back and watch the world's loveliest creations go by. After all, they figured, no one in their right mind would pay tens of thousands of pounds for a single garment. Today there are still only an estimated 2,000 customers for these exquisite made-to-measure clothes, but haute couture has a huge audience - and is covered in style magazines such as Dazed & Confused and i-D, as well as almost every national newspaper.
The main reason for this sea-change was the appointment of John Galliano as couturier to the house of Givenchy, and then, a year later, to Christian Dior; Alexander McQueen replaced him at Givenchy. It was a great publicity coup on the part of LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Moet Hennessy), the largest designer fashion conglomerate and parent company to both houses.
With international interest revived, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was spurred into action. It loosened its restrictions and invited Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler on to the official schedule. The idea, it was said, was to take haute couture into the 21st century by employing the skills of the world's brightest young designers.
The Syndicat de la Couture Parisienne (it later became the Chambre Syndicale) was a union of dress designers set up in 1868 to prevent plagiarism. The Syndicat formalised the requirements of haute couture, insisting that a house show a certain number of garments, employ a certain number of craftspeople and that every element of a dress must be worked on by hand (the sewing machine had just been invented). Clothes would be copied, of course, but they would be nowhere near as refined as the originals.
Two world wars later, however, such elitist concerns were considered outdated. By the mid-Fifties many houses had closed - the number of couture customers fell from around 40,000 to the very few there are today - and made way for less expensive ready-to-wear lines. Haute couture, far from being recognised as the precious loss leader it is today, was seen as an unnecessary indulgence.
It's a shrewd marketing move, undoubtedly, and, in the end, a happy thing for designers and those who see their work, because haute couture is as sophisticated and inspired as fashion can be. The Paris ateliers boast the most talented craftspeople in the world, specialists trained in everything from beading and embroidery to buttons and gloves. Team their skills with young, unbridled creativity and you have the stuff that sartorial dreams are made of.
This page: Racing Car Driver silver dress with printed flowers and grey leather belt. Haute Couture Givenchy by Alexander McQueen, enquiries 00 331 4431 5000. Grey leather hat by Philip Treacy for Givenchy
Facing page: back-to-front double-breasted black and white Prince of Wales plaid suit. Christian Dior Couture,
enquiries 00 331 4073 5444
This page: black and white silk gazar dress with ruffle sleeve. Viktor and Rolf Couture, enquiries 00 331 4233 9305
Right: L'ecume de jour, long denim dress with ostrich-feather trim. Gaultier Paris, enquiries 00 331 4297 4812