Gaultier shows why he's the last, best hope for couture

Jean-Paul Gaultier closed spring/summer 2005 haute couture week in Paris yesterday with a bravura show inspired by Africa.

Staged in a former theatre that also serves as Gaultier HQ, models wound around the salon parading outfits that flaunted the technique of his specialist haute couture workshops.

A rust-hued skirt suit lavished with glass beads in a floral relief pattern, modelled by Naomi Campbell, made a confident start to the evening.

Signature designs such as his curvaceous tuxedo trouser suits and raunchy corsets - Gaultier first came to fame in 1990 when Madonna wore hisconical bra - were integrated into his tribal theme.

But it was a series of intricately worked evening gowns that reiterated the designer's position as one of France's best hopes for couture. Many of them are destined for red-carpet fans such as Cate Blanchett, who wore a lilac Gaultier gown to the Golden Globes earlier this month. Details such as elaborate pin tucks on a cream halter dress, or the mass of multi-coloured beads and passementerie that decorated a floor-length frock showed off the skill of the ateliers.

Since Yves Saint-Laurent retired in 2002, Gaultier has been viewed by the fashion establishment as his successor and has inherited the patronage of many of the older designer's moneyed clients. In his prime, Saint-Laurent also explored African themes.

In fact, Gaultier's is the youngest haute couture business in Paris, having beenn established for just eight years. Now aged 53, he trained at Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou, and has finally shed his soubriquet as the "enfant terrible of French fashion'.

The surgically enhanced and reed-thin clients in front-row gilt chairs yesterday burst into applause at the sight of a gown constructed entirely of black silk satin ribbons, its bodice cleverly shaped into a face. If the total number of clients willing and able to spend up to £70,000 on a couture dress has now dwindled to around 2,000 worldwide, the turnout was reassuring during an uncertain haute couture week.

The bleach-blond designer emerged at the end to accompany a model whose "wedding dress" was a tiny white bikini, proving that, despite his status, Gaultier is still capable of adding shock value to even the most expensive outfit.

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