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The sky's the limit in flair and price for Paris couture

PARIS couture collections for fall and winter have an opulence and luxury unrivaled since the 1920s. For the handful of fabulously wealthy private clients who can afford to dress in haute couture, the idea seems to be that ready-to-wear fashions will do for the daytime, but when it comes to formal clothes, the sky's the limit. If you are paying up to $25,000 or $30,000 for an evening gown, that investment has got to show in terms of the striking silhouette in magnificent fabrics often lavished with embroidery. In fact, many gowns are so extravagant that they appear destined for the oil-rich Arab clientele rather than the European and Anglo-Saxon ``million-heiresses.''

There is also a feeling of nostalgia in many collections -- looking backward to the time when luxury was taken for granted and money stretched further than it does today. There are winks and whispers from the 1930s right up through the '50s, and the snugly fitted torso is a dominant theme. There is the big comeback of the redingote, with beautifully shaped princess lines; the clinging dresses with surplice or curtain drapery shaping the midriff and hipline; and those broad, padded shoulders that tend to

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slim the waist in a pleasant optical illusion.

As usual there is an uproar over hemlines, which range from just above the knees to just above the ankles, and not much in between. It's either mini or maxi; different effects for different occasions. Karl Lagerfeld, that daring young man designing both the Chanel couture and ready-to-wear collections, as well as the biannual presentations under his own name, has scissored off Chanel's classic top-of-the-calf length to a loftier height about two inches over the kneecaps.

Actually the Chanel collection was a bit of a disappointment, as Lagerfeld tended to pile on too many golden chains, too many lionhead buttons, and too many gew-gaws on the traditional under-statements.

The houses that came out way ahead this season with unanimous kudos were Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Jean Louis Scherrer, and Guy Laroche, who won the prestigious ``Golden Thimble'' award for the first time.

Saint Laurent seldom varies in both his couture and ready-to-wear collections from the semi-classic themes, which permit his worldwide following to add and update their YSL wardrobes with one or two additions each season. He emerges as the grandmaster of that highly refined art of total simplicity: the stark beauty of a Grecian column in the black-velvet evening sheaths, Renaissance gowns with long-sleeved, tightly fitted bodices over billowing satin, or iridescent taffeta skirts in a contrasting color.

Scherrer is another fan of the Renaissance, and after a couple of poor seasons, he is back on the highest rungs of the ladder. There is a sure-fire throwaway chic to his monochromatic off-white ensembles with ankle-length skirts, his baggy trousers and strass-embroidered sweaters beneath the long, full-skirted redingotes, for the actress or socialite on a winter holiday in the smartest Swiss ski resorts. The evening scene at Scherrer steps from the stage of the commedia dell'arte, with fantastically orn ate brocades strewn with embroidery and worn with braided tiaras made of the same fabrics.

Ungaro celebrated the 20th anniversary of his couture house with a flashback to the 1940s: the slim dresses with cowl or surplice drapery caught on one hip; the high necklines with decoll`etes in the back (a dominant idea in other houses as well); and the miles of black velvet employed solo or in contrast with other fabrics and colors. Ungaro even evokes a nostalgic mood in loose, wavy, shoulder-length hairstyles so reminiscent of the Hollywood stars of that era such as Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, and

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Betty Grable.

That new feeling of formality is everywhere -- sophisticated, elegant fashions that visibly establish that wide divide between mass-produced ready-to-wear and creative custom-made designs. For most people, French couture is rather like a visit to the Louvre. One goes to see and admire, but the thought of actually owning one of those chef d'oeuvres is beyond the realm of normal experience.

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