Times Staff Writer

Stock market woes be damned, there was no shortage of luxury at the spring haute couture shows last month, where designers said bonjour to Mother Nature as muse and bid adieu to Valentino Garavani as a runway presence.

John Galliano set the bar high early in the week at Christian Dior. Citing John Singer Sargent's "Portrait of Madame X" as inspiration, he riffed on the seductress -- a timely topic given that Paris is abuzz about French President Nicolas Sarkozy's new lover, former model/chanteuse Carla Bruni. That she has been dubbed "the man eater" in the media gave an added dimension to a menagerie of exotic beauties in what was the most old-school couture show of the week. Voluminous silk dresses, intricate embroidery, feathers and vibrant canary colors of green and yellow evoked the plumage of attraction, while leopard prints and hand-painted python scales hinted at danger.

In the sun-drenched atrium of the Grand Palais, Chanel's models entered the runway through the tail vent of a monolithic mock-up of the house's iconic jacket, which proved to be the perfect counterpoint to the light and frothy confections Karl Lagerfeld had whipped up. Using scallop-shell designs, star-fish-like brooches and fabrics that undulated and swirled like ocean eddies in a collection that evoked the feeling of the sea.

Many hems were upswept, hitting no lower than mid-thigh. Combined with the tiara-topped and ballet-slippered models, the overall impression was one of a collection directed at a much younger clientele.

Where Lagerfeld skipped lightly along the ocean's surface, Jean Paul Gaultier plumbed the depths with a collection inspired by the sirens of the deep, and showcased on a mother-of-pearl runway. His Oceanides were clad in form-fitting gowns that cascaded down their bodies like water, some made from fishing nets flecked with gold and copper coins, others composed of intricately embroidered fish scales or metallic mer-tail sheaths. One mermaiden accessorized with a sunshade shaped like a gigantic jellyfish, another wore a nacre-encrusted bustier; several sported sailor-inspired tattoo sleeves, leggings and back pieces. The closing look artfully combined a spiral whelk shell design with Gaultier's legendary cone bra (made famous by Madonna).

But nothing compared with the emotional effect of Valentino's final show. Even after a long goodbye that began a year ago, it seemed that no one in the tent behind the Musee Rodin quite thought the moment would ever come.

Unspooling in front of an audience that included Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu, the show covered all the bases, including antebellum dresses and safari-inspired outfits with outsized pith helmets; contrast-pleated, cap-sleeved cocktail dresses and a bouquet of floral suits.

But the tear-jerker came after the last look had cleared the runway and Annie Lennox's "No More I Love Yous" began to play. The walls of the tent began to fill with projections of models clad in Valentino's signature red gowns, as the show's models took to the catwalk in the identical dresses, giving the effect of a time-lapse rose in full bloom. Valentino slowly walked the runway, blowing kisses to the audience. Then he stood at the top of the stage, surrounded by the vision of beauty he helped create, until the house lights went down for the last time.



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