The Broader Picture: Haute couture

AT LAST, fetish comes to the ski slopes. Visitors to the small Alpine village of Vars will notice that the place is teeming with brightly coloured rubber-clad not-quite-human beings. This is because Vars is a mecca for speed skiers, who gather here to compete at zooming down near- vertical, ice-covered slopes. Not for the fainthearted, their sport is to plunge off a snowy plateau some 3,000m high. Ideal conditions are no wind and as hard a slope as possible, which must be scraped smooth: the tiniest bump can mean a wipe-out.

Perched on the edge, peering down a gentle incline of about 98 degrees, the skiers bend their knees and are off. The first 200m are when they build up most momentum, accelerating like a Ferrari from 0-125mph in under 10 seconds. At 700m cameras record their speed. After this the slope levels off for a short distance, and the skiers must attempt to slow down and stop.

But really, Vars is all about the fashions. These aerodynamic suits, designed with the help of Formula One experts, are constructed of the thinnest rubber and fit like a second skin, with only a layer of fabric beneath. They are fetchingly combined with moulded Darth Vader helmets and eccentric bendy ski poles. Two people are needed for the dressing process, and it's best to go to the loo first. But in any case the suits should only be worn for an hour at a time, since they are so restrictive that they prevent the skin from breathing. After two outings, they stretch so that they can no longer be used in competition, at which point they will either be taken to the charity shop or become the perfect outfit for a Saturday night down the local torture club.

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