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January 28, 2011

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Couture alive and vibrant in Paris

THE demise of couture has been long foretold: It's too expensive, observers say, too fussy, too time-consuming, too incompatible with the way people live today. Couture is breathing its last, they gravely assert, season after season.

But one look at the audience at Dior's spring-summer 2011 haute couture show on Monday at Paris Fashion Week, which concluded yesterday, sufficed to suggest the contrary.

Nearly 1,000 guests braved a persistent drizzle and impossibly cramped seats to marvel at - and perhaps, later, invest in - the spectacular, outlandish, impractical and astronomically priced made-to-measure concoctions. That was about twice as many as attended last season's show.

Georgio Armani, a red carpet favorite, gave his celebrity fans lots to lust after with a high-sheen collection of futuristic column dresses.

On Tuesday, luxury supernova Chanel and cross-town rival Givenchy fielded their collections and haute couture got tugged in opposite directions. Chanel channeled the street - embracing the mixed-up, casual-chic styles of today's trendsetting It Girls - while Givenchy sent out what can only be described as extreme haute couture - breathtaking, Baroque garments that crossed the divide between clothes and art.

Karl Lagerfeld layered delicate hand-beaded jackets over skinny jeans and flats. But at Givenchy, the rarified world of couture moved even further from reality with a capsule collection of tulle gowns entirely covered in pearls, sequins, beads, chiffon petals and ostrich feathers. The dresses took up to 4,000 hours of painstaking labor a piece and fetch six-figure prices.

French designer Stephane Rolland continued to show why he's become a favorite of princesses worldwide. His collection was made for women whose packed social calendars provide them ample opportunities to work dramatic statement gowns.

Lebanon's Georges Chakra aimed at a similar demographic with his vegetation-inspired collection of cocktail dresses that sprouted tufts of tulle and glinted with swaths of sequins. Oversized ruffles dressed up the beaded bodices, and princess skirts were full and flouncy.

Gustavo Lins was at the opposite end of the spectrum. There was not a sequin in sight among the offerings of the Brazilian-born architect-by-training. His season-less collection was a black, white and charcoal affair, with kimono-cocoon coat hybrids worn over simple sundresses in hand-painted silk or knit wrap dresses. It was a lovely, if low-key, collection.

Worth - a resuscitated house founded in 1858 - served up more of the tutus that have become its hallmark since it resumed its couture line last year. Its Italian designer, Giovanni Bedin, said he'd taken his inspiration from the house's "night and day" costume - an 1880 ball gown embroidered with the symbols, insects and animals of day and nighttime.

Haute couture returned to its roots on Wednesday with a Jean Paul Gaultier show that swapped the usual booming sound track for a disembodied voice that read the name, number and a brief description of each look - just as it was done during couture's postwar heyday.

The painstaking craftsmanship that in part justifies astronomical price tags was on bold display at Frank Sorbier. The Frenchman injected the street wear of Lower East Side Manhattanites and Plains Indian women with a stiff dose of Parisian chic.

Valentino sent out a whisper-light collection of transparent, lace-and-chiffon dresses with an easy, breezy elegance, and many of the models wore chokers made from see-through plastic butterflies.

Lebanese designer Elie Saab continued his assault on red-carpets worldwide with another collection of tasteful gowns doused with flashbulb-friendly sparkle.


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