, Lagerfeld gently inflated volume to a degree that was both dramatic and, yes, wearable. Expect to see much of this collection again in May, when the Park Avenue princesses, dressed head-to-toe in haute couture suiting, pay their respects at the Met's Chanel retrospective.

Valentino, too, knows what his clients want to wear. They want clothes that speak of their life achievements: extreme wealth and extreme thinness. The Roman couturier delivers these rarefied garments with aplomb. A fine ivory-wool coat with a broad collar and stucco-like relief embroideries was particularly lovely, as was a white lace suit appliqued with a black bow. Perfect for a very clean charity do? In fact, Valentino dedicated the theme of his collection to his cosmopolitan, but always ultra-groomed, clients: "Today, the clients come from every corner of the globe," read his programme notes. Thus each of his 37 outfits represented "the most beautiful places in the world", which was a cute idea, except that it revealed that Val likes a terrible pun: Georgia O'Keeffe On My Mind, Sevilla No Bull, and Grecian Yearn were just three of his groan-worthy titles.

Jean Paul Gaultier was also in an itinerant mood, with an African-themed show. He pulled off the (rather worn) reference-point very elegantly, particularly with a long, multicoloured bead-and-passementerie dress. In fact Gaultier's most famous precursor for the tribal look was Yves Saint Laurent, which is fitting seeing as Gaultier has inherited many of the retired designer's clients. Gaultier's ladies can buy a wearable le smoking suit - for spring, his jacket is double-breasted with a low decolletage - while his Hollywood following(Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman) might opt for a fantastical gown crafted from earthy-coloured chiffon and trimmed with raffia or Spanish-style ruffles. His salon-style presentation had models weaving their way around Gaultier HQ - a former theatre - pausing on podiums before ranks of gilt chairs. A girl in a Carribbean-style chiffon gown decorated with a repeat print of African tribesman carried a delicate matching parasol in the same fabric, and my hitherto amusing "where am I worn?" game floundered. Sometimes at haute couture it's better just to look on, agog.

Far easier to mentally transplant were the dresses on Giorgio Armani's new Paris catwalk. The 70-year-old Italian is couture's new kid on the block, and his new line, Prive, appeared to have just one function: decorating the red carpet. All through this show, a long mermaid-silhouette dominated; however, there was a certain heaviness to Armani's duchesse satin and his black palette, and the real interest came in the myriad different kinds of fine embellishment. Festoons of jet beading, delicate silk flowers and electrifying crystals all provided the requisite decorative-yet-not- overwhelming effect any starlet wants when the flashbulbs start popping.

In an entirely different (dream-) world, Christian Lacroix, his 18-year- old haute couture house at that very moment the subject of a sale by LVMH to an American duty-free group, summoned all his creative powers to present a collection on what was reported to be a very small budget. The inventor of the puffball dress sent out voluminous, candy-coloured frocks that spoke of nothing so serious or conventional as either the red carpet or a formal luncheon. In mauve, then red or saffron, ice-blue and, occasionally, in an explosion of multicolour, Lacroix expertly draped chiffon and lace in fluid folds. These were party dresses for hot-blooded, rich extroverts and well-bred eccentrics: a spirited minority that will sorely miss Lacroix should the Falic Group employ his image alone and not his very real talent.

At Christian Dior, I almost gave up on the wearability game. And not, for once, because John Galliano's designs were too massive to fit into any location apart from his regular show venue, a hangar-like marquee erected in the middle of the Polo de Paris: far from it. The opening sequence of slim, black, woollen body-suits, worn with thick ribbed tights and black boots, were remarkably pared down. It was easy to imagine the black, crocodile, doctors' bags carried by each girl being toted about Kensington. But will these understated double-breasted jackets and black leather skirts, inspired by Edie Sedgwick, appear wearable or indeed desirable to the Dior client, who has learned to expect glamour and fantasy and wow-wow- wow?

This question was left hanging when the show went off on a more theatrical tangent, accompanied by live music from first a string quintet and then a thrash-metal band playing Nico covers (Galliano's show theme was part Andy Warhol and part Napoleonic empire). In reddish embroidered velvet artfully frayed at the edges, short crinoline dresses were a pleasantly demented reference to Empress Josephine; minus the big cavalier hats and suede boots, these were drop-dead crimson frocks for Oscar night. But it was Galliano's closing sequence of 11 white or ivory gowns that hinted at a major source of custom: wedding dresses. Floor-length and empire-line, these elaborate trousseaux built on the recent Melania Knauss publicity coup (she wears her Dior bridal couture on the cover of the current US Vogue), but added an elegant and subversive crinoline swelling right over the belly. Just the thing for a shotgun wedding.

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