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Sew Luxurious : The World's Most Powerful Taste Makers Gather to Watch the Heavyweights of Haute Couture Display Their Exalted Visions


PARIS — Leave it to Karl Lagerfeld. Who else but the Chanel designer could have so masterfully reset the clock of Paris couture to chime 1996? With his spellbindingly chic show at the Ritz Hotel, Lagerfeld reminded everyone what haute couture is really about. It's not a flying carpet to the future of fashion but simply a biannual celebration of the most luxurious handmade clothing in the world.

Haute couture, roughly translated, means the ultimate sewing. It is an exclusive club in which the members, designers and customers, take a vow to pursue exalted beauty. The purest and most Parisian example of that was the aristocratic model Carla Bruni, dressed by Chanel in a rose lace bolero jacket over a black lace bustier with a long black hip-hugging skirt. She wafted through the first floor salons of the Ritz under crystal chandeliers, stopping to peer out onto the rainy Place Vendome as if she were expecting the arrival of an admiring duke.

Only several hundred of the world's most powerful taste makers were perched on gilded chairs at the Ritz; the less elite crowd watched at the Chanel boutique on a wide-screen TV.

They saw nubby wool boucle jackets in spearmint and raspberry paired with black, bias-cut skirts. These long day looks were worn with black ankle boots and belted with what will surely become one of the season's must-have accessories, gold mesh belts with a pair of bejeweled rosettes, in front and back.

After dark, Lagerfeld evoked Empress Eugenie and other 19th century grand dames with triple-tiered dresses in black mousseline. The 1870s inspired a lot of other designers this season, including Christian Lacroix, Gianfranco Ferre at Dior and John Galliano, but only Lagerfeld knew how to render this look modern by draping the skirts close to the body.

Anyone curious about where Paris couture might go at the turn of the century should catch the next Vivienne Westwood show, since ideas the London designer presented as ready-to-wear several years ago are only now finding their way into the couture. Then again, how adventurous does a woman want to be when she's spending $12,000 on a suit?

John Galliano, in his much anticipated and extravagantly hyped first couture collection for Givenchy, offered an answer to this question: just adventurous enough to turn every head in the room but, God forbid, not to draw a laugh.

On the eve of Galliano's debut, several hundred of the most glamorous and powerful people in France, along with imported guests, including Tina Turner and Joan Collins, were closely guarding their invitations. The 35-year-old Brit from Gibraltar had galvanized the fashion community the past two years with magnificent and sometimes eccentric ready-to-wear designs.

The 45 outfits he created for Givenchy were a summary of his own brilliant career to date. His show opened with a pointed and powerful allegory, shrewdly designed to put the crowd's frenzied expectations into perspective. When the curtain went up in an indoor stadium on the western edge of Paris, two crinolined models sat high atop twin piles of mattresses. These were clothes, Galliano seemed to be saying, that could only be appreciated by a princess sensitive enough to be disturbed by an errant pea.

A group of curvy black wool pantsuits, many with silk lapels, was as close to day wear, or daily life, as Galliano came, but those outfits displayed his basic silhouette: pert, padded shoulders, fitted sleeves and either flowing, slouchy pants or body-hugging skirts.

Since haute couture is often described as fashion's laboratory, Galliano's bustiers, tuxedo suits with his signature fluted shoulder and the vivid orange silks of his Indian-inspired finale are the looks most likely to find their way to American store racks.

In keeping with its self-image as one of the great institutions of France, the House of Dior rolled out major firepower to fill the choicest seats at its show in the marvelously ornate ballroom of the Grand Hotel. Gregory and Veronique Peck, Princess Michael of Kent, actress Emmanuel Beart, Paloma Picasso, and present and former French First Ladies Bernadette Chirac and Claude Pompidou sat at the head of the runway to view a nostalgic presentation. The effect was very "Roman Holiday," complete with Empress Farah bubble-cut hairdos on the models.

Curvy luncheon suits, snugly fitted through the waist and hips, with stride-breaking midcalf skirts and plunging necklines were clearly never meant for a woman who spends a lot of time at a computer keyboard or sprints to catch a taxi. Evening wear was fully in the bower of feminine fantasy; billowing silk organza gowns in peony and rose prints emerged from Dior's secret garden, adorned with gorgeous lace flowers, embroidered butterflies and dragonflies.

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