Dominique Sirop missed out on the big job at Givenchy, but he has developed a loyal following of his own. By Ian Phillips
During last January's haute couture collections, the eyes and cameras of the fashion world were firmly fixed upon the Brits. With their flamboyant debut collection at Dior and Givenchy, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen monopolised the headlines and stirred up media attention across the globe. Yet, at the same time, in a beautiful town mansion near the Moulin Rouge, a little-known French designer was making waves of his own. Forty-year old Dominique Sirop showed a small but exquisitely elegant collection, which had fashion aficionados swiftly reaching for superlatives. "Any conventional fashion-conscious woman would kill for these clothes," wrote the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes. "The bosses of couture houses now want wacky attention-grabbing shows, rather than client-pleasers. But Sirop's collection was a timely reminder that cut and class are still the high C's of haute couture."

The name Dominique Sirop may mean little to the general public, but he was actually Hubert de Givenchy's hand-picked choice as his successor. He spent 11 years at the great designer's side, but Bernard Arnault, the boss of LVMH (which owns Givenchy label) had other ideas. He refused to even meet with Sirop, claiming that he was not famous enough, and appointed Galliano instead.

Sirop may only have set up his own Couture house in September of last year, but has already been invited to join the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. He is the first designer to receive this honour since Christian Lacroix 10 years ago. More importantly, former Givenchy clients have been defecting to him en masse and Sirop recounts that one has even stopped wearing Givenchy No. 3 perfume because she no longer wants to be associated with the house's name.

In the three weeks following his last collection, he received over 70 orders. Joan Collins asked him to design her outfit for her daughter's wedding. French actress Judith Godreche wore one of his dresses to the Oscars and top Parisian socialites like Marie-Therese Perrin (wife of Cartier president, Alain-Dominique) and Helene David-Weill (wife of Lazard Freres chairman, Michel) have sported his creations to events around town.

His biggest supporter, however, is American couture client, Nan Kempner. She heard about Sirop while holidaying in Gstaad and decided to jet to Paris especially to view the collection. She came away with three outfits and offered to organise a tea party at her Park Avenue apartment so that Sirop could show off his wares to her friends. Those present included Princess Firyal of Jordan and New York socialite Anne Bass. According to Kempner, "they thought that the collection was wonderful. They were so pleased to meet somebody new and talented."

Kempner herself is literally eulogistic about his clothes. "I am just enamoured with them," she enthuses. "It's beautiful workmanship and full of ideas. His colours are good and he has a great sense of fashion." She is also pretty crazy about the town mansion in which he lives and works ("It's as attractive as anything I've ever seen"), as well as Sirop himself. "He's divine. He's adorable," she gushes. "I just find him devastatingly attractive."

In the flesh, the dark-haired Sirop is actually much better-looking than in photos. He dresses in elegant slim-fitting jackets, wears his shirt unbuttoned to beneath the chest and has a certain French suaveness. He is, however, at first rather defensive (he claims that as a Capricorn, he is very secretive). Yet once he opens up he is witty, garrulous and very accommodating. He gives the photographer and I a run of the house for a whole day and is equally indulgent with his cat, Moon. During the interview, she climbs onto his desk and starts to eat a bunch of flowers. Unpunished, she then moves on to have a nibble at a pair of gloves.

The house he shares with Moon is magnificent. Situated at the end of a leafy passage near Pigalle, it was built at the end of the last century and was inhabited by legendary French actor and founder of Theatre-Libre, Antoine, who transformed one room of the house into a small theatre. It later became a lingerie workshop and ended up as a squat in which local musicians would come and practice.

When Sirop first saw it, the house was in quite a catastrophic state. "Everything was damaged, messed up and cracked," he says. "Absolutely everything had to be renovated." Nevertheless, he found the house quite poetic and magical and decided to buy it largely because of the fact that there was a theatre. "At age seven, I dreamt that I lived in a theatre and that I presented my first collection there," he says. "When I spoke to my mother about this place, she said to me, "you must buy it because it corresponds to your childhood dream."

The restoration work lasted over two years and Sirop decided to turn the ground floor into his office and atelier, and his first floor into his living quarters. At the top of the stairs is the former theatre, whose ceiling has been painted with a trompe l'oeil sky. Next door is Sirop's bedroom, with a small kitchen and bathroom on either side of the door. Almost every piece of furniture is a gem. Although there is a mixture of styles, Sirop expresses a preferences for pieces from the Thirties. He has a beautiful art-deco bed and a Thirties inlaid desk, on which he displays a framed sepia photograph of Hubert de Givenchy. Propped against a wall in the theatre is a large, black and white, dedicated photo of Audrey Hepburn, for whom he used to make accessories at Givenchy.

A lacquered Chinese cabinet and oriental Fortuny lamps add a touch of Eastern flavour, while other pieces are very typically French. The burnt orange velvet Directoire sofa in the theatre was bought at auction while he was helping to organise a sale of haute couture outfits. In one room, he announced the next dress and then quickly rushed off to the adjoining room to bid for the sofa. A huge 18th-century mirror was picked up from a chateau in Normandy, the black and gold chairs from the couture salon at Paquin and his paintings from the Montreuil flea market in the Parisian suburbs. "I would buy them at 6 am on my way home from night clubbing," he laughs. A number of sea shells are also scattered around the apartment. He has been collecting them since he was a little boy.

Sirop's interest in fashion also dates back to early childhood. By the age of seven, he knew that he wanted to be "either a fashion designer, magician or Sun King" (an early trip to Versailles apparently made a profound impression on him). His mother had been a model for a Paquin and it was through a contract of hers that he got his first job at Yves Saint Laurent in the early Seventies. He stayed there for five years, rose up to the position of premiere main qualifiee, but strangely never came into touch with Saint Laurent himself.

"One day, I asked to meet him to show him my work", remembers Sirop, "but my request was turned down with the words that `M. Saint Laurent does not see people who are already part of the house'." That lunchtime, he went for a stroll along Avenue George V, stopped in front of the windows of the Givenchy boutique and said to himself "After the originality of Saint Laurent, why not try the rigour of Givenchy?" He whipped up three sketches that night and by 8.10 am the next day, had been hired. He stayed until 1989, eventually becoming director of Givenchy pret-a-porter and haute couture salons.

While Sirop's style is very much his own, he does really admit Hubert de Givenchy's influence on his designs. "He made me understand that true elegance is a case of getting rid of all excess and refining the silhouette so that only the basic essentials are left", he says. Judging from his debut collection, Sirop has learnt the lesson well. Indeed, his clothes are the epitome of modern-day style and refinement. With their simple lines and perfect cut, they flatter the female body and are wonderfully sexy.

As far as haute couture goes, they are also surprisingly cheap. He keeps fittings to a minimum and suits go for as little as 20,000 francs (pounds 2,000) and evening dresses for no more than Fr35,000 (pounds 3,500). Indeed, Sirop sees more affordable outfits as the future of haute couture. "We are now at a turning point", he asserts. "The big ballgown, which takes 3,000 hours to make and which has 4,000 pearls on it, is no longer in touch with reality. The future of couture is not to simply make people dream. My clients wear the clothes I make for them every day."