Rich seams: Haute couture is riding high again

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Critics have predicted its death for years - but haute couture is riding high again

'Of course it's not reasonable to make shoes that cost upwards of several thousand euros," says former Chanel muse Inès de la Fressange. "But then, almost everything beautiful and interesting in the world, from cathedrals to wine to clothes or even shoes, is not exactly reasonable."

The languidly chic brand ambassador for Roger Vivier is talking about the label's latest couture collection of shoes that look as much like birds of paradise, with their curled feathers and tropical embellishment, as footwear. While playing gently with a rope of heavy pearls, and reclining on a vintage sofa that she sourced for the salon, she adds that she used to justify the existence of such extravagant fashion by citing the fact that it contributed to the economy and employment. "I don't do that any more," she says. "I think, 'thank God couture still exists'. We need something extraordinary in life."

The autumn/winter haute couture collections last week were suitably extraordinary. There was matador-inspired embroidery, rich Provençal colour and billowing leg-of-mutton sleeves at Christian Lacroix, structured metallic taffeta cocktail dresses inspired by organ pipes at Chanel, and John Galliano showed a sexy take on iconic Christian Dior shapes, with sheer fabrics and wasp waists. A less flamboyant aesthetic prevailed at Armani, where the designer described his collection of softly tailed trousers and jackets in evening fabrics as a return to "the quintessence of Armani". Some of the most unusual designs were shown outside the official schedule, however, such as the Martin Margiela jacket made of party balloons (the ephemeral nature of which offers a counterpoint to couture's potential heirloom status) and a dress made of records broken to look like fish scales. These formed part of the Belgian label's Artisanal collection, which elevates everyday objects to the status of fashion and art. About five versions are made of each piece, but no two are the same.

It's not just the outfits that are out of this world, so are the prices. Inquiries about estimated costs tend to be met with the kind of pained expression that you might receive on asking a mature (and un-Botoxed) couture client her age, and a vague response about how it depends on the amount of work that goes into it. The latter is a critical factor, however; the more beading and embellishment involved the more steeply the price rises. Starting prices can be at five figures – an evening dress might cost something in the region of £50,000 – and the sky is the limit.

The only numbers on a par with the prices are the volumes of detail that go into these made-to-measure garments. The final dress in the Christian Dior show, a ball gown dramatic enough for Scarlett O'Hara, was made from 100 metres of tulle and crin (horsehair), and took 400 hours of work in the flou ateliers (where they made the sheer parts of the dress), with an additional 800 hours in the specialist flou for the embroidered and sequined shell design, which harked back to one of Dior's favourite scallop motifs.

At Chanel, a long dress in grey silk faille with a train and tone-on-tone application of camellias took 280 hours of work, combined with another 180 hours for the camellias. The creative process happens in the couture ateliers that the company has bought, but who still supply other major houses. These include Desrues, who mould, sculpt, dye, gild and chisel the house's buttons and jewellery; Lesage, the embroiderers par excellence; and feather workshop Lemarie. Couture might be unreasonably indulgent, a mutual sartorial fantasy between client and designer, but it does help to preserve the skills and jobs of the petites mains who work in the ateliers. With its multiple fittings and close relationship between consumer and creator, it is the opposite of the disposability and dubious provenance of fast fashion.

The attention to detail that makes these clothes so seductive also creates couture week's rarefied atmosphere of air-kissing, macaroon-nibbling, champagne-sipping glamour. Rococo gilt chairs and perfumed air? A black Balenciaga cocktail dress and five-inch Louboutin's at 10am? Mai oui. And this being Paris, it's not just the fashion crowd that set the bar higher than the Eiffel Tower when it comes to the pursuit of chic. After offering the unsolicited suggestion that I should go back to my hotel to smarten up before I headed out to a party (I was already wearing a tiered, navy silk dress), my cab driver pointed to a well-dressed woman clearly on her way to a show, rolled his eyes in true "O mon Dieu" Gallic shock and said: "€1,000 shoes and she has ruined her look by leaving the price sticker on the sole. It's the little details that matter."

Incredible refinement and polish aren't always enough to satisfy the super-rich shopper, however, and couture appeals to the desire for something individual. Fashion consultant Susan Tabak says: "The point of couture is to be unique, its not a questions of trends." Tabak is also of the opinion that couture is having something of a renaissance. "I've been hearing 'it's dying' for five years," she says, "but now there are all these incredibly wealthy women from emerging markets such as Russia and China, who are becoming more aware of high fashion, and I'm getting more inquiries about it."

Her views are echoed by fashion-house bosses, who say sales are up, and their feeling is that the super rich aren't affected by the economic climate. Couture sales at Chanel rose more than 20 per cent last year, and the president of their fashion division, Bruno Pavlovsky, told Women's Wear Daily that he sensed a return to sizeable orders – "the last one was eight dresses in one shot" – while Sidney Toledano, president of Christian Dior, cited an increase in couture sales of over 35 per cent last year.

Outside the Givenchy show, Harrods' supremely polished fashion and beauty director, Marigay McKee, agreed that the very wealthy are upping the ante. "There's a big return to point of difference and an element of exclusivity," she said. "Now that new global markets are opening up, people around the world have money to invest in hand-crafted, hand-finished, seriously high-end pieces. In August, we have vintage couture dresses by Lesage arriving costing from £160,000 to £250,000, and a bag from Chanel with the double C in pave crystal – it's the only one in the world – which will be £125,000."

So once the super rich, blissfully unaffected by the credit crunch, are all dressed up in their couture finery, where do they go? Art galas, charity benefits, parties and weddings are some of the occasions that demand couture dresses, but American couture client Patricia Rossignol, who is a particular fan of Lacroix and Chanel, says: "I buy a piece if I love it, and then I make the occasion if I buy the piece." De la Fressange has noticed that the customers are "becoming younger, less conventional and more glamorous", and they increasingly mix made-to-measure jackets with jeans for a more modern look. However, surely the ultimate self indulgence is not to save one's couture for a particular event, but to have such a grand approach to life as to wear it every day. Enter the client who now sports her couture wedding dress by Valentino on the beach.

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