Why this was the toast of Paris ...

Today John Galliano must be a proud and happy man. The bandana'd plumber's son from Streatham is the toast of Paris and London. "There hasn't been an outburst of press attention like this since Christian Lacroix launched 10 years ago," says Sarah Mower, fashion-features director at Harpers Bazaar US magazine. "John Galliano's Dior debut was the outright winner," pronounced fashion high-priestess Suzy Menkes in the International Herald Tribune, and the whole of Fleet Street agreed. But if Galliano is happy, there's someone who is likely to be even happier, and that is Bernard Arnault, the business brains behind Dior.

The name of Arnault is not up there with Lacroix, Lagerfeld or Saint Laurent; but he is in fact a bigger mover and shaker in the fashion world than any of them. Arnault runs an enormous conglomerate called LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), one of France's three biggest companies; the group includes the fashion houses of Givenchy (now home to that other London lad Alexander McQueen) and Kenzo, plus Louis Vuitton luggage, as well as other fashion and luxury goods interests. It's unlikely that M Arnault, who is notoriously hard-headed, has taken up these fashion houses because he appreciates a nifty example of bias cutting; he expects to make money. Behind the froth and fantasy of Monday's triumph is a smooth and calculating business strategy.

This week's Galliano-fest is the culmination of a long, steady marketing campaign which began even before he was appointed to Dior. When the relatively staid Gianfranco Ferre left in July 1996, Dior did not immediately announce his replacement. Instead there followed a huge fuss, defying couture convention, about interviewing dozens of potential candidates, starting a mass of rumours linking names such as Gaultier and Westwood with the fashion house. Galliano's success was announced during last October's Paris fashion week, to ensure maximum press coverage.

The column inches multiplied when, at the end of November, Amanda Harlech, Galliano's "muse", left him and went to Chanel - "bad" publicity maybe, but publicity none the less. Finally, coup of coups, Galliano's first dress for Dior, a midnight-blue satin slip, made front pages worldwide in December when Princess Diana wore it to New York's "party of the year", the Costume Institute ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The dress was a gift from ... Bernard Arnault, who met the Princess last year.

It is well known that Dior is counting on Galliano to give the sleepy old fashion house the update that it desperately needs. But the reasons that Galliano must succeed go beyond getting Dior up on its feet. French fashion as a whole is in crisis, and M Arnault has fingers in a lot of fashion pies. "The background to the appointment of Galliano and also of Alexander McQueen at Givenchy is that the global luxury goods market is buoyant, but French brands are losing out to makes like Prada," says Alice Rawsthorn, journalist at the Financial Times and biographer of Yves Saint Laurent. "The French look, classical, formal and opulent, was perfect for the Eighties, but in the Nineties even high fashion is much looser and lighter. The French are terrified and are looking for a change of look right across the board - and some iconoclastic publicity."

The French also feel beleaguered in other directions, says Martin Raymond, senior lecturer in fashion journalism at the London College of Fashion. "They are petrified of the British and American talent. So France is poaching top British names."

Very few couture houses break even - there are not many women who can afford to pay pounds 10,000 for a dress or upwards of pounds 30,000 for an evening gown. But made-to-measure one-off garments pay their way indirectly. "The reason why a brand name persuades consumers to spend lots of money on expensive products is because of the imagery associated with it," says Alice Rawsthorn. "So the clothes are essential to establish the image." Big profits then come from perfume, cosmetics and other lines.

So even though couture is not expected to turn a profit, it has to keep ticking over - and a more youthful image could become an essential asset. The current pool of buyers are mostly ladies of a certain age - putting it bluntly, the age of the zimmer frame - and they are dying off. "The number of buyers is down to about 1,000," says Martin Raymond. These elderly socialites, such as American Nan Kempner and Portuguese Sao Schlumberger, have to be replaced. "Dior needs to attract the next generation - the kind of woman who is already spending pounds 2,000 or pounds 3,000 an outfit on Galliano ready-to-wear."

So, erm, are Galliano's clothes - described as an inspired merging of "Edwardian, Charleston, Chinese and Masai tribal inspiration, with mini- skirts" - actually any good? With the front pages secured, it's almost an irrelevant question. On Monday last week the reception was rapturous. The stars were there in force: Charlotte Rampling, Beatrice Dalle and Emmanuelle Beart, along with Bernadette Chirac (imagine Norma Major turning up to Vivienne Westwood). "My god, you could almost reach out and touch the hem of Naomi's tulle!" exclaimed one journalist, in ecstasy, as the supermodels drifted by. "C'est sublime!" sighed a French fashion editor, overcome with emotion at the sight of an evening cape fashioned out of macaw feathers.

However, the fashion writers to watch are those who write for newspapers rather than magazines - in particular Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune. Fashion houses have enormous clout in the magazine world because of the amount of advertising they buy, so a stinking review in glossy pages is pretty much unthinkable; and, on a personal level, fashion designers take a dim view of being rubbished: Suzi Menkes herself has been excluded from shows in her time. As an anonymous designer at the Galliano show murmured, somewhat nervously: "Can you imagine the situation now that Bernar

d Arnault has bought up Dior, Givenchy, Lacroix and practically all the rest? If you slagged off Galliano you'd be banned from all the important shows in one fell swoop." This dreadful dilemma doesn't arise with this collection; the boy done good (mostly). Galliano is known as the fashion editor's designer - his clothes are innovative and make striking photographs. Menkes praised his "audacious and salacious, ethnic and r

omantic" clothes as "a pretty good effort", though she found his tailoring lacked "conviction" and disapproved of the lingerie-look of "hand-painted-panther-chiffon trimmed with lilac lace". Sarah Mower agreed that his day-wear was "pretty perfunctory". There is, she says, a long way to go in the mission to rehabilitate Dior. One good show doesn't turn a business round. "A lot of French houses are associated with very naff products, from umb

rellas to neckties to popsocks. Gucci made a comeback only after a complete style pogrom. It will need hard work on product, marketing, advertising. They are starting with the froth." And, says Alice Rawsthorn, attempting to lift a staid fashion house by hiring a new designer can leave the businessmen behind the deals with egg on their faces. "Gianfranco Ferre was at Dior before Galliano and it was not a huge success. Christian Lacroi

x got good reviews, but didn't sell. Claude Montana didn't work out at Lanvin. There are more misses than hits." Additional reporting by Julie Street in Paris. Additional research by Emma E Forrest.

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