Givenchy swings back to the future

Alexander McQueen, the maverick designer, has created a clear- cut, modern, first haute couture collection. Tamsin Blanchard reports from Paris. Pictures by Ben Elwes
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Just 12 months ago, the fashion press was heralding one of the most exciting moments in fashion history: the first haute couture collection by John Galliano for the house of Givenchy. On Sunday, fashion history did a double-take; the young maverick British designer, 27-year-old Alexander McQueen, presented his first show for the house he inherited when Galliano took over the reins at the mightier Christian Dior after just two seasons.

It took Galliano 13 years from leaving St Martins to get his foot in the door of a couture house. It has taken McQueen less than five - and he had only 11 weeks to prepare for the event.

McQueen made a brave and admirable move. He chose not to follow in the footsteps of Galliano, who souped up the Givenchy label with historical costume drama and fairy-tale fantasies. Instead, the designer who is best known for making trousers that just about skim the pubic bone and give the wearer a cleavage in the place she never knew she had one, made use of his most effective weapon: his quite considerable skill and artistry as a tailor.

The number one criterion for any woman - including Mouna Al-Ayoub, the couture shopper who sat in the front row, who will consider spending upwards of pounds 10,000 on a made-to-measure suit - is that it must flatter. And superb, cleverly constructive tailoring can work miracles, adding height, correcting posture, giving a waist where there isn't one, and making a smooth line to an otherwise lumpy figure. McQueen's tailoring - all-in-one trouser suits with draped collars, and structured dresses - looks simplicity itself, but will do more for the women who can afford it than all the liposuction and silicone money can buy.

The collection for spring/summer 1997 which clients will have begun to order on the Avenue George V yesterday, is almost entirely in brilliant white and gold, symbolic of the Givenchy label with its Grecian insignia. The gold looked brash, but then so are the women who have more money than taste, and who collect couture. The Greek mythology theme was evident from the start, with the waxed body of male model Marcus Schenkenberg perched on a balcony, having apparently grown a pair of magnificent, white, Icarus-type wings.

The McQueen signature came through bold and bright; why else was he hired for the job? But he left his shock tactics and often violent and aggressive imagery behind in his charmless Hoxton basement studio. On Sunday, in the fine old Napoleonic interior of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, there were entire dresses and cat-suits made from feathers stitched together to form a second skin. There was a floor-length coat of pearly grey snakeskin, and a white organza cape with butterflies trapped between the layers. (Unlike those at his ready-to-wear show in London last October, these butterflies were dead.) There was a gold corset encrusted with sparkling stones, and a white damask dress with voluminous sleeves, a camp homage to Maria Callas. At times, it could be said that there was a little too much of the "Flight of the Valkyries", obscuring the clothes themselves.

It seemed as though McQueen were reasserting the Givenchy label as one that makes luxury clothing for modern women, rather than historical costume that nobody can wear. Although the show lacked some of the raw energy and drama of his own productions in London, it was all the more mature and admirable for it. For once, here is a designer who has his customers' interests at heart, rather than his own uncompromising creative vision.

While Galliano focused on Givenchy signatures, including the bows, the frothy Bettina blouse and the feminine frills, McQueen looked through the archives and focused on a much harder, linear style. Hubert de Givenchy himself, now almost 70, must be watching the unseemly designer turnover and the relentless quest for publicity at the house he created with some bewilderment. But at least Mc Queen has laid the foundations of something so strong and modern that the future of the once ailing, anachronistic world of couture now seems secure.