The clothes themselves are hand-cut, beaded, feathered, embroidered, then over-embroidered by the world's most skilled craftspeople using the finest materials. A single piece can take weeks, even months, to execute, costing many thousands of pounds. Once the designer and the petits mains (French for little hands, the sweetly archaic phrase used to describe those who staff the ateliers) who have worked on each outfit are satisfied with the results, every piece is fitted to an individual model. For the most part, models wear only a single outfit at each show. It can take hours to dress just one girl - and undress her again. Unlike ready-to- wear fashion, haute couture is rarely dictated to by trends: the aim is to perfect every outfit in its own right.
The terms "haute couture" and "couture creation" are protected by law: only companies on a directory at the French Ministry of Industry can use them. This is because couture was introduced to protect designers from the invention of the sewing machine and the introduction of mass-manufactured copies of their work. The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, the body introduced to regulate the craft, dictates that each house employs a minimum of 20 people in its atelier, and must present at least 50 designs at each of the twice-yearly collections. Over the past 20 years the Chambre Syndicale has loosened these requirements to allow eight other designers on to the show schedule, including Atelier Versace, Gaultier Paris and Thierry Mugler.
Viktor & Rolf
New kids on the block, Dutch duo Viktor (Horsting) & Rolf (Snoeren) may not preside over a fashion house in the traditional sense, but they have won the heart of fashion's avant-garde by coming up with ever-more extraordinary - if outlandish - ideas. Last season part of their show took place entirely in the dark. This time they used only one model, the diminutive Maggie Rizer, piling exquisitely crafted garments on to her slender frame, one atop the other, in full view of the audience. Make no mistake though, the duo has a cult following that actually buys its clothes.
They say the streets of London are paved with gold: at the Paris couture, models faces and bodies are often smothered with the stuff. Elsewhere, extreme make-up at the autumn/winter collections included ebony masks over the eyes and henna stencilled on to face and body (Dior) and pearlised faces as opalescent as moonstones (Mugler). But make-up was more classic than it has been: from nude (Viktor & Rolf) to traditionally glamorous (Yves Saint Laurent).
Jean Louis Scherrer
However extreme the designs may often be at the couture shows, most of them are clearly designed to be worn. But that is not always the case - the item pictured here can safely be described as a show piece. Jean Louis Scherrer would not expect such items to actually be sold. Instead, the designer will create these pieces to illustrate the theme of the collection, catch photographers' lenses and make into the following day's papers.
The coolest hair at the collections came down Chanel's catwalk: think King's Road circa 1978, but more delicately executed. Usually, designers find a winning formula and stick with it. Odile Gilbert is the woman responsible for hair at Chanel, and Guido is famously the man with the scissors at Givenchy. This season he was out of operation: Givenchy chose to use mannequins with gleaming glass heads.
Jean Paul Gaultier
If couture is all about detail, Jean Paul Gaultier's trompe-l'oeil tights, beautifully embroidered to look like stockings and suspenders, are perhaps the finest example you could imagine. As always with Gaultier, they were treated, in a thoroughly modern manner, although the model's full-length coat is lined with mink - which animal lovers will perceive as an unfortunate twist.
The entrance to the catwalk was swathed in gauzy fabrics trimmed with signature lace - Emanuel Ungaro's extravagant reference to the bridal veil. At the more traditional shows, the bride still emerges at the end of the proceedings either with, or without, the designer at her side. A romantic gesture? Most certainly. But it's also one of haute couture's few commercial concerns. The couture clients of the future - the daughters of those clients who are investing in these clothes
now - will, in many cases, choose to have their wedding dresses made by their mother's favourite designer.
This vision of women (Morticia Addams lives) may not suit more emancipated tastes. Skin like ivory contrasts with a dress in inky velvet. Jet-trim crafted into stalactites finishes cuffs, neckline, fingers and ear lobes. The finishing to this outfit is simpler than most however. For complex beading or embroidery, clothing is sent to the experts. The most notable is the Maison Lesage, founded in 1922 by maitre brodeur, Albert Lesage, and his son, Francois, who have catered to everyone from Coco Chanel to Elsa Schiaperelli (who often designed her collections to set off such sumptuous work).
Haute couture doesn't need everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it, though designers often can't resist some decoration. This column dress may be the plainest ever on the haute couture catwalk: yet it is hand-cut and sewn and will be fitted specifically to the client. It's notoriously hard to research the price of couture garments: the houses say it would be indiscreet to reveal what their clients will pay. The Chambre Syndicale says that a piece should cost 60,000 to 120,000FF (around pounds 6,000 to pounds 12,000): but it is safe to assume that some items will cost more than that.
At the haute couture collections, all that glitters may well actually be gold - but it's more likely to be brightest silver on futuristic designer Paco Rabanne's catwalk. Rabanne shocked the fashion establishment when he was starting out back in the Sixties by crafting metal dresses with pliers rather than the more traditional fabric and needle and thread. His signature chainmail may look as light as a feather when it's being modelled by the world's most professional mannequins but they are, in fact, so heavy they would be difficult for mere mortals to walk in.
Here the women resemble nothing more than the loveliest flower fairies. Monsieur Lacroix, a southern Frenchman, and one of fashion's greatest colourists, was responsible for a resurgence of interest in haute couture in the mid-Eighties. Then at Jean Patou, his collections - inspired by the bohemians and aesthetes of pre-war Paris - gave a much-needed antidote to monochrome power dressing. The designer opened his own house in 1987 and remains true to his signature style: a fearless confusion of fabric, colour and surface decoration.
The running order on the wall means that dressers know which girl to dress in which outfit and when to send each model out on to the catwalk. Things are rarely this calm backstage at the couture, or indeed at the ready-to-wear collections, where chaos (albeit organised) reigns. That said, the haute couture is generally rather more civilised than the ready- to-wear. There are a maximum of six shows a day (at the ready-to-wear there can be 12) and shows start no earlier than 9.30am - so clients can get there without having to get up too early - and finish no later than 9pm, just in time for dinner. n