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By Shine Anthony-Dharan

LONDON, 6 FEBRUARY 2008 — Aged socialites, $200,000 dresses, and celebrities in evening gowns at 2 pm? It must be haute couture season again! As members of the Grey's Anatomy cast smiled their most winsome smiles outside the Armani Privé  show, it became all too apparent that the A-list had decided to give the collections a miss this time around. Fortunately, fashionable Paris was too busy tut-tutting over President Nicolas Sarkozy's somewhat thrifty $20,000 Dior engagement ring for supermodel Carla Bruni to notice. Surely a man who is best friends with LVMH honcho Bernald Arnault could have pulled in a few favors? As poor Carla resigned herself to a ring that cost less than her Hermès Birkin, young men all over France learnt a valuable life lesson: Dior for couture, Cartier for jewels .

Despite the fashion packs emphatic distress for one of their own, everyone turned up for Valentino's show. In a room filled with images of his famous red gowns, Signor Garavani took his long anticipated final bow at the haute couture. Although little of the collection was rooted in modern fashion, nobody delivers a cocktail dress like Valentino. A shimmering beaded white dress and a transparent two-piece suit dripping with pearls stood out amongst an array of heavy 1980's prom silhouettes. Wonderful evening gowns, Valentino's usual forte, were surprisingly scarce. Apart from one beautiful high waisted tailored white dinner dress with silver crystal beading (were you watching Carla?) it was all pretty familiar territory.

A more perplexing issue was why Valentino chose this emotional moment to introduce oversize evening hats. At best they were superfluous, at worst downright hideous. Why would a woman who spends $60,000 on a blouse put what appeared to be an Ikea light fixture on her head? The wonderfully beaded and plumed accessories that this house does so well were nowhere to be seen. Luckily, Valentino's clients are amongst the most loyal around. One look at his front row of bejeweled, surprised looking socialites explains why Valentino's clothes sell. Much of the heavy-handed collection may appear ageing at first, but if you are a billionaire pushing seventy, fifty probably seems like a good look.

This show was no retrospective, that side of things was taken care of by the Valentino In Rome, 45 Years of Style exhibition in 2007. There was the dazzling array of spectacular gowns that defined Valentino's career. Remember that Jackie Kennedy wore Valentino to marry Aristotle Onassis. He was most successful when dressing women who married well; the 1960s and 1980s were his heyday. As the ladies who lunched declined, so did Valentino's star. Always tasteful, always impeccable, the couturier deserves to be recognized as one of the best Italian designers of our times.

Despite the fact that John Galliano's collection for Dior took place just a day before Valentino's, it may as well have been set in a parallel universe. Ever the master of postmodern design, Galliano fused together elements as diverse as Symbolism, Vreeland's Vogue, and 1950's silhouettes to whip up a fantasy of contemporary haute couture . There was an expansion of the Indian inspired embellishment from Dior's standout Fall 2008 Cruise collection, and more than a nod to Gustav Klimt's gilded tones in the color palette. Despite the extravagant themes involved, the end result was a surprisingly chic and relatively wearable ode to 1960's elegance.

A yellow Poiret inspired evening coat encrusted with hundreds of miniature green flowers was begging to be thrown over a simple shift for an opening at the Met. A wonderful printed orange gown took on the form of some rare, exotic flower. Say what you will about Galliano's theatrics, but the man can cut and manipulate fabric like no one else. Six inch platform shoes aside, this was a restrained collection for Dior.

As it becomes increasingly difficult to justify multi-million dollar runway extravaganzas in an industry whose new buzzwords are "ethical" and "green", Galliano has cut back on the settings. The staging this season was a simple wall of monotone blue fabric, painfully conservative for a designer whose previous collections were presented on, for example, a full-scale working steam train (Spring 2003), and an enormous Egyptian themed complex (Spring 2008).

Atelier Versace took downsizing to new lengths by not staging a runway show at all. Instead, fifteen evening gowns were shown by appointment in the backroom of the house's Paris boutique. Donatella Versace has grown leaps and bounds as a designer over the last few years. Her focus has shifted from the typical Versace embellishment to the intricacies of cut and drape. Standouts included a blood red gown with a swirl of pleats around the hip that exploded into a mass of voluminous skirts, and a one-sleeved Grecian inspired dress with more than a hint of MGM glamour. In fact, the whole collection was very Oscars orientated, glamorous but not too "fashion forward" for the likes of Halle Berry or Charlize Theron to face the paparazzi.

