Stitched by hand, costing tens of thousands of pounds and destined to be worn by a customer base of just 300 of the world's most wealthy women, haute couture is a peculiarly French tradition.
So it was apposite that Christian Dior's couture show yesterday should conclude with a wedding dress, three metres wide and tumbling with folds of taffeta, embroidered with the words "Liberté, Egalité Fraternité". Haute couture week might not be inscribed in the French constitution, but the event, now cut to just three days, upholds the Gallic tradition of hand-made, highly ornamented clothing tailored to fit a client's every curve and whim.
Dior's John Galliano is its greatest showmanand his spectacular presentations also serve as a marketing tool for Dior. The blood-red satin cape glistening with jet embroidery that opened his spring/summer 2006 show signalled that the British-born designer was in combative mood. Inspired by the bullfighters of Arles and the new movie The Libertine, Galliano reinterpreted historical garments such as the corset and the crinoline for his dramatic ballgowns in brick red, ecru, black and white, many of them splattered with fake gore, or elegantly rumpled.
While the craft of haute couture is uniquely French, clients are generally American, Middle Eastern, Asian or Russian and reprises of this week's show are often made in those countries.
The trade publication Women's Wear Daily reported that both Chanel and Armani will re-enact their couture shows in Hong Kong in March for clients willing to pay up to £100,000 for a hand-embellished ballgown or cocktail suit.
Next month's Academy Awards also fuel interest in the haute couture shows. Armani, who dressed Mira Sorvino at last week's Golden Globes, gave the starlets plenty to choose from in his spring/summer Privé show, in Paris. Crystals, jet and pearls smothered every surface of many of his narrow halterneck dresses and pyjama-style trouser suits, while those after a less eye-popping effect could take their pick from pale lilac silk charmeuse gowns cut in fluttering layers or peplum jackets with broad, Forties-style shoulders.
Valentino, who closed proceedings last night, meanwhile defied doomsayers who regularly pronounce the death of haute couture with reports that orders for his most expensive clothes rose by 75 per cent last year. Emanuel Ungaro is also said to be returning to the couture schedule in July.