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Fashion: What Lagerfeld knows and Galliano knows not

`Galliano the glorious?' `Galliano the genius?'

No. Let's try `John the deluded'. British hosannas for his Paris couture show beggar belief. But by all means find two cheers for Alexander McQueen. Then forget little England and do homage to Karl Lagerfeld, the old master who, writes Tamsin Blanchard, made a couture collection as a couture collection should be. Photographs by Andrew Thomas.

If a modern composer insisted upon harking back to the manuscripts of Beethoven or Mozart, the music fraternity would laugh them out of the concert hall. But when a modern fashion designer remakes the clothes of the Twenties masters of couture, Lanvin, Erte and Paul Poiret, he is given a standing ovation.

On Monday afternoon in the ornate salons of the grand Opera house, John Galliano gilded the works of the great designers of the pre-First World War period. The collection was "a poetic tribute to the Marquesa Casati ... an Italian lady from the beginning of this century".

According to the programme notes, the Marquesa "transformed her life into an oriental tale, in a Venetian palace surrounded by monkeys". She was a friend of Leon Bakst, the artist who designed costumes for the Ballets Russes. The entire collection was in homage to a woman whose life was one long orientalist indulgence, dancing tangos and collecting costumes.

Had this show been transported back in time 90 years, the Marquesa would no doubt have ordered every sumptuous piece, from the fabulous orange bead-encrusted cocoon opera coat to the Joan of Arc silver liquid chain- mail dress and the sheer tulle suit embroidered with dahlias. As it was, she had to make do with the efforts of Paul Poiret. If she had still been alive today, she would have said, "been there, seen that, worn it," and would be off shopping at Hussein Chalayan or Martin Margiela.

However, the great and the good of the fashion world paid homage to the court of Galliano as they waited for the show to commence, entertained by tango dancers who twisted each other around the opera house. If Galliano had been alive in the Twenties, he would undoubtedly have been the star designer of costumes for the Ballets Russes. But that time has past. These days the modern day equivalent of Diaghilev would be commissioning the avant-garde Japanese label Comme des Garcons to design their costumes.

No matter how hard he tries to recreate it, women today - even the ones with offshore bank accounts and private jets - do not live in period costume drama.

The news on Alexander McQueen is rather better. He has stopped wreaking havoc at Givenchy. His new collection went back to his roots of tailoring and innovative cutting. Even Hubert de Givenchy might have eaten his words if he had seen the collection, after describing McQueen's work for the house as "a disaster" last week. His opulent collection shared the week's Twenties orientalist theme, but with a sense of reality and modernity too.

Whatever you may think of these two English boys, their arrival in the rarefied world of haute couture has had the effect of putting a rocket under everybody else, none more so than Karl Lagerfeld, who has a wisdom and touch that they have yet to acquire.

Who would not want to spend their millions on the collection Lagerfeld presented yesterday morning in the mirrored showrooms of the Chanel headquarters at Rue Cambon? It was simply sublime.

Where Galliano is literal, Lagerfeld, with the assistance of Galliano's ex-muse and collaborator, Amanda Harlech, is subtle and delicate. Both touched on the Twenties tango theme, but Chanel's black net tiered tango dress with pink silk flowers hand-sewn on the skirts was light and elegant.

The weight of the fabrics - heavy satin folded easily into flippy skirts, boucle wool made into a closely tailored suit, or a beaded argyll pattern skirt - and the proportions of the clothes, give the collection a true couture feel.

That every piece of clothing was touched by human hands hands is evident, from the tiny cross-stitching sewn up the seams and along the cuffs and edges of a pistachio green wool suit, to the scalpel-fine pleats on a chiffon skirt.

Inside and out, these clothes are perfection, every attention paid to the tiniest detail in the best tradition of haute couture.

Couture is not all about fantasy and romance. A new name appeared on the schedule this season, that of the former Balenciaga designer, Josephus Thimister, who has managed to pass the strict criteria of the Chambre Syndicale, haute couture's governing body, to show his first couture collection. It was an attempt to bring an old world up to date with a series of minimal, simple evening dresses in luxurious fabrics. Although it was a brave effort, it was almost too pared down, and easy to be valid as clothes worthy of having made to fit every millimetre of your body.

On Sunday night, Valentino, the Roman couturier, showed technically perfect suits and evening dresses that are both modern and sellable. A bright scarlet pin-tucked wool suit, a plain silk crepe suit with tiny pintucked pleats around the edges of the jacket and cuffs, or a white silk, crystal- strewn cocktail dress all have a valid market place.

If the sole purpose of a couture show is to sell perfume and be a glorified advertisement then the entire concept of haute couture is indeed a wonderfully poetic and fantastic sham. However, while Chanel, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent are still servicing a real market in the highest level of luxury clothing, haute couture and more importantly, the craftspeople, seamstresses and tailors who create it all from beginning to end by hand, deserve to thrive.