Glamorous fantasy? And wearable? Lagerfeld bridges the divide at Chanel

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The Independent Online

While Parisian haute couture provides glamorous fantasy for a privileged few clients and celebrities, it also exists to explore and perfect the technical possibilities of fashion design. And occasionally, despite the more glitzy raison d'etre as outfitter to the Oscar-nominated, the couture's famous attention to fit and flattery is applied to wearable clothes.

Yesterday it was Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel who demonstrated how the expertise of the couture workrooms can make for impressive daywear.

As is house tradition, a sequence of skirt suits opened the show, held in a marquee adjacent to the Hotel de Bourbon Conde. Coco Chanel's famous wool boucle suit remains as the core of the fashion house for both its ready-to-wear and haute couture collections. For this spring the made-to-measure, hand-sewn version features the signature soft cardigan jacket with broad but delicately moulded shoulders and a narrow, knee-length skirt with a kick pleat.

Another invention by Mademoiselle Chanel, the little black dress, was also very much in evidence yesterday. Mr Lagerfeld's subtler version of the party-season staple skimmed over the body in straight lines with drama provided by girlish white tulle, which frothed around the shoulders. Mr Lagerfeld did not lose sight of wearability. Haute couture customers may be extremely rich but it is unlikely that they share the same vital statistics as the whippet-thin models.

But Mr Lagerfeld's designs shown yesterday were not always so forgiving to the female form. Skirts made from tiers of lace or tulle ­ lavished with beading and embroidery ­ were suspended at the broadest part of a woman's hips. This tutu-style shape looked playful on models but it is surely a tricky garment for most customers to wear.

While there are only a few hundred women in the world who can afford the five or six-figure prices of haute couture, the designs will burnish the image of Parisian fashion houses and add value to their brand. In an industry which has had its profits in all sectors undermined by a strong euro, such favourable publicity comes not a moment too soon.

Meanwhile, Christian Lacroix wowed his clients last night with a spring/ summer 2004 collection which demonstrated why he is considered to be the master colourist of haute couture. His hand-painted, hand-sewn, beaded, pleated and patchworked chiffon dresses floated around the models' bodies in a haze of hot colours. Besides technical brilliance, Lacroix also demonstrated a finely-tuned sense for the otherworldly effect that his clients require from these most costly of party frocks.