Fashion Last week's fashion feast in Paris set a new precedent for the fanciful and showed that the world of extravagant one-offs is thriving.
For fashion fans, a front-row seat at the Paris haute couture shows is about as good as it gets. You can witness extraordinarily beautiful "fairy-tale" fashions - the best money can buy - created at legendary French ateliers, using luxury fabrics and hand-executed techniques that have taken hours, days - weeks even - to construct.
And, boy, does it show. But this fashion feast, held every June and January, is about more than just frocks. Haute couture, or made-to-measure high fashion, gives designers a rare opportunity not to worry about cost or wearability. In fact, the more expensive (upwards of Dh73,000 for a simple top; Dh730,000 for a showstopping evening gown), extravagant or excessive the better. As a result, couture remains the ultimate status symbol.
To be seen to be wearing it means you've made it. To be seen watching it does too, which is why haute couture week proves irresistible to far more of us than those very thin, very (very) rich ladies who can actually afford it. Every night last week, the Paris traffic ground to a halt during l'heure de pointe, the rush hour. As the city sizzled in temperatures that soared to 40 degrees, roads were cordoned off and barriers erected to allow limos ferrying Carla Sarkozy, Joan Collins, or a super-rich oligarch's wife to get to yet another star-studded couture show or fashion-related party that would begin - of course - fashionably late.
Crowds of Parisian onlookers, having been told of the occasion by policemen, couldn't have been more pleased. Not too long ago haute couture, the pride of their nation, had been virtually written off. Now it's thriving. Having a first lady who wears Dior couture has been a boost, but it doesn't entirely explain why clothes that until recently were worn soley by wrinkly (albeit wealthy) ladies has become a major trendsetter.
The fall/winter Paris haute couture season, which officially finished last Thursday (or Friday if you include Giorgio Armani being presented with his Légion d'honneur [National Order of the Legion of Honour] by Nicolas Sarkozy), set a new precedent. Here were trends galore: sorbet pastels, draping and swing-out skirts, strapless and back interest, a silhouette made up of armour-like layers but constructed from fabrics lighter than a feather.
The key to the couture renaissance lies in the clothes, which can defy gravity and reality, worn to maximum effect by the most beautiful models on the planet. It's also got a lot to do with the staging. What used to be an exclusive presentation in the Parisian ateliers with clients perched on gilded chairs has grown into a lavish, star-studded son et lumiere spectacle staged at some of the glitziest, grandest of venues Paris has to offer.
It's no secret that these are a marketing ploy, a showcase for design houses to ultimately sell the perfumes, make-up and accessories the ordinary masses can afford. The French noticed the world was shrinking and bringing with it new customers from the Middle East and Russia, which just might allow for a future generation of couture designers. The buzz last week was about several new couturiers, including the 34-year-old Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad, who divides his time between Beirut and Paris, with ateliers in both.
At Murad's show in the opulent Theatre National De L'Opera Comique, the British actress Joan Collins told me that now that Valentino has retired she plans to switch her loyalty to Murad because "his clothes are utterly dazzling". (They were.) Murad's Middle Eastern base amounts for 30 per cent of his customers. His show, inspired by the grandeur of St Petersburg and Russia, hinted at where his other clients live.
Other new names on the block include Adil Khamidov, Felipe Oliveira Baptista, and Irfé, a Russian couture house originally founded in 1924 by a relative of Catherine the Great. Irfé was "relaunched" by the stunning former model Olga Sorokina with a lavish party in Avenue Winston Churchill on Monday night. So what of the clothes? The former Galliano assistant Alexis Mabille opened the season with satin smocks, which seemed to be held in place by chiffon "wings" as light as air.
However, his youthful vision still has a long way to go before he poses a threat to his former boss. There are designers, there are Paris-based designers, there are Paris haute couture catwalk shows. And there's Dior. John Galliano's collection, staged in the grounds of the Musée Rodin, oozed sophistication and sheer class - sheer being the operative word. "Couture in a contemporary way", was how he described his take on Dior's famous New Look of 1947, which took on the silhouette but was constructed from transparent gazar that was both sculptured and weightless.
Cloche hats designed by Stephen Jones gave a Twenties feel to dresses made from transparent chiffon in shades of white and pale mint. This was far more restrained than recent Galliano, although occasionally he allowed himself a bit of camp fun with leopard print evening dresses and pencil skirt suits and cloche ensembles, which in the nicest possible way reminded me of Tony Curtis in drag in Some Like It Hot.
The Portuguese designer Felipe Oliveira Baptista put his finger on what could be the new fashion colour: bright pea green. Don't believe me? American Vogue's Anna Wintour is already wearing it. For once, she had every reason to wear her signature bug-eye sunglasses throughout the shows - there was so much sparkle, glitter and gleam going on, especially at Giorgio Armani Privé. "You will never make a mistake if you wear Armani," the glamazon and Armani ambassador, Eugenia Silva, told me just before the house lights dimmed.
"You never get embarrassed looking back at old photos," chipped in one of the big-haired, face-lifted, skeletal couture creatures, possibly in her sixties, but with the figure of a woman half her age. No one does ladies trousers quite like Armani but it was his jackets (without the linings or shoulder pads) that triumphed at this show: feminine and empowering, in a palette of "greige". Laminated python, fur worked into coats and bands of ruching on velvet encrusted with Swarovski crystal might sound "busy" but each ensemble was perfectly streamlined and slimming.
He picked up on the trend for big bows with an oversized bow tie made from sparkling jet beads teamed with an androgynous tux suit. But his show-stopper was a goddess dress seemingly inspired by a Rolls-Royce silver lady and created from platinum beads, the weight of which caused the model to visibly lurch as she walked. Chanel and Christian Lacroix provided justification (if it were needed) for couture being accommodated in our everyday world.
Karl Lagerfeld's futuristic show of ice white tweeds and silver and grey swingback jackets trimmed in fur and feathers was totally, fabulously, new. Matte silver sequins adorned pleated and folded sculptural skirts and dresses in his new working of the classic Chanel suit but with origami sleeves and intricate lattice work. Christian Lacroix opted for gold in his show at the Centre Pompidou. Silhouettes veered from gothic Victoriana to Spanish Matador, each outfit embellished and embroidered and worthy of being a museum piece.
One pirate-style buccaneer jacket in pale green and pink and trimmed with old gold lace was the most exquisite item of clothing I've ever seen. It certainly made me long to be very thin and very rich.