So hip it hurts

How high camp is dragging haute couture into the cool school.
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The Independent Online
As I squeezed my bottom on to the spindly little gilt chair meant for derrieres a good deal bonier than mine last Wednesday, at the couture show of the Roman designer, Valentino, I found myself sitting behind a small, leathery woman with great squiggles of gold nylon tresses running down her bare back.

It was 4.30 in the afternoon and here was Donnatella Versace, sister of Gianni, in a little red lace cocktail number that was more Miami beach nightclub than haute couture. Next to me sat a French madame, with panstick make-up and a huge helmet of hair that must have had a mini construction site inside it. Her thick pelt of fur was a little too close for comfort, but she sat staring straight ahead, ignoring a conversation next to her about a drag act on Blackpool pier.

Over the past week, there have been times when the line between drag and haute couture have been blurred. High kitsch and high glamour inhabit very similar worlds. At two shows at least - those of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler - it was definitely more haute camp. And for anyone who harbours a wicked yen for corset bondagerie, these collections - as well as John Galliano's for Dior, Christian Lacroix, and Alexander McQueen's for Givenchy - were seventh heaven.

Was it possible that Thierry Mugler, the resolutely Eighties designer who presented his first haute couture show, took a perverse pleasure in the fact that his models were throwing up because their severely laced shiny black corsets were so tight? Or that when they were finally released from their stays at the end of a day of fittings, rehearsals and a show, they bore the marks like welts on their skin? Mr Pearl, the British corset- maker who was responsible for the corsets at Mugler, Lacroix, and Dior, is himself working his way down to a 17in waist.

The models who, like Jerry Hall, have been working with Mugler on his ready-to-wear collections for years, are happy to be trussed up by him because they know they will look incredible when they walk down the catwalk. On Wednesday night, they were transformed into a swarm of insects, wasps with sharp and deadly stings, and beautiful butterflies with feathered wings. The clothes themselves were exquisite examples of couture technique, but pure science fiction: the models, with their exaggerated curves, 13in heels and sparkly red lips, were cartoon caricatures come to life, sinister walking, talking Cruella de Vils or Jessica Rabbits after a few sessions with Miss Whiplash. In other words, a drag queen's dream.

What was interesting about Mugler's collection was his combination of modern fabrics, including latex and rubber, with traditional couture techniques, moulded into corsets, and poured like liquid into long, fluid evening gowns encrusted with diamonds and jewels. Earlier in the week, Jean-Paul Gaultier also combined the most non-couture of fabrics with clever craftsmanship in his first couture collection. Never before has a denim jacket and jeans (the designer's own cast-offs) been seen on a couture catwalk. But by the time Gaultier, the couture embroiderer Lessage and his workroom had finished, they were works of art, worthy of the thousands they will cost to buy.

What's more, the pieces are in tune with the times. Martin Margiela, the Belgian avant-garde designer who still maintains a cultish underground following, is not a man you would ever expect to see on the front row of a couture show. Yet it was his enthusiastic clapping that echoed around the silence as the models, both male and female, posed for the cameras. It was a sure sign that couture - or at least the new couture that has an edge of reality and modernity about it - has become hip.

While Galliano's Dior show stole the week, Gaultier's small-scale presentation in a gallery in the Marais was also a triumph. He is famous for his role as presenter on the kitsch Channel 4 show Eurotrash, but he is also a fantastic tailor and a designer with a vivid imagination and a great sense of humour. He poked fun at the whole world of couture with a silver beaded Sloppy Joe, a black latex Skin Two corset dress, fragments of lace glued to the models' necks like tattoos, a black lace-back catsuit with Yves St Laurent in mind, and the finest lace tulle dresses embroidered with holiday souvenir images of the Eiffel Tower worn over a bright orange beaded bikini.

The craft and art of the couturier were shown off perfectly, while the clothes themselves were the sort of thing that those interested in fashion rather than antique historical costume would love to wear. And if you're a man who is used to having his Savile Row suits made to fit like a glove and who secretly longs to own a couture gown, Jean-Paul Gaultier is the designer for youn