Fashion: Haute Couture: Fantastic fashions for a new age .. even for the most celebrated couturiers, eccentricity is no longer a luxury but a matter of survival

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TO ADORE haute couture, you must suspend disbelief. You cannot sit on your little gilt chair, frock-watching under the opulent gold leaf ceiling of Le Grand Hotel, Paris, and worry about the real world. You cannot fret about real women, either. Dresses priced at pounds 100,000 that would look right only on the skinniest of frames have nothing to do with us mortals.

So instead you focus on the mastery of the craft, the cut, the embroidery, the colours. More than that, you sit in the dark as the spotlight on the catwalk rises, and share in this fashion fantasy.

Even Christian Lacroix, a cultured and thoughtful man as well as an exuberant designer, has stopped trying to justify couture in the modern world. This time, he just let his imagination run riot. He used metallised tweed from one young weaver, made mixes of macrame from another and leather applique from a third.

One velvet evening skirt merged copper, claret and bronze under a sienna patina, like a rich Old Master that had not been cleaned for years. A black jacket had sleeves of chenille thread, sequined black ribbons, tiny beads and little stars, and looked as if it had been dipped in caviare.

Lacroix describes his approach to couture like this: 'When I started, people talked about the newness and originality of my work by describing it as eccentric. Nowadays, eccentric is no longer a luxury, it is a matter of survival. Only those who are different will resist the times.'

The suave American designer Oscar de la Renta, now in his second season at the house of Balmain, must think differently. There was nothing eccentric or surprising in a well- crafted collection of neat day suits and prim evening wear complete with chiffon sleeves to suit a clientele too old to bare their arms.

At Gianni Versace the clothes were great, too. Much sniggered at in the past for his notion that haute couture somehow translated into Italian as 'everything including the kitchen sink dip-dyed gold and worn without knickers', Versace is now advancing in the direction of technological experimentation.

Thus he showed a hybrid stocking-legging, made of fuchsia and flame velvet ribbon and black lace, injected with Lycra for stretch and embossed with rubber for strength. Shreds of dresses were revealed close up to be made from thousands of skeins of white silk thread, fragments of net, tiddlywink-sized discs of mother-of-pearl and tiny silver beads - embellished by hand on a challenging melange of fabrics forged together by machine.

Versace is a magpie who takes inspiration where he finds it. This season, extraordinarily, he looked to New Age travellers and to punk. His Dongas tribe mixes of raw red, green, yellow, orange and mud browns in crocheted squares, floral skirts and patchwork waistcoats were odd but exciting.

NO ONE looks remotely like a New Age traveller at Valentino - especially Valentino himself, who is perma-tanned, lacquered and uncreased. 'So I went to China, and how could I not be inspired?' he tells me, as the model poses in a knife-pleated skirt over plisse pants, an oriental jacket and a hat in the shape of a mandarin's drooping moustache.

Next a shining bronze jacket emblazoned with golden dragons spitting gilded fire. And for Valentino ladies not on the Shanghai trail, a hyacinth-blue evening sheath that has nothing to do with China but much to do with the skills of his seamstresses.

WHAT was happening at Chanel? Karl Lagerfeld, whose last ready- to-wear show was panned, outdid himself with an haute couture show that was grotesque. He showed micro- minis with visible wobbling buttocks beneath, abbreviated principal-boy tweed sheaths cut so that bosoms quivered like jellies on a tray, and hefty fustian blankets cut into Cinderella skirts, teamed with spangled chiffon over visible nipples and woolly arm- warmers. It was pantomine costume rather than couture. A few Chanel jackets, stripped of vulgar 'CC' insignia, were strong, but for the most part the ladies who buy looked glum.

Yves Saint Laurent devotees will look jaunty in abbreviated skirts with six inches of Chantilly lace attached below. But they might be advised to avoid the Little Lord Fauntleroy knickerbockers and an astounding dress that scooped down under the breasts. Catherine Deneuve says she will be buying yet another version of YSL's perennial severe yet fluid black chiffon gown - the most understated and exquisite dress shown yesterday. Hanging over it was the heart of rubies that the master always adds to his favourite creation.

But the star of couture week was an Irishman. Not since Charles Frederick Worth has someone from the British Isles been so in demand in Paris as the mad hatter Philip Treacy. He is a mere two years out of the Royal College of Art, but now he is making marvellous hats labelled Versace, Chanel and Valentino. In Paris this season, he emerged as a star of the first rank.

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