French Lessons: Couture shows in Paris

The couture shows in Paris were a masterclass in both elegant restraint and unfettered exuberance, says Susannah Frankel

And so, farewell, Valentino Garavani. When Le Chic came out to take his bows for the last time in Paris on Wednesday, flanked by more than 30 models each dressed in the same, long, red gown, he left the fashion world as he entered it – all in the best possible taste.

It's not news that the couturier has long enjoyed the extravagant lifestyle shared by his clientele – that, of course, is why he has always understood so perfectly how to dress her. But while Valentino's 45th anniversary celebrations in Rome were a little more, let's say, on the baroque side, his swansong haute couture collection was, by contrast, utterly restrained, refined and demonstrating a respect for the tradition of this great craft form which, today, only he and Karl Lagerfeld can truly lay claim to.

In the end, this was about the clothes as opposed to designer superstar ego/marketing tool/haute couture as laboratory of ideas (delete where applicable). True, there was a certain anachronistic quality to the proceedings – the perfect chignons, the heavily painted lips, the spike-heeled court shoes – not to mention the looks themselves, which boasted the discreet and rather precious elegance dictated by the mores of decades long gone. It's not every woman who wants to look back to a time when her feet barely touch anything as banal as the pavement. But should she feel the urge to do so, there has never been a better place to shop.

Galliano's haute couture presentations for Christian Dior were a rather different creature, being equally extraordinary but nowhere near so easy on the eye. If Valentino's clothes are not the sort to upstage their wearer, Dior haute couture is only for the brave – and this time was no exception.

The most extraordinary colour palette – hues richer, deeper and, presumably, more expensive to realise than any others – was here in evidence, and the silhouette was no less extreme. Form-fitting gowns with huge trains that rustled when models walked, overblown puffballs, exaggerated trapeze lines and opulent, jewelled embroideries promoted a larger-than-life ideal. This is not to say, however, that the Dior client will find nothing to wear in real, as opposed to fashion, life. The shape will be moderated for the customer, the accessories toned down and at least some of those gorgeous encrustations might have to be sacrificed should madam not want her gown to be, well, priceless.

In a similar vein, the hem of the ultra-short skirt on display in the Chanel show will no doubt be lowered for the more traditional customer, although her daughter – and many of the world's richest women came with these in tow – might wear it as is. The Chanel suit, crafted in the richest materials and subtlest hues, is the mainstay here and, with this in mind, models exited from a monolithic version of it, which was finished to look like stone. Lagerfeld is very good at updating this iconic garment and ensuring that it remains fresh and new. More obviously attention-grabbing were the Sugar Plum Fairy-like confections crafted in layered and tufted chiffon, which sent out just the message of innocence and extreme youth to ensure such a grand old name doesn't become dusty.

Monsieur l'ambassadeur, you spoil us! Such was the mood at Armani Privé, Giorgio Armani's upscale line that is now shown during the haute couture season. With Valentino outgoing, the powers-that-be at this house are envisaging at least some of his clients will change allegiance. Whatever, it was all very Eighties – hourglass black cocktail dresses, puffball skirts and an end sequence of gowns in hard, Duran Duran colours that looked destined to be worn by the super-rich with a more power-fuelled aesthetic.

Christian Lacroix's haute couture collections are not to every woman's taste, but they are still a joyous thing to see. Colliding colours – brightest fuchsia and flame, emerald and turquoise, neon-pink and gold – and a love affair with embellishment, as always, were features of the collection. The end result could all too easily be terrifying, were it not for the designer's knowledge of fashions from many cultures and his instinctive understanding of them. Instead, it was uplifting: bright, bold and unashamedly maximal.

At Givenchy, the young designer Riccardo Tisci is clearly putting a lot of thought into his haute couture collections. What's interesting about this ever more accomplished line is that it actually aspires to be fashionable. For spring/summer 2008 there was, perhaps, a too obvious debt to Azzedine Alaia, but the skinny, dark silhouette with its New Wave influence is just the sort of thing that a young, intelligent woman of means might like to wear.

And so, finally, to Jean Paul Gaultier, whose collection was based on mermaids. It is not the easiest of references one could imagine making its way into urban life, and this was not the couturier's strongest offering to date. Still, there were some fine embroideries in bird-of-paradise hues. And a Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture trouser suit – narrow and perfectly formed on top, wide-legged and languid below – is a thing of beauty, indeed.