Fashion: Couture shock

In the past three years the rarefied world of haute couture has been turned on its head. And illustrator Richard Gray was there to capture the drama
Three years ago, the slumbering world of Parisian haute couture witnessed a chain of momentous events that shook the establishment and walloped it into the future. And here was the rub: it was an Englishman who did the honours.

When John Galliano was appointed design chief of Givenchy, the fashion world knew irrevocable changes were afoot. It was a golden moment for the British press, who positively twitched at the thought of their home- grown talent taking over. The French press bristled, and designers from Hubert de Givenchy to Yves Saint Laurent expressed their concern.

However, far from keeling over, couture had been resurrected. It appeared to shed its cobwebs overnight as the media hyped its new raison d'etre: as a laboratory using an ancient craft to push the boundaries of fashion forward. What happened next prompted more intrigue. After working for just a year at Givenchy, Galliano was given creative control at the creme de la creme of all couture houses, Dior. And who should fill the throne at Givenchy? Only the prince of the British avant-garde, Alexander McQueen.

The French establishment was furious, but in 1997 the country's most irreverent designers stepped in to redress the balance. Jean Paul Gaultier, peeved at missing out on the Dior job, launched his own self-funded couture house, and Thierry Mugler soon followed his lead.

But couture has also lost some of its greatest stars recently. Gianni Versace took his final bow on the world fashion stage at his last couture show in July 1997. And Paco Rabanne, certain of his prediction that the Mir space station would land on, and obliterate, Paris, at 11.22am on 11 August, retired to the country after the most recent couture shows this July.

Richard Gray, the fashion illustrator, was there to capture couture's magic moments. He was commissioned to draw every one of McQueen's 55 outfits for his first Givenchy couture show. "Being so close to these creations, you really appreciate the truly mesmerising art of couture," he says. Gray also illustrates for Anna Piagi, grande dame of Italian Vogue. "She always says, `Do what you want, Richard. But I need it tomorrow.'"

Christian Dior

It was January 1997 and the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of Christian Dior's "New Look", one of fashion history's most talked-about creations. The monolithic task of rejuvenating this venerable house had fallen to John Galliano who, in his first couture show, presented updated versions of Dior, the master's, work, along with his own fantastical creations: Last Emperor Chinese satin- crepe evening dresses and fantasy ballgowns. Galliano received a standing ovation. Givenchy

Alexander McQueen's first couture show, for Givenchy, held in l'Ecole des Beaux Artes in January 1997, had to be produced in just 11 weeks. The all gold and white collection took its inspiration from Greek mythology. High up on a rafter sat the tanned, waxed body of male supermodel Marcus Schenkenberg, replete with Icarus-style wings. Beneath him strode Naomi Campbell in this strapless, corseted dress, made from gold silk.

Paco Rabanne

They might call him Wacko Paco, but he will go down in history as one of the designers who spearheaded the futuristic fashion of the Sixties. Sadly, he will be entertaining us with his space-age creations no longer. His final offering before retiring to the French countryside, in July this year, was a heady mix of fibre-optic dresses, trompe l'oeil effects and of course dresses crafted entirely out of metal - nuts, bolts and all. This satellite dress was one of the collection's finest.

Jean Paul Gaultier

Jean Paul Gaultier launched his own couture label in January 1997 in a gallery in Paris's bohemian quarter, le Marais. In front of an audience which included Elton John, Gaultier poked fun at the elitist nature of couture with his irreverent creations: a denim jacket and jeans (the designer's own cast-offs) had been embroidered by Lesage and transformed into works of art, and a parrot had been stripped of its brightly coloured feathers and stitched into a jacket.

Thierry Mugler

Haute camp was the order of the day for this resolutely Eighties designer, Thierry Mugler, whose first couture collection was presented in July 1997. Models were transformed into insects: beautiful butterflies, or wasps with deadly stings in their tails. Tightly laced corsets were provided by Mr Pearl, Britain's diminutive corset creator, himself a 17-inch-waist man.

Versace

Gianni Versace's last ever couture collection in July 1997 was his signature mix of figure-hugging leather, chainmail and lace, emblazoned - some thought horribly ironically - with large crucifixes. As always, celebrities filled the front row and the man who put the glitz into haute couture way back in the Eighties, received a rapturous response. Less than a month after the show he was shot dead outside his home in South Beach Miami on 15 July. n

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