The Englishman who stormed Paris

Galliano's Dior collection feted as finest since the New Look
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The Independent Online
Not since Dior's New Look was shown 50 years ago has the couture house been so feted as it was after John Galliano's first collection yesterday.

The designer was greeted with a tumultuous standing ovation after the show at the Grand Hotel in Paris. The world's couture collectors, from Nan Kempner to the Galliano champion Sao Schlumberger, looked on in awe, barely able to control their mental shopping lists. And the Duchess of York, there in her new capacity as fashion commentator for Paris Match, sat sandwiched between Marisa Berenson, Charlotte Rampling and Beatrice Dalle, conducting her own media circus.

The clothes, rather than Galliano's usual theatrics, stole the show. There were magnificent pieces, including structured, hourglass hound's- tooth suits, Last Emperor Chinese bias-cut satin crepe evening dresses in lime green and old rose, beaded corsets inspired by the Masai warriors worn over belle epoque dresses with exaggerated padded bottoms, and fantasy ballgowns of embroidered duchess satin with yards of frothy net skirts. There was as much Dior as there was Galliano.

In 1947, when the 42-year-old Christian Dior showed his New Look, the wide hems of sweeping skirts and the opulent femininity shocked war-torn on- lookers. The look was not new, but harked back to an age when women like Dior's mother were laced tightly into corsets. Galliano shares the same vision of women. And his New Dior has made him not only the toast of the fashion world, but also of the couture grandmothers who buy.

Only a year ago, Galliano showed his first couture collection for Givenchy, which, like Dior, is owned by LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton). Bernard Arnault, chairman of the luxury goods con- glomerate is the man responsible for forcing couture to move forward. It is he who has bought John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and the American Marc Jacobs to Paris. The job at Dior is a plum post because the house is a money machine.

In 1949, 75 per cent of all French fashion exports were licensed to Dior. The house was first to seize upon the potential of selling affordable spin-offs to wider markets such as Japan and the US. Miss Dior was, along with Chanel No 5, one of the world's best-selling fragrances. Because of that, the company, with its licences for scarves, sunglasses, ties, and cosmetics, has grown to today's turnover of over pounds 1bn a year. About pounds 705m in 1995 was from perfume sales alone (about five times the sales of the fashion house itself).

By hiring new creative blood in the form of Galliano and McQueen, Mr Arnault has in effect declared war on the other couture houses of Paris, namely Chanel, the company that actually makes money out of selling haute couture.

The change in pace of Paris couture has been inevitable since Galliano was hired for Givenchy. Before that, it was assumed that haute couture was dying out, along with its handful of monstrously wealthy clients. Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld has welcomed the competition, and has managed a spot of espionage by poaching Galliano's creative support and muse, Amanda Harlech, who has been at his side for the past 12 years. In November, when Lagerfeld offered her more money than she could sanely turn down, she swapped allegiances. He shows his collection today.

Ready-to-wear designers are also been keen to get in on the act. Jean Paul Gaultier showed his first couture collection on Sunday night before an audience that included Elton John.

With the retrospective exhibition for Dior at present on show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the publicity surrounding Princess Diana in the first Galliano for Dior dress at the private view, Mr Arnault will be rubbing his hands in glee. Not only will the Dior name hit the headlines, the clothes themselves will be the most sought-after of the season.