In making his Paris debut, the Dubai-based designer and couturier Rami Al Ali presented a collection that surpassed in invention any of his previous catwalk shows in Rome or the UAE.
Judging from his show on Wednesday, he clearly understands that to impress the stylists, buyers and editors attending Haute Couture Week in Paris – which celebrates design at the apogee of the dressmakers' arts – he needs more than beautiful dresses and exquisite craftsmanship, and he raised his game accordingly.
Dapper as ever in his crisp white shirt and fitted pink pullover, hair and beard perfectly neat, Al Ali played a hands-on role in the presentation from tweaking the first fittings in the morning to directing his team in their arrangements and rearrangements of the gowns, which were displayed in a changing tableau of models. All the while, he deployed his famous charm in greeting the journalists, buyers and other guests who attended, calmly posed for the crowd of photographers and quietly ensured that any wardrobe malfunctions (and, inevitably, there was at least one) were dealt with quickly and discreetly. Not for him the flapping and melodrama that is so often to be found in this creative, highly strung business.
Not that the event was devoid of drama: it was certainly held in a suitably splendid venue. The Salon Pompadour, at Paris's exclusive Le Meurice hotel, is, as its name suggests, a Rococo masterpiece of gilt, wall paintings, mirrors and huge, glittering chandeliers. There could have been no better stage set for Al Ali's Swarovski-encrusted, beaded, embellished pieces, which sparkled satisfyingly against the luxurious sheen of his favourite silken fabrics.
So what of the collection? Well, it certainly ticked all the designer's boxes in terms of glamour and red-carpet glitz. The shapes - mainly long, fluid gowns, although with a few bold minidresses and even a sheer, beaded catsuit - were as flattering and well-proportioned as we have come to expect, but even the most classic frocks pushed beyond merely "pretty", offering unusual, exciting textures and some genuinely directional shapes. One glistening pink gown, subtly tucked and draped at the bodice and covered in liquid beading, fell weightily into swathes of deconstructed ruffles, while a knee-length shift, also in pink, was densely covered in plissé tulle studded with ornate silvery square panels.
How, I asked him during the show, had he adapted his collection for Paris?
"It's structured, graphic, modern, young, very sensual, not heavy," he said. "Probably I wanted it to be a bit more bold. It's a new challenge - when you stick to the same routine it can be a bit boring for the designer."
The challenge, of course, is not the only reason Al Ali has taken the brave move of showing off-schedule during Paris Haute Couture Week. To be noticed by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the organisation that controls and legally protects the term "haute couture", would be the ultimate accolade for Al Ali. Only when invited by this formidable body of couturiers can a designer show his collection on the schedule, and under the haute couture umbrella, and only a very lucky few meet the standards required. Those few include Elie Saab, the poster boy for Middle Eastern couture, and the likes of Rabih Kayrouz and Zuhair Murad, who have been invited to show as guest members in the past. For Al Ali, to secure that acknowledgement would be a game-changer.
He sees, too, the commercial importance of Paris. "Being in Paris the media are going to see it, like it, write about it, people will want to wear it."
Certainly some interesting faces were to be seen in the room, as the audience ebbed and flowed (he had rather bravely chosen to run his three-hour presentation at the same time as Elie Saab's on-schedule show, at the Grand Palais), including Edward Enninful, the influential fashion director at W magazine. It remains to be seen where this first Paris collection will carry - a season or two more will tell how far Al Ali can transcend his roots to, like Saab, reach a truly international audience.
The two gowns in the collection that provided a clue were both highly structured, unconventional pieces that pushed his work in a whole new direction. One, a gold-coloured gown, featured a sort of exoskeletal crinoline-style skirt woven from cord into his trademark Arabesque geometric shapes, all covering an extravagantly sequinned, tulle-covered column dress. The other looked as if it was made from strips of paper, laser-cut with geometrics, carefully wrapped and pinned to create a highly sculptural dress. In fact, though, said Al Ali at the show, it was made from "silk satin, mounted with a special technique that we created to give it the form and volume of leather or paper, but with a silk texture". Where on earth could he have found someone to execute such a technique in the Middle East?
He smiled, and said: "We don't give our spice mix away."
The Parisians haven't taken him from us yet.