An elegant world apart

Most women will never own a piece of haute couture clothing, but these rarefied garments showcase designers' wildest imaginings, says Susannah Frankel

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Given the economic climate, one could be forgiven for assuming that shopping was the last thing on most people's minds.

Sales figures on the high street are in free fall and even the more profligate are less likely to splash out on designer clothing than they used to be, in the Western world at least. And then there are the handful of women wealthy enough to spend tens of thousands of pounds on a single garment that has been hand-cut, sewn, embroidered and over-embroidered, then fitted to suit their every idiosyncrasy and curve.

And spending they are. If the brains behind the most feted fashion houses are to be believed, their haute couture collections are recording significant gains across the board – for princesses, the wives of business tycoons and, of course, stalwarts of the red carpet it appears that this is a mere drop in the ocean. So what, now orders have been placed and pattern-makers, seamstresses, and finishers set in motion, will such women be wearing once their hand-worked summer wardrobe is delivered in grand boxes and wrapped in more tissue paper than is strictly seemly?

It is rumoured that Donatella Versace, who is enjoying something of a moment in the sun , has long had her own swimwear made by the petites mains who staff her haute couture atelier: a far from demure neon yellow bathing costume featured in her presentation, which kicked off the proceedings. Ms Versace said she was thinking of "glamorous warriors" for the first Atelier Versace collection shown in Paris since 2004, and in their silver and gold sheath dresses, super-structured minis, thigh-high crocodile skin boots and gladiator sandals, models looked fierce. Fashion history decrees that women's careers can be made by a single dress – remember Elizabeth Hurley and her Atelier Versace safety pins? – and this was dressing to impress par excellence. A heartfelt love of unadulterated razzmatazz was only emphasised by futuristic flashes of gleaming heavy metal and Perspex, not to mention corsetry so hard-edged it might cause injury to any admirer who dared to come close.

Bill Gaytten's second haute-couture collection for Christian Dior was positively frosty by comparison. The untouchable hauteur of the 1950s mannequin appeared to be the inspiration and, of course, the work of Christian Dior himself or at least an "X-ray" of it, as the show notes stated. It was more like a spectre, though, as the New Look line, the love affair with black and white, the houndstooth check, the huge, ruffled skirts were all lovingly recreated to the point of pastiche... True, there was a lightness of touch and it was acknowledged that this was a more coherent collection than Gaytten's first haute-couture offering six months ago but it was also a lifeless one. The fashion industry has long bowed to the angel of history but rarely in so literal a manner.

Karl Lagerfeld's offering for the rival house of Chanel, conversely, took all the signatures associated with this great name and reinvented them – everything from the clothes to the nail polish colours they will doubtless inspire was as cleverly thought out and beautifully executed as might be wished for. Here couture's function – as the perfume of a label from which all else springs, as a laboratory of ideas pushing technique and form forward, and as marketing tool par excellence – was on display. The mise en scene was a cute and camp one. A private jet spoke of the era when travel took off and the references in clothing to both Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges was perfectly synchronised with that. Seen afterwards in the showroom, the level of craftsmanship involved – the opalescent brocades and ultra-fine embroideries, the soft tweeds that degraded into wisps of chiffon, the hundreds and thousands of beads hand-sewn onto a featherweight dress – was nothing short of spectacular.

Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci chooses to show his collection as a presentation in a hôtel particuliere in central Paris as opposed to on the runway, safe in the knowledge that all attention is then directed towards the clothes. And they are extraordinary. Restricting his palette to black, white and brown, Tisci offered up sheath dresses constructed entirely out of beads so small one had to squint to see them (pity the poor soul who sewed these), more that saw nappa leather cut into tiny pieces to emulate crocodile skin only lighter, so madam may actually be able to move in her clothes, or that boasted a fragile crystal spine seen from behind. Tisci has the modern woman in mind more than most on the haute-couture schedule. And so a white sequined dress was suspended from a single gleaming metal chain and worn over nothing more haute than a ribbed jersey dress, say, and jewellery was more punk than parlour.

Jean-Paul Gaultier's tribute to Amy Winehouse was plain rattling. The couturier, who cuts trench coats and tailoring like few others and who is also perhaps couture's finest colourist, has since said that it is a "scandal" that Winehouse never appeared on the cover of a magazine, but that is assuming that she would have wanted to which is by no means a certainty. This was a heavy-handed treatment of a sensitive theme and that let the clothes themselves down. In times to come Winehouse's sense of style may well find its way on to the international catwalk but, given that she died only six months ago, Gaultier's gesture appeared poorly judged and attention seeking.

There was nothing heavy-handed about Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli's collection for Valentino, which was among the finest of the season. A sweet fusion of floral prints, delicate ruffles and Chantilly lace in pale colours graced a silhouette that brought Mia Farrow circa Rosemary's Baby to mind and flat slippers to match drove that message home. This is an increasingly accomplished designer pairing that takes the great Roman couturier's finest signatures – neat day suits, sweet cocktail dresses, the delicate balance between restraint and excess – and makes them relevant to a modern audience.

A more overt sweetness was on display at Elie Saab where the couturier took the fondant colours, prom-queen silhouette and appliquéd floral embroideries that ready-to-wear fashion is in love with and executed them with an attention to detail that will please his burgeoning client base, all loyally in attendance, no end. The minimal elegance of Giambattista Valli's petal-strewn cocoon capes and draped, pintucked raspberry silk goddess gowns was equally pleasing and only lifted by oversized silk hydrangaeas in models' hair.

It was a controversial decision on the part of veteran Italian designer Giorgio Armani to craft pretty much his complete Armani Prive collection in the colour green. This is not an easy shade for any woman to wear. Maison Martin Margiela's Artisanal collection was a sight for sore eyes, however, featured clothing constructed out of found objects including macramé bags,rope and cord, cushion covers, Brazilian bracelets and the caps and wires from vintage champagne bottles, an apposite statement given the couture tradition's gilded status.

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