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With a burst of colour Ungaro leads the way into a bold new millennium

IF THE primary reason for couture's existence in 1999 is to dress wealthy women as well as making fashion statements, Emanuel Ungaro's future is assured.

Yesterday, Ungaro presented his autumn and winter collection in the Palais de le Bourse, a suitably grand setting for his lavish style. On a runway printed in gold and patterned with lace, the couturier showed his signature cocktail of high-impact colour, eclectic prints and fluid layers of fabric. In the programme notes, which came in a gold lace envelope, Ungaro spelt out his quest: "To separate the old millennium from the new."

Did he manage it? Yes, if his loyal clientele want to wear swishing wool trousers with lace pockets and finely tailored jackets sprinkled with beads. And a resounding yes if they want opulent dresses to wear on the social circuit.

How about a floor-length fishtail dress, cut from lace, with jet-encrusted shoulder straps, feather-trimmed neckline and a corsage pinned to the derriere?

Ungaro's eye for fine detail makes him a favourite with the fashion cognoscenti and not least with the ladies who lunch or, in this case, who hold glittering soirees. From the footwear, high-rise snakeskin boots, to the jewellery, beaded chokers that dripped down the cleavage or sprouted fine plumes around the ears, Ungaro's accessories are some of the best and most lavish in Paris. Ungaro, 66, worked for Balenciaga, one of the greatest couturiers. But he always followed his own style path, inspired, he says, by boyhood memories of the gypsy community in Aix en Provence where he grew up. Hence the riot of colour, the gauzy dresses with ruffles and the embroidered fringed shawls.

Like Ungaro, Valentino knows what his customers want and provides it. Valentino's collection, held on Sunday night, was an unabashed sales pitch to his front row. Joan Collins, Ivana Trump, Nan Kempner and a clutch of chattering princesses and contessas perched on their small gold seats in full Valentino splendour.

If his collection drew gasps from the audience, it was not because of theatrics. This was couture at its most modern and wearable. If the top half was elaborately decorated, the bottom half was restrained, and vice versa.

Valentino even went so far to put the detail - jewels, embroidery or feathers - inside a jacket, providing the wearer with the assurance that her money has been well spent without having to flaunt her wealth on her sleeve. An anti-ostentatious move or perhaps a safety precaution?

Whatever the reason, Valentino thinks of his clients first. No over-blown ball-gowns here. Instead there were svelte embroidered columns and long sheaths cascading with silk flowers. Less is definitely more where Valentino, the king of understatement, is concerned.