Fashion: Predictable? Moi?

So you thought the last fashion story of the millennium would be one of minimalism and simplicity? Think again. If it ain't got sequins, studs, embroidery or fur, Paris doesn't want to know.
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The Independent Culture
Say what you will about haute couture, it's nothing if not unpredictable. The autumn/winter collections in Paris this week were the last of the millennium. But just when you thought the concept of hand-cut, stitched, feathered, beaded and embroidered garments costing tens of thousands of pounds and destined for only a handful of privileged customers must surely be derelict, interest in the craft has never seemed greater. You might have thought there must be enough sophisticated man-made fibre in our technologically advanced times to have found an alternative, but the use of rare plumage, animal skins and furs has never been greater.

Here in the French fashion capital, Alexander McQueen, fashion's man of the moment and a designer most likely to lure big-name models, chose simply not to use any. John Galliano, best known for grand-scale spectacle and extravagance, went back to his brilliant, hard-edged roots, which many thought had gone rotten. And Paco Rabanne, most famous for introducing futurism into fashion way back in the Sixties, took his final bow only months before the rest of the world finds out what the future of fashion really holds.

It was a grey day in fashion when Rabanne sent out his last-ever haute couture collection, particularly when it only served to show just how influential a designer he has been. True, there was nothing much new here - but a rainbow-coloured metallic, patchwork maxicoat or bristling, fibre- optic fringe dress is just the thing for the more kooky couture customer to wear to the millennial party. Chainmail mini dresses boasting trompe l'oeil effects were cute, witty and suitably sassy: they looked as of-the-moment now as they did when Rabanne first introduced them.

Rabanne's signature gleaming metal discs were also very much in evidence, strewn across bodices, hemlines and skirts. Something not entirely dissimilar later cropped up on Donatella Versace's catwalk, testimony to the impact of fashion's spaced- out sage on the latter part of the 20th century.

The decision to retire is unlikely to be his own, despite his latest prophecy - he has predicted that Paris will be wiped out at 11.22am on 11 August. Rather less excitingly, the closure of the couture house was a business move: the Spanish fragrance company Piug, which owns Rabanne, clearly feels that the line is a loss leader no longer worth investing in. The same company also owns Nina Ricci, closed down despite protests by the petits mains responsible for crafting the clothes, who took to the streets to express their anger and disappointment this time last year.

Donatella Versace herself took some time to decide whether to continue the haute couture arm of her label following the death of her brother Gianni - she missed one haute couture season altogether while she was making up her mind. The designer wasn't sure that couture was still relevant, she said at the time, or why, in this day and age, clothing needed quite so much careful and expensive attention.

She is now in her fourth season, and there is no other designer, save her brother before her, who turns out couture to suit such a fast-moving and glamorous lifestyle. While last season Donatella seemed to be paying rather too much attention to the work of less established designers, this time her collection was pure, high-octane Versace. There were skintight, studded catsuits, jackets and trousers - the latter, in particular, looked suitably Euro rock-chick, worn with super-skinny T-shirts. Just in case there was any doubt as to where they sprang from, the trademark head of Medusa sparkled across them malevolently.

For evening, there were the requisite liquid long dresses, metallic, then overworked with more precious-metal embellishment and thread. Best of all, was a final sequence in the acid-bright colours that made her late brother so famous. If neon fuchsia and flame looked striking in solid blocks of immaculately cut, dazzling colour, they positively glowed when the designer threw both elements in together for good measure.

More surprises. It was announced last week that Hermes - at one time thought of as the most staid status label of them all - has invested pounds 15m into Jean Paul Gaultier, allowing the former enfant terrible and now rather grand couturier to expand. This was a sound move. Gaultier's couture collection continues to develop in leaps and bounds. The designer has clearly established his signatures: ballgowns, reinvented with knitted tops and/or skirts; inky-black velvet evening wear; long, lean and quintessentially French tailoring, with or without a twist. The clever thing about Gaultier is that his clients, though quite obviously bourgeois, look far less so than those devoted to other, less contemporary couturiers. Couture, above all, is about attention to detail. All too often, this can mean piling everything but the kitchen sink on to a dress which, frankly, in this day and age just looks cluttered. In Gaultier's collection, detail came with his trademark subversive humour: long evening gloves accommodated mobile phones and/or address-book holders; flesh-coloured spike-heeled boots had stocking seams stitched up the back.

Alexander McQueen has a reputation for art-directing the most sensational productions. Not so this season. Instead, the end of the century found this particular designer in quietly contemplative, gently romantic mood. He chose to show his collection on fibreglass models that rose up from beneath the catwalk like ghosts from the past. But although the show was inspired by Delaroche's 19th-century painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey, any historical reference - at present only apposite rather than tiresome - had the designer's modern stamp printed all over it. This came in the form of signature spiky tailoring, swooping cowl necklines and skinny sleeves that liquefied at the wrist, pouring almost to the floor.

After the show, McQueen said that he had not used models because clients might find their extreme youth and slenderness intimidating. "I wanted to give the ladies a blank canvas to work from," he said. "It was all about the clothes."

There was nothing very gentle about John Galliano's autumn/winter collection for Christian Dior. Rather, this season saw a radical move away from the sugar-sweet romanticism and historical reference, and towards very early Galliano. It was great to see. Trenchcoats metamorphosed into elegant walking suits, parkas became twisting skirts. While past collections have employed the crafts people at the Dior atelier to embellish fairytale evening wear, this time round it was barely there. Instead, the work went into the tailoring. It was spellbinding in its complexity, viciously deconstructed then put back together in cobwebs of never-ending seams. The collection was perhaps rather too challenging for the predominantly safe Dior customers - this was Galliano's girl restored to her former glory. Whatever the initial reaction, the collection will no doubt be easily adapted to suit more conservative tastes.

The headwear in this show, however, suited absolutely no taste, bourgeois or otherwise: it was a taxidermist's morbid dream. There were fox pelts, pheasants, rabbits and even a wild boar's head draped over models' fragile forms, setting the entire mink-trimmed audience a-quiver. It cannot have escaped anyone's notice that real fur has appeared on every catwalk this week so far - in haute couture it is always an item. Quite what makes this any different is a mystery, albeit a particularly macabre one.

Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel was a notable exception. His collection continues to show exemplary restraint, the most subtle workmanship and great beauty. This time round, there were neat little day-suits, influenced by the Sixties line but rather more sophisticated. Tweedy shifts, and narrow jackets worn with slightly A- line skirts, were sublime. More mini dresses with long, prettily puffed sleeves and finished in tiny bows were the sweetest of the week so far. Lagerfeld brought forward the fondant-coloured peasant skirt from last season, and it still looks fresh and lovely.

Even the designer's customary take on the best-selling quilted Chanel handbag, making the dress to match the bag rather than vice versa, looked pretty as a picture. The collection fulfilled all the functions of couture: the petit mains were allowed to show off their workmanship; the silhouette and treatment of detail were modern; clothes will suit the loyal Chanel clientele, and images from the show will ensure that sales in lucrative fragrance licences are boosted. Masterful.

Meanwhile, Emanuel Ungaro sent out a heady mix of over-embroidered lace, chiffon and soft tailoring. This is a label that has become more muted - and, yes, an overblown scarlet ballgown teamed with lilac feathered sweater is muted by former Ungaro standards - and looks far better for it. Finally, no surprises at Valentino. The Italian couturier whose sales continue to fund the world's largest atelier will continue to dress ladies who lunch in an effortlessly understated fashion, well into the next millennium. Just so long as they don't eat too many mille-feuille pastries with their tea.