As the spring couture collections got under way, designers were living large, either literally — à la John Galliano’s dramatic looks for Christian Dior — or metaphorically, as in Donatella Versace’s highly opulent evening looks for Versace. Then there was Yohji Yamamoto’s grand gesture of a fall ready-to-wear collection, which centered around mega houndstooth checks.

Christian Dior: Haute couture? At Christian Dior, it’s more like haute-ohhh-my-God-couture! Because that limitless marvel that is John Galliano’s sense of daring never ceases to amaze. Season after season, his audience shows up expecting nothing less than transportation elsewhere — far away to some magical fashion paradise — and, season after season, he puts his wizardry into play and makes that magical mystery trip a reality.

This time, Galliano and his team spent two weeks traveling to various cities in China and Japan, soaking up all manner of exotica. The history, the architecture, the contrast of old and new, the scale of the cities — he claims that such elements played into the clothes. But make no mistake about it, Galliano’s most important inspiration comes from within, from whatever mad reveries make him so brilliant a provocateur. Who else would ever think to lace orientalia with a bit of the biker babe and even the Queen Mum?

The point this season, Galliano said moments after his show: "We wanted to have fun again." And these days, fun chez Dior means living large — very large. Large in stargazing — he rounded up Eve, Elizabeth Hurley, Brittany Murphy and Michelle Branch. Large in theatrics — he imported two remarkable performance troupes, one a tai chi-kung fu troupe, and the other, a baoping group of adults and children, who performed throughout the show behind a skrim and on stage. And especially, large in volume — the clothes were gigantic.

They were also exquisite: a huge multi-pink garden party skirt; a pile of yellow and green flounces so dense you could barely see the jacket beneath; an exaggerated frock coat over a flounced lavender flounced gown. Throughout, Galliano riffed on the kimono in a celebration of color, pattern and grandeur. He gathered, pleated, bunched and billowed, while working in exquisite, exuberant fabrics. Once again, Pat McGrath worked her own magic with makeup, with kabuki-Pierrot hybrids sometimes obscured bymultiple flounces of tulle or chiffon. And often he added huge feathered Ascot hats, perhaps part of his tribute to the Queen Mum. In all, it was beautiful, a lavish expression of Galliano’s wit, and the work, a tour de force for the Dior ateliers.Yet this was not a perfect collection. Galliano has been expanding the volume for several seasons now, a look that culminated in the brilliant signature collection he showed in October. That would have been nearly impossible to top, and he didn’t. But more important than the familiarity of the volume was the fact that its abundance grew dizzying. As one dazed show-goer noted later, "In music, if every note is the loudest note, it’s overwhelming." And certainly, everything on Galliano’s runway was about more, more, more.

Then again, the house of Dior has "more" on its mind these days, as its just-released sales figures indicate a 41 percent increase in 2002. No wonder John’s feeling the more, the merrier.

Versace: "I call this collection Mysterious Midnights," Donatella Versace said of her spring couture lineup. Maybe so, but a walk through the installation at the Versace boutique on Faubourg St. Honoré indicated that she’s really thinking about something a little earlier in the evening — say, about 5 p.m. Pacific Time, which is just about when movie stars start hitting that most high-profile of red carpets on Oscar night. That’s because Versace’s lineup — a dazzling if compact arrangement of 10 gowns — is all about glamour at its most dramatic.

The presentation marked the first time that the house opted for something other than a full runway show sinceGianni Versace’s first informal presentation when he entered the couture in 1989. One line of thought had the scaled-back production an example of cost-cutting, Versace-style. But when asked the question, Donatella motioned toward the chorus line of dazzlingly turned out custom mannequins, each one made especially for its dress, and quipped, "Does this look cheap?" She said her reason for the shift was to try something new and to focus totally on the craftsmanship. "I was determined to do real couture, and to do a full show of real couture would take at least 10 months," she said, noting that the dresses took an average of 300 hours each to make. "I decided to do 10. In each show, I don’t like more than 10 pieces anyway. The rest are fillers."No fillers here, unless you consider the women’s breasts, clearly a focal point. Versace worked a single shape — a highly ornamented hourglass with a fanciful skirt — that evoked a latter-day Lillian Russell. Of course, Russell was the great theater diva of her day, and these dresses are utterly theatrical, thickly encrusted with jet, crystal, rhinestones, with skirts worked to a fare-thee-well. One skirt features tulle handpainted for an ombréd effect; another explodes into a train aquiver with 400 Black Widow ruffles. In fact, although she digressed into scarlet and silver "like the moon," Versace is feeling for black, softened by subtle changes of tone and density, sometimes flowing into deep purple or midnight blue. She also favors fabric mixes: The designer deftly worked multiple fabrics into one dress — lace, leather, tulle. And they all looked beautiful. What one missed was a sense of diversity. In showing so small a collection, Versace could have gone one of two ways: make every dress a theme unto itself, completely different from the other nine, or work a single theme. She chose to do the latter.

Versace’s shoes, showcased in a display along with a few evening bags, sparkled with enormous, dazzling rhinestones. "This time, there is no jewelry except on the feet," she said, adding something that any Versace girl worth her sparkle knows to be true: "Diamonds are a girl’s best friend."

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