The end of the line for Lacroix?

He dresses some of the most glamorous women in the world and at one time was hailed as the saviour of the elite world of haute couture. But as the fashion world gathers for haute couture week which opens today, speculation is rife in Paris that Christian Lacroix may be the latest casualty of the soaring and dwindling viability of fashion's most hallowed craft.

He dresses some of the most glamorous women in the world and at one time was hailed as the saviour of the elite world of haute couture. But as the fashion world gathers for haute couture week which opens today, speculation is rife in Paris that Christian Lacroix may be the latest casualty of the soaring and dwindling viability of fashion's most hallowed craft.

As parent company LVMH Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton (LVMH)made the final negotiations for the sale of Lacroix's 18-year-old business to the Florida-based travel retail firm Falic, those in the know were doubtful of the future of his loss-making couture studio, which is to present its latest offering tomorrow evening.

"I don't think he's made a huge collection," said Francois Lesage, whose specialist embroidery workshop has supplied the haute couture for the best part of a century. "His budget is very short now. Ten years ago his budget was 10 times the size as it is now, although he has the talent to make collections with the minimum."

One French fashion editor was more direct. "Everybody thinks it's the end for Lacroix couture."

Lacroix has been defiant. This month, he told Women's Wear Daily his show would be his "best answer" to any uncertainty. Despite his dwindling resources, the designer has had notable success with celebrity clients, now perhaps the most crucial aspect of haute couture. In 2004 he provided a raunchy corset for Madonna's Reinvention tour, and it was his atelier that created Catherine Zeta-Jones's wedding dress for her marriage to Michael Douglas.

Lacroix is known to be unhappy with the way LVMH has developed his brand. His ready-to-wear collection was kept off the runway for three seasons to cut costs. The price of staging an haute couture show is high, in the region of $3m (£1.6m).

Only a handful of stellar names are on this season's schedule: Dior, Chanel, Valentino, Lacroix, Gaultier and, for the first time, Giorgio Armani, who is launching a luxurious line that, although executed to similar standards, will not be haute couture in its strictest sense.

In recent years, the calendar has lost houses such as Ungaro and Versace. Yves Saint Laurent's retirement in 2002 was also a watershed.

Haute couture differs from ready-to-wear by being individually fitted and embellished to suit each client's requirements. Garments can take weeks or months to be made, and often require multiple fittings. Haute couture is also hand-made.

The practice is a source of considerable Gallic pride in that it is a spectacular showcase for the unique talents of the workshops that specialise in creating elaborate embroidery, beading, featherwork and corsetry. It is also often cited as a "laboratory" for techniques in construction and embellishment, a stage on which designers can push their imaginations and the skills of their ateliers.

The business, unique to France, is governed by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a body which implements rules of practice created in 1945. Each couture house must employ at least 20 people full-time and produce at least 25 original outfits each season that should be day and evening wear.

Lacroix is synonymous with haute couture. His house, created for him in 1987 by the LVMH chief Bernard Arnault, was the first new couture operation since Courreges in 1965.

He shot to fame in the mid-1980s with his satin puffball skirts, much copied by other designers and viewed as offensively opulent by some critics.

Born in Arles in 1951, the designer, whose first ambition was to be museum curator, cites Gypsy traditions, bullfighting and baroque art as inspirations. He worked for Hermes (1978) and Guy Paulin (1980). But it was at Jean Patou in 1981 that Lacroix created haute couture, for which he was awarded the prestigious Golden Thimble award.

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