Fashion: Haute Couture - Paris, Autumn / Winter 1994

Slender and stacked; that's what the haute couture siren wants to look like. She wants clothes cut to show off a pert bosom, skinny arms and a waist you can span with your hands. That which nature has not been kind enough to endow, money, craftsmanship and corsetry can provide.

In the past, the couture customer wanted to be elegant, or perhaps innovative; the first to wear a shockingly new silhouette; but now, she wants to be sexy. Haute couture, once viewed as a grande dame being kept alive on a respirator, is now hip, healthy, young . . . or at least young at heart.

Certainly, the look is young of body. Karl Lagerfeld says that the Chanel client begs tighter] tighter] tighter] when seams are being pinched inwards during sittings - but these women don't want to look like those scrawny ladies who didn't lunch: they still want the ironing- board flat stomach, but now with a voluptuous bust up top. In short, what is required now is a package rarely sent from on high.

What the Lord sendeth not, haute couture trickery can conjure up. By the time Karl had finished seaming, sculpting, padding jackets, dresses and evening gowns, every girl-woman on the Chanel catwalk had a shape to stop traffic. Those who brought their own ample breasts along, such as the supermodel Stephanie Seymour, looked as if they could cause a pile-up. Seymour's uplifted cleavage, bursting out above the prim severity of classic Chanel, was one part ice-cold, one part red-hot - a combination the French have adored since Belle de Jour.

A sneak preview of the Chanel collection - Karl wanted to make sure I understood his mastery this time - revealed how it was done. Intricate corsetry lurked beneath the most sedate Chanel suit. Once on, even a boucle tweed boxy jacket, buttoned right up to the throat, had oomph. No daft tea-cosy hats, no treacherously teetering heels this time. Instead, the clothes spoke for themselves - in bodice-ripper volumes.

Claudia Schiffer's white flared bridal catsuit was saying Elvis. It was saying Vegas. But somehow it was saying glorious, gorgeous, to the model boyfriends - Michael Hutchence, Kyle MacLachlan, Vincent Perez and David Copperfield - who were sitting in a line at the show like the jury at a beauty pageant.

What men think matters. That is the point. Couture customers don't buy frocks that cost more than cars to please themselves. They invest in result-wear. Today's couture customer wants men wooed and on their knees.

Mr Pearl, an Englishman, was on his knees when we turned up to watch fittings at Christian Lacroix (the show is at noon today). But he was not being wooed, he was working, tight-lacing a model into a corset straight out of Tara. As we watched, her waist shrank to 19 inches. 'It didnt hurt,' according to Mr Pearl, who described it as 'an exercise in displacement'. His own strangely hourglass figure suggested he knew what he was talking about.

'It is the customer who demands it,' said Christian Lacroix, who has sold more than 20 tightly laced bridal gowns in the past year. 'She wants a tiny waist and a decollete of which she can be proud,' he added.

Valentino's dresses and jackets aren't easy either. They are exquisite and intricate, especially his sensational slinky silver sheath - surely designed with Elle MacPherson, who was invited to the show, in mind.

Although cut to make the best of the body, Valentino's siren sheath demanded that the body be pretty sensational to start with. 'In the show, she won't be wearing anything underneath, you won't see a line,' we were told at the rehearsal as platinum-haired Nadja Auermann gave the dress a test drive.

I have always suspected that the Gianni Versace customer isn't too attached to her knickers, which was fortunate, as there was no space for them under his dresses. These were snakeskin and rhinestone to the front, constructed to stack up one's assets, and shimmering chainmail to the back, which dipped down to a rear cleavage. Other versions, which showed less derriere, came in girly pastel pink, primrose and apricot, but concealed serious stitching in the bust cups, ensuring the wearer looked all woman.

The Versace vamp is probably not afraid of surgery, but haute couture seems to be striving to provide her with an equally expensive but smarter alternative - smarter because the fashionable body-shape changes. Vivienne Westwood has already explored padded bottoms at last season's ready-to-wear. Here in Paris are the first signs that the haute couturiers are beginning to follow her lead.

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