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Fashion’s farewell to frugality

Front row in the Paris couture shows, and the chit-chat seems to be as frothy as the creations on the catwalk – clouds of cream puffery and rose-tinted tulle, petals of embroidered silk and trails of pale lace.

There is much talk about who is wearing what, and why: Anna Wintour in a black and navy tweed Chanel dress, looking positively benign without her dark glasses; Kylie Minogue cheerfully bare-legged in a short silvery-grey Dior outfit with peep-toe shoes, despite the sub-zero temperature on the streets. Still, at the end of the Dior show – wherein John Galliano cited as inspiration the ethereal Belle Epoque gowns of a near-forgotten British couturier, Charles James – Minogue remarked with a wistful sigh: "Now we have to go back to the real world."

But if the world of couture is fantastical – a realm in which a few hundred women buy hand-made clothes that start at £20,000 apiece, and rise to 10 times the price – it nevertheless reflects larger economic realities.

There is an often-quoted truism that hemlines rise in line with the stock market and fall with a crash – hence the little black dresses of the Roaring Twenties, and the shift to long satin evening gowns in the subsequent years of Depression; or the miniskirts of the Sixties’ boom, followed by the maxis of the Seventies’ bust.

As a forecasting tool, fashion can be as inaccurate as a long-range weather report. Even so, Paris couture is, among many other things, a way of taking the temperature of a recovering global economy, as well as being an indicator of where the billion-dollar fashion industries might be heading in the future.

Couture, then, is not simply about its clients – although they matter hugely. Indeed, the subtle changes in their ranks have always been representative of the shifts in the world order, as the European aristocrats and American heiresses were joined by Middle-Eastern princesses; then the wives and mistresses of Russian oligarchs, the daughters of Indian and Taiwanese tycoons, and now the new super-rich, from China. They were not sufficient to have saved Christian Lacroix’s couture house from closure, but their presence in Paris this week at the twin pillars of fashion, Christian Dior and Chanel, was of enormous significance.

And while some commentators are quick to dismiss couture as irrelevant to the major sources of the luxury brands’ revenue – the perfumes and lipsticks, handbags and shoes – its role in the equation of profit and expansion is increasingly important in an industry that relies on couture to reveal fashion at its most exquisitely beautiful, to a new generation of foreign consumers.

According to Sidney Toledano, the president and chief executive officer of Christian Dior, couture is "so strategic today because, more and more, the emerging countries are becoming sophisticated in a very fast way". In an interview with Woman’s Wear Daily last week, Toledano emphasised that the influx of younger couture clients from the developing Asian markets were vital, ensuring that couture remained "the backbone of the company".

But quite aside from new customers, there is also a sense that existing American and Russian clients are spending again, albeit in a very discreet way.

In a climate where financiers and bankers are regarded with a mixture of distrust and downright dislike, being seen to spend on obvious symbols of wealth is likely to attract even more hostility. Nevertheless, as the couture-clad wife of one Russian businessman remarked to me in Paris this week: "The rich are still rich enough to buy couture, but they don’t want to be seen to be covered in logos."

Hence her enthusiasm at the Chanel collection, which showed an exquisite rainbow of sherbet-coloured chiffon and silks, yet with very little of the usual signifiers of traditional status and wealth. Karl Lagerfeld himself admitted: "It’s the first time in my entire career I’ve done a collection without black or navy. There’s not one gold button."

Lagerfeld’s right-hand woman, Amanda Harlech, reiterated the message that conspicuous display was not necessarily the prime aim of the Chanel couture collection. "Real luxury is always discreet," she said. "A couture piece is as exquisite on the inside as it is on the outside – every seam is perfectly cantilevered and calibrated to the shape of your body, so it feels like the most wonderful protection you could ever have. Of course, it’s an extreme and infinitely refined vision of how a woman can look beautiful, which touches on very rarefied desire – but this was also a collection that was serenely happy in its mood. Wearing it is like putting on a pair of wings."

These, therefore, are clothes that represent escapism – indeed, there was a silvery, romanticised space-age feel to some of the pieces at Chanel, and a not dissimilar mood at Armani Privé, where Giorgio Armani said he had been inspired by the moon: "I was thinking about something romantic and dreamy, far away from our everyday life – something less harsh."

-The Daily Telegraph

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