Fashion: Made-to-measure fantasies

Haute couture is the ultimate extravagance, showing off the skills of the designer even in the more understated creations
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It would not be unreasonable to use Alexander McQueen's collection for Givenchy, shown in Paris this week, as a metaphor - albeit an unwitting one on the part of the designer - for haute couture as a whole.

While the ready-to-wear collections in London, Paris, New York and Milan are all about creating a cohesive look and dictating mass-market trends, couture concerns itself only with the crafting of individual pieces. Even the most seemingly minimal garment is worked on for hours, often days, showing off not only the creative abilities of its designer but also the exquisite skills of the atelier as a whole.

McQueen's concept for Givenchy, then, was apposite: an imaginary turn- of-the-century French village inhabited by, among others, "the banker", "the vintner", "the debutante", "the nun" and "the maid" - all dressed in their own, often highly idiosyncratic, way.

First came "the librarian", in strictly tailored little dress - a Givenchy staple by now. Next was the fantasy "schoolmistress", in hour-glass skirt- suit, with four winsome schoolchildren dutifully in tow. The "ribbon-maker", sporting no fewer than 1000 metres of rainbow-coloured latticework, showed off the remarkable skills of the Givenchy atelier to the full, as did the finest lace and Chinese embroidery on jacket collars and cuffs.

Now, in his fifth season at Givenchy, McQueen has managed to create a distinct identity for the company which is, rather cleverly, very different from that of his signature label. He is, after all, catering to the whims of an entirely different client. In place of raw, often subversive energy, a more gentle, playful spirit has come to the fore. Biker leathers worn under a corseted cassock of a wedding dress were a cute play on tradition, however. And how about an haute couture hooker, her leather skirt so short that stocking tops and suspenders were on display?

Donatella Versace, like McQueen, is clearly busy carving out her own identity as opposed to simply following in the footsteps of her late brother Gianni. While she has maintained the fluid glamour - the liquid chainmail, the acres of leather and lace - that was his signature until now, this show saw a move towards a hard-edged aesthetic more reminiscent, some may say, of her brother's work back in the Eighties.

The show was strongest where the designer stuck to what the house does best: leather trouser-suits (and one in inky-black sequins) with the high-octane glamour the client has come to expect from the label. A-line dresses, however, embellished with needles in gleaming metal, glass and wood, seemed more derivative.

Ms Versace has said that her interest lies primarily in the field of fabric development - who else would send out a jacket crafted in stingray- skin, if you please? This alone makes her a designer set to take haute couture into the 21st century.

The mighty Yves Saint Laurent, who closes the proceedings later today, has, even before showing, more than made his mark on other people's runways - most notably those of Jean Paul Gaultier and (less so) John Galliano. In both cases this seemed more like a timely tribute than unscrupulous plagiarism.

Mr Saint Laurent retired from ready-to-wear last October, and it is Gaultier who is rumoured eventually to take over the couture arm of the label. To this end, the Gaultier show seemed almost like a job application; suffice it to say that the powers that be at Saint Laurent will be suitably impressed. Gaultier cuts one of the finest trouser-suits in the business - they looked great in navy crepe, neatly slashed at the shoulder, or plain black, with legs going on for ever. An African theme running through the show was, equally, clearly inspired by Saint Laurent: a wisp of a dress suspended from antique metal collars; another from a gleaming breast-plate. There was great wit to this collection, too. Gaultier is, after all, a man fast establishing a reputation for modernising haute couture. A stone- washed denim evening dress trimmed with dyed-to-match ostrich plumes brought a smile to even the most silicone-impregnated lips, as did a trouser-suit labelled "the eternal triangle"; the crotch was cut away to reveal black bikini bottoms (triangular) beneath.

The haute couture collections found John Galliano in surrealist mood. At his show for Christian Dior there were jewel-encrusted fastenings shaped like oversized eyes, with clock faces for irises; suits with jackets worn back to front; lobsters in place of handbags; even a Magritte lookalike escorting a model to her pedestal centre-stage.

John Galliano, too, looked to Saint Laurent for inspiration. His silhouette was more fluid than Gaultier's, but as long, lean and sinuous as even the most discerning couture customer could wish. This was a landmark collection on the part of this younger but equally influential designer: a return to past, brilliant form. This time, there were happily as many tailored garments in the show as there were bias-cut dresses - Galliano is justly famous for both, though for the past couple of seasons fashion commentators could have been forgiven for forgetting that.

Galliano's interpretation of le smoking was heart-stoppingly beautiful, cut back to front and as lovely (oh, blasphemy), if not more so, than the the original that inspired it. Equally gorgeous were black-and-white evening dresses embroidered in the spirit of Jean Cocteau, and a wedding dress with an overblown skirt in Cellophane and tulle that looked like the delicate underside of the world's largest, most immaculate mushroom: Mother Nature was not even a contender.

Galliano has been criticised recently for sacrificing clothing to spectacle, as well as for relying too heavily on fashion history for inspiration. In a brave move, he took his collection back to the intimate Dior salon, showing (as has Saint Laurent in recent years) to an audience of no more than 60 at a time. If anyone ever doubted that he is a master of his craft, this show proved it.

With millennium fever (yawn) reaching a peak, it would be easy to forget that there is a trusty couture client who prefers not to wear her wealth - or the whims of a designer - quite so blatantly on her sleeve. She is a traditional soul, more comfortable with discreet luxury than with in-your-face ideas. To this end, Valentino didn't disappoint. The Italian designer presides over the largest atelier in the world and this season, as always, the intricacy of craftsmanship was second to none. Ivory skirt- suits with hidden fastenings were embroidered at the waist in the same cool colour; blink and you might have missed it. Little black cocktail dresses with dropped waists seemed simple, only revealing a panel of exquisitely beaded flowers from behind. Another, in beige, was embellished with barely noticeable shell-pink roses.

Emanuel Ungaro has never been a designer for shrinking violets, but these days his work is far more subtle. Gone are the virulent colours, the colliding prints, in favour of a more muted aesthetic. For spring/ summer 1999 the designer went for an ethnic look: sari tops, peasant blouses and full or tiered long skirts. It is all too easy to dismiss designers such as this one as failing to push fashion forward. But to do so would be to ignore an ever-increasing client base, not to mention one that suggests there is more to couture than simply creating an image and selling scent.

Karl Lagerfeld can do little wrong these days. Chanel haute couture stands alone, inasmuch as it is respected not only by the avant garde, but also by its more traditionally minded customer. This season was no exception. Tweedy signature Chanel jackets were narrow but relaxed - more like cardigans, and best worn with wide-legged pants. Colours were the finest of the couture season: dusty rose, primrose, violet and fern. The best thing about the collection was its supreme subtlety: a long-line cardigan was constructed entirely from beads; sequins were opalescent as opposed to dazzling, like fish-skin. Eveningwear came in the form of immaculate column dresses, worn in layers, or - in a Manon des Sources moment - fitted bodices and low-slung, asymmetrically draped, overblown skirts. As I left the show, models mingling all around, I felt two hands on my shoulders. I turned to find Mr Lagerfeld himself behind me.

Touched by the hand of God, in fashion circles, at least.