The backdrop to the Chanel couture show was a huge concrete monument in the shape of the iconic Chanel jacket. Appropriately enough, the show focused on Karl Lagerfeld's continued reinvention of the house's bestselling piece. This time, each look was shown with a draped mini-skirt and ballet flats. Lagerfeld is cleverly targeting the young Hollywood set, the Lindsey Lohan's and Misha Barton's of the world. These girls now set the fashion agenda for the U.S. market, a caption in People magazine is worth millions in advertising to a fashion house.

CHANEL Spring Summer 2008
Photo courtesy of Chanel

Those who actually pay for their Chanel can simply order the chic jackets with longer skirts. The flats and "borrowed from mother" jewelry looked fresh in an awkward kind of a way. The white and silver sequined flapper dress on Sasha Plvovarova was superb, as was a nude mini dress with its voluminous feathered cape. In an industry that is struggling to appeal to the under 30s, Lagerfeld continues to keep Chanel on the wish list of every Teen Vogue reader.

CHANEL Spring Summer 2008
Photo courtesy of Chanel

Remember that Lagerfeld, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent all began their careers in Paris at the same time. As young assistants the three were friends, growing apart only as their careers took off. Their rarely spoken of relationships are scandalously exposed in Alicia Drakes's The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent and, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris. Lagerfeld famously demanded that the book be removed from the shelves of Colette. Read a couple of chapters and you will understand why. In any case, the fact that Lagerfeld is the last one standing is testament to his ability to adapt to the times rather than settle into a signature look. Whereas Saint Laurent and Valentino grew set in their ways, Lagerfeld actively sought out young blood for his design teams.

While Chanel looks forward Christian Lacroix looks back, to the eighteenth century to be precise. All the lacework, ribbons and pompoms with which Lacroix is so enamored made an appearance, as did a few relatively restrained numbers that may make their way to the red carpet. Anyone who loves fashion loves Lacroix's haute couture. Each outfit was a spectacle in itself; there is more embellishment in a single look here than many would dare to squeeze into an entire collection.

Who else could pull off a sequined, appliquéd, and bejeweled tulle-wedding gown of Marie Antoinette proportions? The Christian Lacroix: Histoires de Mode exhibition, currently at Paris's Les Arts Décoratifs - Mode et Textile, celebrates twenty years of Lacroix's couture. The show thematically explores the couturier's varied influences by incorporating his creations into the museum's archives. The designer spent every Friday over the last two years painstakingly scouring the museums vast collections to put together a unique presentation. The result is possibly the best fashion exhibition of all time-it is truly spectacular. The show comes to London's Victoria and Albert museum soon, so be sure and catch it wherever you can.

Lacroix's gloriously embellished jackets and skirts were delicious this season; one aqua gown was so light it could have been a ruffle of chiffon that had momentarily blown over its model. If Lacroix channeled some of this magic into his lackluster prêt à porter collection he would finally have a profit turning business. Lacroix's genius lies in the fact that every sequin, bead and inch of ribbon he indulges in is gainfully employed. Unlike some of the other shows this season, Lacroix's could not have been improved by editing.

The couture schedule itself has been severely edited over the last few years. Only a handful of houses still present a fiscally draining haute couture collection. The emerging global markets are, however, giving rise to a revival in the number of clients. Chanel reports a major new client in her 20's, Dior ships its entire collection to one patron's private yacht, and even Valentino still has a considerable customer base.

The truth is there will always be a customer for haute couture. The only question is whether the fashion houses will continue to stage these expensive runway shows. As the prêt à  porter collections become increasingly refined and high-end department stores seize upon the concept of "demi-couture", haute couture needs to justify its existence. Ironically, it is only through a runway show that one can appreciate the delicate beauty of these creations.

A Lacroix couture dress looks great in a photograph, but it is only when you see it float past you as lightly as a shimmering feather caught in a jeweled clasp, that you understand why it took four hundred hours to embroider. Anyone who truly loves fashion cannot help but be enchanted by the theatre of these shows-the veiled Arab clients, the extravagant parties, the ethereal models and the beautiful, beautiful clothes. So let us that hope the shows continue lest haute couture becomes something that only those of us with private yachts can enjoy.

Shine Anthony-Dharan is a British fashion writer and designer based in New York. He covers fashion, beauty and interior design for Mr. Anthony-Dharan last wrote on The Golden Age of Couture exhibition at the V & A in London.

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