Berardi's Paris

Antonio Berardi (below) is fashion's Next Big Thing, so says everyone, including American Vogue. British, 28, and just two years out of Central St Martin's, he has already had offers to design for major houses in Paris and Milan. Here he reports on this month's Paris couture, a special eye on the catwalks where soon he will loom large. Photographs by Jon Fischer

This month I finally discovered what haute couture meant. For years I've lived with the notion that it was one of two things: first, pieces of such meticulous beauty that they were never really meant to be worn, but to be handled with white gloves, wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and stored in temperature-controlled rooms, rather like a fine rolled Cuban cigar; or second, pieces of clothing of the highest order, delicately blown together (as in Walt Disney's Cinderella), embroidered and encrusted with jewels as if by magic, and worn by continually grinning grandes dames to functions to which the camera does not allow us ordinary folk.

I was right on both counts, for I saw wondrous creations, fit for museums in some cases, screaming to be worn in others, but, strangely enough, by a far younger audience than I had anticipated - though I was elbowed in the ribs by more than one surgically-enhanced grandmother, adamant that nothing was going to get in the way of her and her haute couture.

One lady I had the good fortune to meet over dinner, Sandy Schreier, is an American collector of couture (she regards Azzedine Alaia as her fiercest competitor). She rarely buys things to wear. She collects because couture is a precious commodity, and she keeps her purchases wrapped up for designers and researchers to view. Collectors like her keep the skills of the artisans, the backbone of haute couture, alive and preserved.

Couture is no longer about selling trends - we now have ready-to-wear to do that. It is pure fantasy, escapism for the designers and an effective way of selling cosmetics and licensed products. Fortunately the Brits are holding the reins, and as history has proved, we are not very good at letting go. Long may it continue to thrive.

The vocabulary of couture is punctuated by certain words, which strangely enough best describe the work of several of its maestros:

Exquisite would be Dior, which with the seemingly unstoppable force of John Galliano at its helm produced an altogether stunning collection.

In a frenzy of Mata Hari meets Edwardiana, the references came so thick and fast that at times they were hard to take in: from Lautrec to Mucha to Klimt. Belle epoque maharanees stalked the Bagatelle Gardens (complete with fountains and suspended chandeliers) in suits of grey tweed, dripping with fox fur and jewels. There were filigree diamante handbags, ankle bracelets and a variety of finger accoutrements, all exquisite - and, most genius of all, lace stretch boots that looked and acted like stockings, supported by teetering red lacquer heels by Manolo Blahnik.

Sublime goes to Jean Paul Gaultier and his Russian-Orthodox-inspired collection. Gaultier draws inspiration not so much from history, as from his own back catalogue. Here is a designer who is as uncompromising as he is poetic. Suits that fitted like a glove and tied effortlessly at the neck, wondrous, all-in-one trouser suits over plain cashmere knits, and a finely quilted dress that sent the audience into a frenzy.

From a dress beaded in a tiger-skin design (head, tail and all) to a Russian coat. My favourite piece was a dove-grey, decollete sweater dress.

Sumptuous would be Givenchy, where the youngest couturier on the scene, Alexander McQueen, produced an extravagant collection to take the viewer on a round-the-world trip.

Let's make no bones about it, here was a beautifully cut collection, from tartan suits and cut-out bird motifs (a nod to previous McQueen highlights) to a body-covering, rich coral plisse two-piece with black, lace-trimmed shawl sleeves and a birdcage hat, complete with bird. McQueen and rewarded the throng with a perfect pale pink trouser suit banded with white Chantilly lace, and a decollete black kimono-sleeved bodice, embroidered in a Chinese style, twinned with a stiff lace pencil skirt and finished with a huge silver Victorian bangle-style waist clincher.

The look was grand, as were the peregrine falcons who took their bows with the designer and his muse Honor Fraser.

Opulent describes Ungaro. Here was a collection that I was desperate to see, for I had heard that this man fashions his clothes himself, not on dummies but on real girls, and without the use of paper patterns. Chez Ungaro, everything is cut from cloth while the girls pose for the master. Once again, here were beautifully crafted clothes ranging from bias-cut draped tartans, marked with Technicolor paisleys, richly encrusted, to frou-frou concoctions of lace and feathers. Narrow sleeves and shoulders gave the body an air of perfect grace and serenity.

