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Paris fashion comes back to heyday of haute couture

Designers created Paris collections that harked back to the heyday of haute couture.

Spectacular evening gowns, trompe-l'oeil effects and sharp tailoring were among the highlights of the spring-summer displays by labels including Christian Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Martin Margiela and Yohji Yamamoto.

British designer John Galliano blended androgynous tailoring with slinky Hollywood glamor in his collection for Dior, which read like a tribute to screen siren Marlene Dietrich.

As front-row guest Sting looked on, models stepped out in tailored suits to the strains of his song "Englishman in New York." When the soundtrack segued to Billie Holiday, daywear gave way to wispy silk negligés and rippling silk skirts.

"I thought the presentation was beautiful, the way the music fit the clothes perfectly," U.S. rapper Kanye West, a regular at the Paris fashion shows, told The Associated Press.

Dior celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and Galliano made sure to include plenty of references to house classics like the Bar jacket, borrowing its peaked shoulders and nipped-in waist to give a beige trench coat a retro allure.

In recent seasons, many designers have drawn on the precise cut and exquisite detail of made-to-measure couture - perhaps to thwart fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Zara, who sell copies of catwalk creations before the originals even hit store shelves.

Christian Dior ushered in the couture era in 1947 when he launched his controversial New Look, with its ample skirts that required acres of fabric in an era of rationing.

The next 10 years saw a boom in made-to-measure tailoring in Paris and London which is documented in "The Golden Age of Couture," a new exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

Claire Wilcox, curator of the show, said some of the outfits featured in the exhibition seemed "extraordinarily contemporary."

"I think the exhibits are a mixture of very much period garments, but others do have a real resonance today," she told the AP. "Couture is still very important and it's true that a lot of contemporary designers do still reference this golden age."

Though only a handful of fashion houses - including Dior - still offer made-to-measure outfits, many labels are seeking to replicate the exclusive feel of couture with customized or limited edition products.

"We do more couture than most couture houses," claimed Westwood, saying that clients can order custom eveningwear from the Gold Label collection she showed on Monday.

The eccentric British designer imagined 1950s sex symbol Marilyn Monroe cavorting with an English lord on a country estate - cue a mix of sexy little black dresses and sculpted taffeta evening gowns.

Yamamoto also gazed to the past, but the crinoline skirts he showed were far removed from those worn in the 19th century.

Made from matte black or shiny silver fabric, their hoops billowed out asymmetrically over one hip or rose forbiddingly in the front. A back view revealed mannish black trousers hiding under the millefeuille layers of the swinging frocks.

Margiela was similarly playful, using a plethora of optical tricks such as prints of reflected light on matte fabric, horizontal strips of nude jersey and jackets with entire panels removed.

Hemlines either stretched to the floor or barely grazed the crotch.

The cult brand is rapidly expanding with recent store openings in Los Angeles and Milan, and this season introduced its first collection of sunglasses - a cool wraparound style reminiscent of the black strips used to hide subjects' identities in photographs.