Too haute to handle: Decidedly sultry couture shows

Even in a recession, sex sells. At the Paris couture shows, where designers turn fantasy into reality, the mood was decidedly sultry. Carola Long reports

Chanel is so elegant, and respectful to what women are. You never feel that the dress wears the woman, rather the woman wears the dress."

That was the verdict of actress Anna Mouglalis, who plays Coco Chanel in the upcoming film Coco and Igor, on the label's latest couture show. In fact, Mouglalis' thoughts could be applied to the autumn/winter 2009 couture season as a whole.

Couture has a reputation, sometimes deserved, sometimes not, for overblown dresses laden with almost pantomime quantities of ruffles, sequins, ribbons and obscure French haberdashery. Dresses that not only wear the woman, but probably swamp and overwhelm her. However, this latest round of shows unveiled garments in which a client – should she have a spare £20,000 or so lurking in a sock under the bed – would feel like "herself only better", to adapt the vocabulary of self-help. Striking and – unusually for couture – undeniably sexy. Of course sexy means wildly different things to different people, but most of the shows took the more or less politically uncomplicated path of enhancing a woman's body without excessively revealing it, and referencing details from the prettiest of lingerie.

It makes sense really. In a time of recession the houses – just like everyone from Topshop to Gucci – want to shift some couture. And to put it crudely, what sells better than sex? Apart from the gloomy threat of closure facing Christian Lacroix – the company filed for protection from its creditors in May and unless it finds a buyer will be reduced to a skeleton licensing operation – several of the couture bosses say made-to-measure fashion is doing well. Couture is a laboratory for ideas and images from the shows act as advertising for more affordable products. Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel's president of fashion, says: "It's a hugely important part of our DNA, the look, the décor, the time of the show: everything is about excellence and creativity." 2008 was Chanel's best year for couture – and this season many labels were more commercial than in many previous years.

Take Valentino. It's always elegant and polished, but this season designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli injected a fresh, youthful sensuality into the brand. In place of the usual old-world glamour with a capital G, there was a limited palette of lingerie-inspired black and nude, lots of appliquéd lace and sheer silk, and corsetry detailing alongside sculptural ruffles and giant bows. The touch was light, particularly on black lace mini-dresses with sheer, nude silk bodices that hinted at the body beneath rather than flaunting it.

At the Christian Dior show in the 30 Avenue Montaigne salon, the emphasis on underwear was more overt. Designer John Galliano took his inspiration from old photographs of Christian Dior himself surrounded by models in a state of undress in the salon's "cabine" or dressing room before the show. Accordingly, a full pale yellow tulle skirt, and a marigold wool satin tulip skirt were teamed with Fifties-style bras, while several gowns came with corseted bodices. As Galliano said after the show, "I like a bit of ooh la-la." He added that, "I never refer to Mr Dior in the past tense, I feel like he is still alive. " According to Sidney Toledano, chief executive of Christian Dior, the decision to host the show in the founder's original salon was "the best way to express the spirit of the couture, within these walls". Certainly the dove grey carpets, and silver chairs made for a very intimate atmosphere. Shapes in the collection were slinkier than usual, with less of the historical touches that informed previous shows. Of course there was still plenty of theatrical hauteur from the models as they imitated their Forties and Fifties counterparts.

The word theatrical doesn't come close to describing the spectacle at Jean Paul Gaultier, however. With girls handing out ice creams, and director's lights on the catwalk, the overtly-seductive looks were inspired by, and named after, movies and their stars. The usual Parisian pieces – the trench, wide tailored suit trousers, and variations on Le Smoking – were all finely executed, and the classically-trained couturier's flair was clear when he managed to make a pair of dazzling gold dungarees seem the peak of high-voltage glamour, rather than something a member of Boney M might wear.

Another designer who can make a trouser suit look every bit as sexy as a dress, is Giorgio Armani; much of the show was an ode to tailoring. Jackets with defined shoulders and waists, and slightly masculine trousers came in pewter grey cashmere, plush black velvet and black silk. Crystal or rhinestone zips and trims added after-hours drama, as did the slinky column dresses saturated with Atlantic blue rhinestones. Perfect for the many actresses – such as Cate Blanchett, who was perched on the front row – who rely on Armani's evening wear to ensure that they never make any undignified appearances on worst-dressed lists.

The second half of the Chanel show felt like a particularly sophisticated cocktail party thanks to the flirtatious, sequin-spangled dresses with their lighthearted play on proportion (these came out after the classic tweed pieces) a dance-in-your-seat soundtrack from La Roux (perhaps borrowed from one of Lagerfeld's famous iPods) and a 9pm showing. When the champagne started flowing afterwards, the party atmosphere was complete.

However, at Christian Lacroix the mood was a mix of sadness – because this could be the flamboyant couturier's swansong – and elation at his defiant decision to show his collection on a shoestring. The ateliers helped the designer with materials, while Roger Vivier designer Bruno Frisoni provided shoes, and staff and supporters wore badges saying "Christian Lacroix Forever". While Lacroix is known as a master colourist, and for his soufflé-like, voluminous silhouettes (Frisoni said that photographs of Lacroix's clothes never do them justice because his approach is so three-dimensional), this time the colours were largely a more sombre black and navy. The silhouettes on short, full skirts, and tailored jackets were cleaner than usual and adorned with restrained flourishes such as a silk bow or ruffled peplum, although the wedding dress with gold lace halo headdress was typically baroque.

After receiving a standing ovation – and some tears – Lacroix came to the Givenchy show, where the air is always perfumed with incense. Couture doesn't instigate trends as directly as ready-to-wear, but Givenchy felt like the most cool, zeitgeisty show with its tough fusion of Eastern styles such as dhoti trousers, medieval silhouettes and armour-like detailing and jewellery. In short, it was probably the collection most likely to appear in the wardrobes of everyone at French Vogue.

Ultimately, however, couture isn't about trends, but about owning something uniquely tailored to one' s own specifications. It's the ultimate form of self-expression through clothing, since the customer is intimately involved in its creation. According to two couture clients from Toronto I chatted to at Chanel, Sylvia Mantella and Stacey Kimel, it takes at least three fittings to have a couture piece made but the result – as well one would hope – is something that lasts forever and fits better than Cinderella's slipper. And it's not just the fit that is customised. If those sheer skirts at Dior are too revealing for lunch at The Ritz, madame can have them lined, while, according to Sylvia Mantella, a dress that appears on the catwalk adorned with costume jewellery might be remade with genuine precious stones.

Of course there is only a comparative handful of women in the world who can afford such expensive clothes, but as long as the couture industry stays vital by combining its heritage with clothes that work in the modern world, it has a future. At least at the bigger houses who have marketing and development resources. Bruno Pavlovsky says Chanel makes about 200 pieces for each collection, and has a pool of around 1000 customers. Couture client Stacey Kimel shares his optimism about couture's future, saying: "It's the ultimate fantasy and the most indulgent fabrics. There will always be an audience for art."