Galliano's glamour fills the luxury gap

Fashion designers are worried that Gap has conquered the world and we will all wear T-shirts forever. So in Paris this week the labels strike back with a show of style. Report by Marion Hume Photographs by Peter Macdiarmid
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The invitation to John Galliano's show came wrapped around a flute and dusted with rosin, the chalk ballerinas use to add grip to point shoes. The instructions as to time and place were typed on a musical score. Outside, before the show, it was a mob scene. Afterwards, everyone was talking about the set, the music, the drama. Yet here we all were in Paris to report on clothes.

John Galliano is a great dramatist who happens to create particularly delicious slinky gowns and jackets that appear to belong to a past era. These can live up to the overblown theatrical settings he creates for them. He is not alone in his stagings of "fashion happenings", however. This week, "happenings" have been going on all over Paris. Those in the ringside seats have found themselves acting more as theatre critics than fashion reporters.

For what fashion is appears to have changed. It is now as much about theatre as it is about clothes. We have long since got used to the fact that Haute Couture (shown in Paris in July) has almost nothing to do with clothes and everything to do with causing a sensation in order to promote brand names. But the ready-to-wear shows (which we are watching in Paris until the end of this week) used to be about clothes which those of us who were neither celebrities nor superwealthy might choose for our everyday lives. So far (and we still have Gaultier, Chanel, Valentino and Saint Laurent to see), wearable daywear has been something of a rarity.

It seems that daywear might become an endangered species. Designers seem to be putting a disproportionate amount of effort into "occasion dressing" considering how rarely most of us have occasions. Designers explain it by citing what they call "the luxury gap", a reference both to the international trend to dress down, Gap and now "Post Gap" style, and to their increasing need to offer luxury in order to persuade women to buy designer clothes at all. John Galliano has emerged as the luxury gap's surest practitioner.

Who is going to buy his antique-looking, Victorian-style fitted jackets, his slender damask trouser suits, his bias-cut, satin-backed crepe gowns? Browns, South Molton Street, is, reportedly, not short of willing customers. Neither is Liberty, Regent Street. There are now loyal customers for Galliano's glamour from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. The third and last of the Duty Free fortune Miller heiresses, Alexandra, marries this month. Expect to see plenty of Galliano's gowns snapped at the rounds of hen parties, on the day itself and at the pre- and post-nuptial balls. At the wedding in London this summer of Miller sister Marie Chantal (attended by The Queen) people lost count of made-to-order or bought-off-the-rack Gallianos.

So what should those already pencilled in to attend smart social events next spring look forward to wearing? What should those with not a hope of being invited to anything that requires a full-length dress expect to see on the pages of Hello!?

A sleek bias-cut black slither of a dress with huge monochrome rosette on the shoulder. A slinky white gown with "peeka-boo to bare flesh" broderie anglaise detailing. A ballerina-froth of tulle and cerise taffeta, attached to serious corsetry or, for the daring, a short version in off-white tarlatan.

Women will choose to wear Galliano both because his clothes are alluring and because the designer, who will also take on the Givenchy label in January, is hot. What he is so good at is the spinning of extraordinary tales in cloth. His most recent fiction appears to be of the odyssey of a Caribbean exotic leaving her sulky, sunny island to arrive in a city of ballet and opera.

Of course, you can't sell stories. But the fantasy, the theatre Galliano adds to his offering makes these clothes particularly appealing for those in the vast fashion show audiences, who in turn wield influence of their own. What the Paris Spring Summer 1996 shows have not yet offered is the plot as far as daywear is concerned. But with Galliano (and the legion of other designers), evening and occasionwear is strangely well covered.