Haute couture -- easy on eyes, not wallets

By Kerstin Gehmlich
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; 1:50 PM

PARIS (Reuters) - How about a golden halo and a nun-like cape for the next cocktail party? A padded kimono for the office? Or a pink dress slit from neck to belly button?

Creations at Paris's spring/summer haute couture shows were extravagant, staggeringly priced and stunningly beautiful -- but not necessarily wearable.

French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier showed floating outfits picturing Madonnas and the baby Jesus, with one dress featuring a sequined heart, from which a banner of cloth seemed to bleed.

As celebrities and well-heeled customers congratulated the designer, Gaultier explained his philosophy.

"I was looking for a piece of paradise," Gaultier told front-row guest Victoria Beckham after the show.

Beckham, whose footballer husband David has just announced he will move from Real Madrid to Los Angeles Galaxy, told Reuters she was looking forward to the move, and considering whether to take some Paris couture with her across the Atlantic.

"(I'm) very excited. We all are. The whole family are excited. The children can't wait. And David too," she said.

With David Beckham's five-year deal worth $1 million a week, Victoria is one of the few people who can afford haute couture dresses, which are made-to-measure and can cost tens of thousands of euros. There are only an estimated 200 to 300 well-heeled customers in the world.

Relying on just those few could turn the costly couture business into a risky enterprise. But rather than just hoping to sell dresses, fashion labels aim to promote the brand with the glitzy shows and lure customers to cosmetics and accessories.

Gaultier, which is 35-percent owned by Hermes, also makes perfumes and body lotions.


Dita von Teese, a burlesque dancer who has just split up from her shockrocker husband Marilyn Manson, turned into a model for Gaultier on Wednesday, walking out with a halo made from red roses, presenting a black dress with an attached cape.

Teese told Reuters on Tuesday she would love to wear haute couture dresses every day, but conceded she was a special case.

"When I was a little girl I always wanted to wear the Sunday dress that I was only allowed to wear to church or for Christmas. I would always look for an opportunity to be overdressed," she said at the Christian Lacroix show.

"But I think (that's not the case) for most people. (For fashion houses), it's about showing off what you can do and what your inspiration is for the ready-to-wear and for what really goes out to the customers," she said.

Some fashion labels have stopped the expensive haute couture shows. Others have turned to wealthy customers in Russia, China or the Middle East to promote their top-range dresses.

Karl Lagerfeld, who presented transparent black skirts for Chanel on Tuesday, said haute couture was here to stay.

"My future is Chanel. The future of the other couture houses I don't really know. We have the clients to do it," he said.

A weak yen has raised concerns well-off Asian customers could stay away from the exclusive market. But French Trade Minister Christine Lagarde said she did not share the concern.

"I think given their excellence and quality of production, they will always find clients," Lagarde told Reuters at the Chanel show. "Clients are moving around, they are diverse. And they are growing in number today."

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