Luxurious is Christian Lacroix. As each outfit emerged from beneath a red velvet concoction of braiding and tassels fit for a king, the sheer wealth of decoration hit me. Lacroix's use of all things bright and beautiful is unlike anybody else's. The fabrics are hand-woven, exactly what I considered to be real couture. It smelt rich, and judging from the workmanship it was.

Gold-fringed fishnet bolero jackets were worn over minidresses by pompadoured women, so perfect, so exaggerated they looked like living illustrations. Swagged and draped impossibly, dress after dress was more breathtaking than the last. Finally, the bride appeared in a long, pleated veil of black organza, wearing a black dress heavy with glass beading graduated from black to white. It was an amazing sight - and just when you thought it was all over, out popped another, this time in peach.

Lacroix, whose house is just over a decade old, offers old-school couture in the way Worth did. The demand is still there; his couture and wedding dresses sell, and his dreams become reality.

Perfection was Yves Saint Laurent, whose collection at first glance looked not a million miles away from Escada. I looked again and it all became clear. The craftsmanship was possibly the best of the week, and the make so subtle that the clothes seemed to have been untouched by human hands.

When he took over the reins at Dior in 1957, St Laurent single-handedly rejuvenated couture. He retains the standards of quality and perfection, with a faultless collection of simply beautiful clothes. Light to handle and with sleeves to die for, the tuxedo suits were still there, as were the stalwart classic wrap dresses of yesteryear.

This was a collection meant to be worn, and the audience loved it. Nan Kempner, one of the women for whom couture is more important than ready- to-wear, briefly shook my hand and smiled before Yves beckoned. She was whisked into the salon to take her seat long before the journalists. Here was his sternest critic, for should the collection be good, the designer would be rewarded with orders, far more important than a few lines of newsprint.

Refined could only describe Chanel. It was clean, and freed from the restrictions of over-embellishment, just as Coco Chanel would have wanted. The look was wanton: Miss Havisham meets Anne Rice, with wild hair and accessories. Karl Lagerfeld has the ability to piece together historic references to make collections that are intrinsically modern.

Ostentatious: The Italians, Valentino and Versace, deserve a joint mention for the international flavour they bring to Paris. Although not traditional Parisian couture, this pair introduced an air of refreshing quality to the proceedings in a modern take on couture meets ready-to-wear.

Versace buyers are the expensive jet set, with children and all, bottle blondes doing the Euro circuit with fat wallets and a penchant for glitz. And glitz is what they got. Dresses that seemed to shimmer when still, catching any available beam of light as they moved. The clothes? A Byzantine mix; Joan of Arc meets Vionnet.

Like Versace, the master dressmaker Valentino showed an Eighties-inspired collection. This was, however, much more ostentatious than Versace's, with feathers, dyed chinchilla, and a snakeskin cummerbund to hold them all together. Beaded faggotting on leather skirts and jackets added to the drama of the collection, as did Cindy Crawford, whose robust silhouette swamped those of her fellow clothes-horses.

From the top:

red sheath dress with feather headdress, by Emanuel Ungaro.

Left, pale tulle overdress with gold beading; right, brown duchesse satin, cape-backed floor-length dress;

both by Chanel.

Centre, liquid silver, draped toga dress, by Yves Saint Laurent.

Left, liquid gold, draped minidress decorated with Byzantine crosses, by Versace

Above, classic Dior grey tweed geometric jacket with built-in hourglass corset, worn with matching bias-cut skirt, by John Galliano for Christian Dior. Centre, lilac bordello ball-dress decorated with flowers; far left, vivid orange duchesse satin bridal gown with full-length veil; both by Christian Lacroix.

Left, classic McQueen touches - Dante beaded corset and leather cut-out skirt; centre, spiral-seamed mermaid dress with lace bolero and visor veil; both at Givenchy.

Far left, richly embroidered Edwardian hour-glass jacket with beaded bell sleeves, with white mini-bustle backed skirt and chevron pleated top, by John Galliano for Christian Dior; middle, Chinese-inspired, fur- trimmed robe; front left, Aran-knit ballgown; right, quilted eiderdown Empire-line dress; all by Jean Paul Gaultier( pictures omitted)

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