By  on January 22, 2008

The spring couture collection John Galliano showed for Christian Dior on Monday was wildly luxurious and full of extraordinary craftsmanship. He used lots of volume to dramatic effect in exaggerated peplums, trapezes and pleated panels. Here, one example: a dress which suggests a robe à la Française.

Inspired by a 19th-century portrait, John Galliano presented a Dior couture collection full of 21st-century extravagance, while Donatella Versace rounded out the first day of the season with a shot of Hollywood glamour.

Christian Dior: "Madame X," John Singer Sargent's wonderfully scandalous portrait of Virginie Amélie Gautreau, was the starting point for the Christian Dior collection John Galliano showed on Monday, the soundtrack of which closed with The Guess Who's "American Woman," minus the anti-war lyrics. Interesting brackets for an outing that gushed with willful decadence in extravagantly bunched taffetas, mega doses of euphoric color and a deluge of mesmerizing embroideries, shown against a set of exotic swags, fringes and tassels lit to a dangerous absinthe green. Just like Sargent's 1884 canvas, Galliano's lineup fascinated with its voluptuousness, its sensuality, its complete disregard for current social mores.

These days, of course, Dior and most other high-end houses are looking beyond the lands of crashing markets and government-issue $500 checks for all. In that light, Mme. Gautreau emerges as something more than mere fashion muse — her X-factor just might stand for all that's still left to be learned about luxury's — and by extension haute couture's — most eager customers. "American woman, stay away from me....I've got more important things to do than spend my time growing old with you." Especially when there's a whole new world of emerging markets out there, luring with the thrill of the unknown and filled with filthy-rich women, mysterious fashion mistresses, if you will, who seem not to share the Western view that discretion is the soul of chic. Not that Galliano's Dior is abandoning its traditional base, but if the wife lets herself go, the mistress might just take over for good.

Nor was Galliano's lineup what one would call exactly wearable by any woman anywhere in almost any conceivable situation. Rather, once again he indulged in a lavish treatise of possibility marked by breathtaking craftsmanship — make that artistry. The clothes are masterpieces of construction, this time featuring controlled volume, oodles of it, in stiffened trapezes, intricate peplums, huge sculpted roses and any number of high-drama robe à la Française back panels, all embellished with stunningly beautiful embroideries and hand-paintings inspired variously by vintage perfume bottles and the mythical Greek Chimera. But extravagance to the nth degree, no matter how gorgeous its components, can turn oppressive. In fall's Bal des Artistes and last spring's ravishing ode to Japonica, Galliano avoided that trap to perfection, transporting his audience to worlds of wonder. Here his impassioned pursuit of more just felt like too much.Versace: The fact that a house opts out of a major wingding couture show does not necessarily mean that its principals are willing to pass on photo ops of the red-carpet and editorial variety. Case in point: Versace, where Donatella Versace has long believed in the value of a good celebrity sighting. Thus she shipped her collection of 15 couture dresses to her Paris boutique for viewing by appointment before they move on to L.A. for the Oscars, should that event take place. Though the house standard sexy goddess dresses were oddly absent, the lineup of siren corsetry, shine and curvaceous frills should be more than enough to land Versace a spot in the awards-show limelight.

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