Galliano shines in rarefied atmosphere of Planet Botticelli

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The Independent Online

"Dior Haute Couture on Planet Botticelli!" screamed the show notes to John Galliano's autumn/winter collection for France's most famous fashion house, which opened the autumn season in Paris yesterday. It's quite an image even given this most rarefied of worlds. In this instance, however, it barely hinted at the audacity, extravagance and - ultimately - brilliance on show.

On a topiary-lined paved catwalk and with a 15th-century formal Florentine garden as backdrop Galliano sent out elaborate medieval armour crafted in the finest fondant coloured silk one minute and Elizabethan-line jackets in shiny red and black, graffiti-scarred plastic the next. Curvy day suits in violet, rose and turquoise came encrusted with precious stones and more gold braid than even the most privileged of the Tuscan merchants of yesteryear might have worn. Ball gowns were huge: hand-painted or cut out of ropes of heraldic flags and finished with ruffled, grass-green crinoline skirts.

This is a designer who takes great pride in the veritable collision of references at his fingertips and this time, perhaps more than ever, that iconoclastic mindset was on show. Galliano brought "the surrealism of Salvador Dali, the religious fervour of Joan of Arc, the anarchic energy of punk rock and the iconic glamour of the golden age of Hollywood," on to the catwalk, he said, all "experienced by a stranger in a strange land".

It is no secret that the haute couture schedule is dwindling. Over the past few years Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro and Donatella Versace have all ceased to show the entirely hand-crafted collections that remain the jewel in French fashion's crown. It is also well known that there are now only about 200-odd women in the world prepared to spend upwards of £10,000 for a single, and in this case relatively simple, garment designed to fit their every idiosyncrasy and curve. Galliano - who celebrates his tenth anniversary at Dior next January - understands that well and has always used the twice-yearly showcase as both marketing tool and laboratory of ideas.

With this in mind the designer would no doubt be first to admit that not many young women will step out next season in anything quite so spectacular as an embroidered net evening dress covered in square sequins of jade and old gold, neither are they likely to weave brass bugles and helmets into their long tangled hair. The colours, silhouettes and juxtapositions on show will filter down, however, and the publicity such unbridled spectacle continues to generate is worth more than its weight in gold.