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Paris Couture recap: The resurgence of decadence, with shirts made of gold and walls of flowers

A model presents a creation by Belgian designer Raf Simons as part of his Haute Couture Fall-Winter 2012/2013 fashion show for French house Dior in Paris July 2, 2012.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

It was a display worthy of a coronation – or the Chelsea Flower Show: 48,000 delphiniums,35,000 golden rods,36,000 phalaenopsis orchids, 16,800 peonies and nearly a dozen varieties of roses, each represented by thousands upon thousands of buds.

All in all, approximately one million individual blooms – mounted floor-to-ceiling and colour-coded through five salons in a private mansion – went into heralding the arrival of Raf Simons as creative director at Christian Dior.

The flowers were both a celebratory gesture and a poignant nod to the past: The house's founder,couturier Christian Dior, adored blooms, even referring to his famous New Look silhouettes as his Flower Women.

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Dior's new helmsman, who presented his namesake men's wearline in Paris the previous week, did not need to earn the industry's respect with his debut for Dior. He had secured that during his six-year tenure at Jil Sander. Arguably, his challenge on the afternoon of July 2 was even bigger: Simons needed to reaffirm the legitimacy of haute couture itself – especially the fact that it is conceived and produced with painstaking workmanship to be worn, not just put on parade.

Simons rose to the occasion,adding newness to the New Look via an embroidered ball gown chopped off at the hips and paired with black cigarette pants. He finessed the classic Bar silhouette– slightly rounded around the shoulders and nipped at the countless standout pieces that one might wear time and again:

patchwork coats embroidered with metallic sequins, jackets trimmed with pleated chiffon mimicking the hemline of a blouse, fine lace dancing over even finer chiffon gowns,a pleated silver skirt dipped in fluorescent pink paint.

At Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci proposed a tight selection of 10 looks, as impactful from the back(more so, in some cases) than the front. Fur was hand-plucked to create a lace pattern studded with resin pieces and sewn back onto tulle. A mink bodice atop a high-waisted wool skirt was an exercise in restraint until an up-close examination yielded patterns of beading covered in leather and lace. Tisci excels in richness –heck, these were like royal robes,without the frills.

Even Elie Saab – master of the ethereal, embellished dress –began with an all-black grouping of lacy, beaded, body-skimming gowns before returning to sunset hued full skirts dusted in gold leaf. The Ottoman motifs cited as inspiration were subtler than the way he pooled fabric and exposed wide stretches of back.

At Valentino, the program notes accompanying the show once again detailed the labour involved: 1,200 hours of embroidery for a blouse and trouser pairing covered in crystal sapphire and jet-beading, 600 hours for a soignée jumpsuit woven with gold thread, 450 metres of wool for a coal suit and blouse embroidered with corresponding wool appliqués.

Of course, the numbers accompanied by currency symbols are never published or discussed: Perhaps the houses realize that their clients, whether old-money or emerging-market, are calculating the cost-per-wear ratio with greater frequency. Then again, Kim Kardashian, who put in appearance sat the Stephane Rolland and Valentino shows with new flame Kanye West, isn't exactly known for thinking cautiously.

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But does a departure from the over-the-top design of the past create a blurrier line between ready-to-wear and couture? Not really. There's the obvious question of why people might spend an inordinate amount on velvet pants from Armani Privé when they could go into a Giorgio Armani boutique for a nearly identical pair, but many of fall's strongest couture looks are deceivingly decadent. An image doesn't reveal the braided trim and leather-covered beading that embellishes a Givenchy robe. Nor does it show how delicate the pleating is on those sinuous Valentino dresses.

"What makes couture so important is technique," Pamela Golbin, chief curator at the Decorative Arts Museum in Paris, insists. And "technique isn't [developed] for a photo, but for the wearer. So, by definition, couture doesn't translate to a photo because it's not about an image but an experience."

She has a point. After all, those flowers will wilt, turn brown and die; the gilded venues will get transformed again and again. Couture,however, is a longer-term proposition. And the options, more than ever, justify themselves.

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