Fashion: No way to treat a lady - On Saturday in Paris, a slap in the face for women. And they couldn't even see it coming. Marion Hume witnesses a crime at Chanel

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A model - no, not a model, a thing, appears from the wings. It teeters in Shirley Temple 'Good Ship Lollipop' shoes attached to ludicrous five-inch heels. It lollops forward on great long legs, visible up to a crotch only just covered by a leather pelmet. Its head is eyeless and hidden in a glamour tea cosy of feathers. It staggers off blindly making its way perilously down a staircase it cannot see.

By their walks I know I am watching Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell et al, usually paid to look marvellous, not stupid. But Karl Lagerfeld's latest silhouette, with its exaggerated legs, teeny skirt, foreshortened body, semi-exposed jiggling breasts and blank face, reduced them to faceless blow-up sex dolls.

I've seen fashion victims. In a decade on fashion's front line, I've seen it all: from dominatrixes with skirts and leather whips, to sex kittens in microscopic fluffy dresses, to whores in black leather bondage straps, leather cowboy chaps and nothing else at all. And I've enjoyed some of it. But not this.

Hardly anyone wears haute couture; no more than 3,000 women in the world ever buy clothes that need a score of fittings and cost more than cars. Haute couture these days is a loss leader, usually paid for by a fashion company's advertising budget and used for just that - to flash pictures of frocks around the globe, thus reinforcing the brand name. What is shown there matters. It has an influence beyond itself. The clothes filter down to high street knock-offs and the look of the models is thus widely seen and largely unquestioned.

But the Chanel show was an insult to women and Lagerfeld should not get away with it. The show was also confirmation that Lagerfeld, the most influential designer of the Eighties, has lost the plot of the Nineties. His last few shows - haute couture for Chanel last July, ready-to-wear in October both for Chanel and under his own name - have been monstrous. But the latest collection was even worse.

Lagerfeld is, above all, arrogant. Increasingly bored and bolshy with a contract said to be worth pounds 1m per collection, he has, it seems, taken to toying with the presentation of women to make them laughable - one suspects for his own amusement. It is particularly grim that he does this under the name of Chanel.

Coco Chanel, probably the most influential fashion designer ever, believed in ease. She believed that women - well, rich women at least - deserved a wardrobe in which they could be unconstricted and confident. It was she who took cotton jersey, then used for men's underwear, and made it into comfortable and chic clothes for women. And it was she, of course, who invented the Chanel suit, that elegant and eternal uniform.

Lagerfeld breathed fresh energy into a house that had floundered after Coco's death. His spins on her classics became the status dress of the Eighties. Meanwhile, his 101 exuberant ideas - from bumbags to daft big knickers complete with crossed Cs - fanned the flames of publicity and in so doing sold millions of gobstopper earrings, lipsticks and scarves, all signatured Chanel.

But the fun is finished. Even the show wasn't fun. It failed on every level. Paris shows are always slick, but for this one there had clearly been no rehearsal. Visionless models who had no idea of the steps till they hit them were made to appear amateur, which they certainly are not. As for what they wore, the bodices didn't fit, skirts didn't flatter and - a couture first - trailing threads betrayed ill-finished clothes.

Over the past year, Lagerfeld has come up with some of the ugliest ideas ever to swank down a fashion catwalk. But his Chanel show on Saturday was worse. It was an insult - to Coco, to the Chanel customer, to the models and to women in general.

The audience signalled how far Lagerfeld has fallen. In the past the room would have been wall-to-wall Chanel suits, scarves and big gold earrings. No longer. There are Chanel suits of the Coco kind, restrained, elegant. Customers are said to be redesigning his clothes: Karl's 12-inch red-leather bum freezer is more likely to be ordered 22 inches long in black wool boucle. Thank you Karl and goodnight.

(Photographs omitted)

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