Some like it haute

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Lavish embroidery, wedding dresses and corsets... For the international super-rich who buy at the Paris haute couture shows, it was business as usual, says Carola Long

If the designers, CEOs and customers at last week's Paris couture shows were feeling sheepish about attending a three-day ode to extravagance during a recession, then they weren't showing it. No one seemed to have given their chain-handled Chanel bags to Oxfam, or swapped their chauffeur-driven cars for those utilitarian Paris rental bikes, just yet. Equally, if they were worried about the effect of the economic downturn on this most rarefied of industries, then they were hiding it well – after all, this is a world where appearance is critical.

Firstly, this could be because couture, whether to own or just appreciate, is a love affair that's hard to break. The first dress of the week seems like an irrelevant extravagance, but after that it's hard not rapidly to be seduced into this deliciously perfumed (literally, at Givenchy, where the catwalk was sprinkled with rose petals) world of fairytale dresses and calligraphic invitations.

Secondly, people have been predicting the demise of couture for years – taking 800 hours to make a dress, then selling it for somewhere in the region of £20,000, or five, even 10 times that, to the exact specifications of one of a handful of customers, isn't exactly a cutting-edge business model – but it hasn't happened yet. Last year, at least, people were still buying couture, with double-digit growth at Chanel and Christian Dior, and an increase in revenue at Givenchy of 80 per cent. Part of the growth is due to new clients from China, Russia and the Middle East. Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, said, "There has been strong growth in the last five years, and maybe the growth will be less strong this year, but we have loyal customers and I'm not worried. Couture is something quite special and outstanding.'

Sales of garments are only part of the couture story. It also enables designers to experiment, and fashion houses to preserve the crafts and jobs of the specialist workshops. Most importantly, "the objective is to keep our customers dreaming", says Pavlovsky. "People see images from couture on the TV and the internet, and its important for us to maintain this dream."

However, while one client shrugged off the question of whether the economic downturn would put her off with the kind of smile and suppressed chuckle that means, "What recession? My considerable fortune is in gold", that's not to say that there wasn't some sort of aesthetic response from the couturiers to the recession, however indirect. Flamboyant designers such as John Galliano and Christian Lacroix were never going to start showing plain, sombre shift dresses, but some designers did show slightly quieter designs, or went back to the foundations of their fashion houses – an established response to hard times. At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld looked back to Coco Chanel's love of white – in 1933, she showed an all-white collection, and often wore the colour herself – with a softer, more wistful collection than last season. There were sophisticated skirt suits in ivory tweed, jackets with cape shoulders, and sweet white silk dresses embellished with sequins arranged in floral designs. A dress in white percaline embroidered with pearls and sequins, and trimmed with hand-cut leaves and flowers, took 800 hours to make, but the effect was of fresh, romantic elegance, rather than excess.

The Christian Dior show was as sumptuous and dramatic as ever, with wide skirts, fitted, waisted jackets, full sleeves and Delft-pattern ball gowns inspired by artists such as Vermeer and Van Dyck, as well as original Dior shapes. Billed as "more Dior than Dior", Galliano's decision to return to some of the house's historic cuts and structures – their USP, if you will – reflected a classic response to hard times.

As the founders of their own couture houses, Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier stuck to the signatures they have established themselves. Lacroix's collection was as exuberant as ever, and his skill as a colourist was in evidence in a palette that included parchment, apple-green, gold, navy and, of course, red and black. Meanwhile, Gaultier showed beautifully tailored and slightly risqué takes on classic Parisian pieces.

Valentino could have billed itself as "more Valentino than Valentino"– its new creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli returned to quintessential Valentino shapes on strapless evening gowns and Sixties-style skirt suits.

"What interested me this season was the new daywear couture," says Russian Vogue editor Aliona Doletskaya. "It's a fresh take. There has always been daywear, but this time the pieces really belong to daywear, and are so beautiful." Not every couture client is after a ball gown – Patricia Rossignol, an amiable couture customer from Florida, hoped to pick up a jacket or top to wear with trousers. At Givenchy, where Riccardo Tisci showed a modern take on Gothic romance, with fitted bandage dresses and lace hooded gowns suitable for a Belle Dame Sans Merci-about-town, the actress Lou Doillon rhapsodised not over a fabulous dress, but a pair of her own Givenchy couture leather trousers that fit her "like a second skin".

The general perception of couture is that it is an investment, in contrast to the more transitory nature of ready-to-wear and high-street trends, but Doillon has a different perspective: that couture can be ephemeral. "The clothes are finished moments before we arrive," she explains, "and then, half an hour later, they begin the process of being broken down and remade according to the specifications and shapes of the clients who buy them. The Givenchy show was a glimpse of Riccardo Tisci's vision, and after that it's interpreted and lived through other people."

Maison Martin Margiela, one of the labels that practises its own take on couture outside the official schedule, also calls the perceived permanence of the art form into question with the conceptual pieces in its Artisanal collection, such as jackets made from paper towels or price tags.

While Margiela explores how mundane objects can be transformed into creations of curious beauty, the big couture houses turn exquisite materials such as silk, net, tulle, crystal, feathers, beads and bows into confections of even more arresting loveliness. It's the dizzying pinnacle of the fashion calendar, which is why, as Rossignol says, "It's fantasy, and it's uplifting, that's why people really want to make it happen".

Made to measure: The key looks

The waist Nipped in and 'New Look' style at Christian Dior, boldly accentuated at Gaultier.

Shoulders Sharp and businesslike at Gaultier, structured or peaked like a pagoda at Armani. Privé, swollen and folded at Givenchy.

Black and white That's black. White. And black and white. Lagerfeld paid homage to Coco's love of white, while Lacroix balanced Provencale colour with monochrome.

Corsetry and bodices Theatrical at Dior, downright sexy at Gaultier.

Nudes/ dirty pastels The models were 'palely loitering' at Givenchy and Elie Saab in parchment, faded parma violet and buttermilk.

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