From Dior to Balenciaga, Paris designs embrace both ends of fashion scale

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The Independent Online

The impact of fashion on French culture cannot be underestimated. In Paris, where the final round of the international ready-to-wear collections is under way, it is understood that this is a very serious business indeed. Even designer fashion is, at one end of the scale, for everyone - the image of Yves Saint Laurent appeared on the last French francs to be minted. But at the other end, it caters for the very few.

These extremes may best be exemplified by Christian Dior and Balenciaga. Both unveiled their offerings for spring/summer 2004 in Paris yesterday. Dior, designed by John Galliano, has always been grounded in commercial reality. When the house's eponymous founder's famous New Look was unveiled in 1947 it was embraced by women the world over. Today Dior is one of the world's most successful brands. Last week it was announced that the company's profits were up 27 per cent in the six months ending on 30 June.

Small wonder that Galliano's shows revel in the art of fashion as mass entertainment. He has every reason to celebrate and is more than happy to broadcast his success story, first to the 1,000-plus journalists and buyers in attendance and then, via the media, across the world.

The clothes themselves are unlikely to sell like the proverbial hot cakes. Only very few are likely to invest in sheer latex jeans worn over Fifties suspender belts, or a snakeskin and fur biker jacket in neon pink. No matter. There's always the shoes to rely on - sales of Dior footwear for women are booming. This time they were based on men's brogues, with peep-toes and stiletto heels and came with punctured leather bags to match. "Hard core Dior" read body stockings and tights worn under almost every outfit.

Nothing as mundane as a logo at the Balenciaga show which, despite the light heart of some of the garments, seemed far less frivolous and more tightly controlled. To begin with, it was tiny - no more than 120 people were in attendance. Nicolas Ghesquiere, the designer at the helm of the label, appears entirely uninterested in adapting his vision to broaden its appeal. It is a formula that has led to Balenciaga being the most desired label by those who like to consider themselves "fashion forward".The clothes are impossible to resist.

First out were the most brilliantly crafted, skin-tight skirt suits in soft colours. The delicate web of seams that moulded them to the body was highlighted by tiny plastic ribbons that caught the light.

Next came delicate, flesh-coloured lingerie-inspired slip dresses that swung about the torso and were worn over floral bikini tops. These will hardly the easiest of garments to carry off. Suffice to say that high-street copies are likely to be thin on the ground. But that is not the point. Instead, the thought that goes into the technical construction of the collection and the achievement of a perfectly balanced and intriguing whole is key.