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Designers flaunt optimism at Paris couture week

Jean Paul Gaultier presents a look from his fall couture collection.

Pascal Le Segretain /Getty Images

If ever there was a vote of confidence for the future of couture, it was planted smack dab in the middle of John Galliano's Dior garden.

An exuberant bouquet of flower-themed creations popped up on his pristine white runway on the elegant grounds of the Musée Rodin, where the vibrant colours, extreme silhouettes and overall sense of fantasy made for great dresses - and a great escape.

Inspired by Christian Dior's spring 1953 Tulip collection, which featured floaty, flowery prints and big, rounded necklines sliding off the shoulders, Galliano also gave a nod to artistic influences such as painter Georgia O'Keeffe and photographers Irving Penn and Nick Knight.

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"It was all very Alice in Wonderland," actress Marisa Berenson mused post-show. Joyce Samuels, a New York Dior client for more than 40 years, was duly impressed: Clad in a spectacular white Dior ensemble complete with oversized Victorian chapeau, the seasoned fashionista swooned over how Galliano has managed to push the limits at Dior while always staying true to the original spirit of the house.

Wearing a fanciful straw hat and satin espadrilles, Galliano himself played into the idea of seasonless dressing with his full-bloom vision: After all, this was a fall/winter offering. "But that's the way [couture]clients live," master milliner Stephen Jones said.

"They're constantly travelling, and live in a variety of exotic locales."

Jones, who wrapped the models' heads in coloured cellophane, making them reminiscent of mega-bouquets, marvelled at how busy the Dior ateliers have become. "The staff isn't big enough to keep up with all the couture orders," he said.

I'm always kicking myself, because I could have done better. Karl Lagerfeld

Evidently, the economy has rebounded to the point that the elite group of well-heeled women who support couture are being less shy about forking out the tens of thousands of euros these custom creations cost. But though couture clients may be spending again, many designers scaled back their presentations, with several showing in smaller, discreet venues.

Giorgio Armani, who usually presents his Privé couture collections at the Palais de Chaillot, opted for a more intimate space just off Place Vendôme.

"I prefer a smaller show anyway, because you can see the clothes more clearly," legendary film star Claudia Cardinale remarked from her front-row seat. Dubbed A Play on Amber, the collection featured classic peplum waist jackets and easy relaxed coats and dresses, mostly in a monochromatic palette of beiges and browns. But the dazzling fabrications for some of Armani's gowns were intriguing, with plenty of sparkle aimed at the red carpet crowd.

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See more pictures from the fall/winter couture shows in Paris

Whether he's dressing Rihanna or Jordan's Queen Rania, Stéphane Rolland has been winning hearts for several seasons now. This go-around, at the Théâtre du Chaillot, Rolland sent out a dramatic collection of day and evening wear that was strong yet relatively simple, mostly in shades of black and blue.

"The more sophisticated Rolland becomes, the more subtle his hand," Stéphane Le Duc, editor of Quebec's Dressed To Kill magazine, commented. "There's an incredible amount of work that's gone into these garments, but there's an elegant simplicity to them that makes them easy to wear. That's how today's women want to dress."

"Honestly, I'm never satisfied," Karl Lagerfeld confided just after his Chanel show.

"I'm always kicking myself, because I could have done better."

Maybe so, but clients, journalists and celebrity guests were ultimately wowed by Lagerfeld's salute to Coco Chanel's astrological sign, reflected in the 7.2-tonne golden lion guarding the circular runway at the Grand Palais.

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The collection, which started out with wool day suits, some featuring short jackets and fuller skirts, was ultimately wearable. There were no grand ball gowns or even little black dressesd. Instead, a host of unique, elaborately embroidered frocks showed off the virtuosity of the Chanel ateliers.

But even though clients are back, not all couturiers are intent on dishing out eye-popping imagery and forging brave new directions. Lebanon's Elie Saab, for example, seems content to produce conventional glamour, as he has for years.

And while Valentino's Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli insist that they're fearless - and they may well be, as they move farther away from the master's original sensibility - their "baby doll" collection, which featured lots of ultra-short, structured dresses that pouffed out playfully, wasn't really the stuff that dreams are made of.

Two of the best displays of the week were disparate in nature, but both managed to seduce: Jean Paul Gaultier's ode to the Paris literary scene of the 1950s was wildly elegant and ultra-sophisticated.

Models in skin-tight gowns and sensually draped dresses sported taut turbans or sleek hair, all heads accented with sky-high sculptural forms. The visuals were dramatic, edgy, luxurious and very Gaultier.

Even so, the designer admits that maintaining one's signature as time goes by has its own set of perils. "It becomes harder to take chances," he said post-show. "But you have to be courageous, and keep pushing it. That's what couture is all about: Taking risks and experimenting."

Next year, Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts will present a retrospective of Gaultier's career. "I can't wait to visit Canada," the designer told me. "And besides, I have a Montreal boyfriend!"

Perhaps the greatest hit of magic this week came in the form of an intimate little presentation at three Place Vendôme salons, where Riccardo Tisci delivered an exquisite collection of 10 spectacular looks, displayed on static mannequin bodies. Crystal-encrusted cat suits, tulle and lace embroidered gowns and appliquéd jackets were part of the mix of intricate garments inspired by Mexican mysticism and the legendary Frida Kahlo. A variety of techniques were used to make some of the clothing appear as if it had been dipped in porcelain.

Viewing these masterpieces at such a close vantage point magnified their effect, highlighting the notion of the designer having a truly intimate dialogue with his customer. While this type of approach may not be right for every collection, it worked wondrously well for Givenchy, providing yet another exhilarating show of faith in the future of couture.

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