Fashion: Fin de couture?: Haute couture may be in its death throes, but at the Paris collections, designers, led by Yves Saint Laurent, fought back with zest and originality. Marion Hume reports

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Yves Saint Laurent is still the king of Paris. In spite of last week's takeover by a petroleum/pharmaceutical giant - prompting jokes that wealthy women will now be able to buy fabulous frocks on their Elf gasoline charge cards - the couturier himself looked healthy and happy after yesterday's show.

Saint Laurent's shows can be hit or miss. This was a hit. The British designer, Vivienne Westwood, tears gleaming in her eyes, was first on her feet to lead a standing ovation. As John Fairchild, of the powerful Women's Wear Daily put it: 'He is the one, the others are just playing.' Fairchild should know, he's been watching the couturier get it so right, and then so wrong, for 30 years. This time there was yet another black tuxedo, another wisp of a hooded black chiffon evening column and a recolouring of his favourite evening combination of bolero, chiffon shirt, satin skirt and sash, this time in salmon, duck-egg blue, eau de nil and old gold.

The sale of Yves Saint Laurent to Elf-Sanofi contains a clause guaranteeing that YSL haute couture will continue until 2001. But this looks nothing less than a death sentence. Fears are already being expressed that when he goes - and now it is certain that he will - the whole Parisian tradition of haute couture will end with him. (Saint Laurent, who despite constant rumours looks physically strong, will still only be 64 when the deal expires.)

Christian Lacroix acts as if there is no threat, only joy. But behind his zestful clothes, and successful experiments with raffia and filigree (neither of which are traditionally seen on expensive haute couture frocks), Lacroix must be worried. His fragrance doesn't make money, his house certainly doesn't, and although he has some fun young clients for his funky clothes - both fashion editor Lucy Ferry and the actress Rosanna Arquette have the right combination of kookiness and celebrity - there aren't many people with the spirit for Lacroix and the wealth to afford it. There are no younger equivalents of the social swans, such as Americans Nan Kempner and Lynn Wyatt, who buy twice a year, every year.

But the few who do will be pleased. For evening, Lacroix's navy chiffon sheath, held in place with a breastplate of gold filigree, was beautiful. With a slight nod to the Seventies revival, he showed a sweeping mustard trench coat, a Licorice Allsort-striped bush jacket, plenty of wall-to-wall flares and hippy trail accessories, this time with an African feel. For those who don't want to go retro-ethnic, his demure tea dress embroidered with languid roses - which was then unbuttoned to reveal a jaunty little black lace slip underneath, looked perfect for the naughty Nineties.

The decadence of the 1890s, rewritten for the end of the 20th century, together with a reworking of the romantic looks of the last fin de siecle seem to have been Karl Lagerfeld's starting points for Chanel. But Karl doesn't spend much time looking backwards. In his version, tattered black after-dark chiffon dresses had see-through plastic corsets over the midriff, piped with Chanel gilt chains in place of whalebone. The Chanel jacket had refused to go away and looked long, lean and slightly Edwardian when teamed with lengths of transparent chiffon skirt and razor- pointed, Louis-heeled delicate shoes (which proved difficult for models to strut, Chanel-style, in).

In contrast to most of the models who had deep, dark shadow brushed over their eyes, there were some fairer maidens on the catwalk, pale and wan in peachy pink chiffons. But fin de siecle, this time around, meant Karl had to modernise things. He added transparent, wipe-clean overdresses. Presumably clever Karl has noted that, even if you do still want haute couture, there is nowhere left to get it maintained.

If it is clear that haute couture is not to last beyond the millennium, it is equally clear who will be the bandleader, earning a last buck by playing into the sunset as the whole thing goes down forever. Karl Lagerfeld is no romantic; he refuses to hang on to anything simply in the name of tradition. He designs clothes calculated to stir up the storm the businessmen behind Chanel like to keep their perfumes and cosmetics in the public imagination.

Lagerfeld has just signed up for six more multi-million dollar years as design director of Chanel, which will take him to 1999. Perhaps that will be the end of his involvement. It is unlikely that haute couture will continue to be supported; even though it is a useful promotional tool, it will prove an increasingly expensive way to sell scent.

Already there are signs of change. People are fed up with the brouhaha that has replaced time-honoured elegance. Being pushed into a clothes rail so that Cindy Crawford, Richard Gere and their bodyguards could pass impressed no one at Chanel, and many customers opt to shop by video at home.

Plenty of society women still go to Christian Dior, even though the house is rumoured to have lost a few key customers since it appointed an Italian at the helm. Gianfranco Ferre is a cultured, intellectual man who obviously goes to great trouble to make his collections under the Dior umbrella appear French.

His rigorously tailored trouser suits and neat, above-the-knee skirts and jackets looked suitably Parisian - Princess Michael of Kent and Marie-Helene de Rothschild both seemed to like them - and his evening wear made reference to the bi-centenary of the establishment of the Louvre Museum. Long, concertina-pleated gowns fell straight and narrow from below the bust. Little boleros, one in blood red over a gold lame yolk, emphasised classical proportion.

There was nothing classical at Jean-Louis Scherrer, where the eponymous designer and founder of the house was sacked last month. His replacement, Erik Mortensen, who was once at Balmain, had nothing better on offer than Ali Babas in floaty chiffon.

Balmain is earmarked for a revival, now that the Paris-trained, Dominica- born, American-based ready-to-wear designer, Oscar de la Renta has taken over. We will know by lunchtime today if he can cut it as a couturier.

Gianni Versace, who hails from the south of Italy, is not a couturier, despite the fact that he sells a label called 'Couture' from his marble-floored store in Paris and that he showed a label called 'Atelier' at the Paris Ritz on Saturday, the day before couture week started. That the opening section of his collection seemed to be a homage to the early days of Saint Laurent - it started with a play on the pea-coats Yves is famous for - was presumably purely accidental. But his lilac leggings embellished with what looked like glace flowers and sugared almonds worn with pink and gold mules were pure Versace. So were his short, kilted skirts, almost identical to those shown in his (relatively) cheaper ready-to-wear collection a few seasons ago.

The gap between ready-to-wear and couture is narrowing in any case. 'Luxe' level ready-to-wear is now almost as intricate - and expensive - as couture but it doesn't require the inconvenience of sittings. Meanwhile, many young couture customers visit only once - as brides in search of the ultimate wedding gown.

There is one bride couturiers are keen to dress, the future wife of Prince Albert of Monaco. This week, Paris Match says it will be supermodel Claudia Schiffer, who practised wearing the bridal gown at Chanel, while insiders point to Suzanne Aichinger, Christian Lacroix's model and catwalk bride. Whoever it turns out to be, it'll certainly pep up business for one Paris couture house.

(Photograph omitted)

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