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J-Lo, Versace lead Paris' haute couture revival, as new clients soar from Asia, Middle East

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PARIS - Just a few years ago it was on the brink of extinction. Now, haute couture — the 150-year-old Parisian tradition of making unique, astronomically-priced handmade gowns — is back.

The fall-winter 2014/15 collections started with brio Sunday with the Atelier Versace show, graced by Jennifer Lopez. The calendar has expanded to five days from three this season to make room for 12 major houses as well as a whole swath of up-and-coming names. Additions in recent seasons include the return of big-hitters Donatella Versace, Giorgio Armani and Maison Schiaparelli.

So why did the tide turn?

"With so much focus from fashion's powerhouses on heritage and traditions, couture has returned to centre stage as it is the embodiment of savoir-faire," suggested Long Nguyen, co-founder and style director of Flaunt magazine.

"There is also a resurgence of clients coming from new markets — Asia Pacific, Middle East, Russia — that supplanted the dwindling traditional European-based customers," he added.

Lebanese socialite and famed couture buyer Mouna Ayoub says word of mouth has driven large numbers of rich Middle Eastern women to couture houses in the last decade.

"It's all so secret and they deny it, because spending more is frowned upon. But I personally know at least 100 Arab women who in the last few years have started buying couture. They love it," says Ayoub, who says she spent nearly 300,000 euros ($409,000) on one Chanel couture dress.

Haute couture — a protected name — is an artisanal tradition invented by Englishman Charles Frederick Worth in the 1870s. It involves intricate, time-consuming sewing, unusual fabrics and luxurious embellishments such as rare feathers or semi-precious stone beading. For a century it defined the essence of French fashion, turning houses such Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent into the envy of the world.

Then in 2002, the death knell sounded when YSL held his last couture show and the number of houses and clients started to shrink. Critics called couture old-fashioned and irrelevant.

Now, designers like 30-year-old Dutch abstract designer Iris Van Herpen, who won the prestigious ANDAM fashion award this week, have helped reshape perceptions about the age-old tradition and made it fresh again.

VERSACE BRINGS J-LO TO PARIS

One reason for the couture revival is the return of the top fashion houses and their A-list celebrities — one of fashion's most effective marketing tools.

Jennifer Lopez caused a media frenzy as she entered Donatella Versace's show near the Champs Elysees wearing a shoulder-less white Versace hourglass dress and tightly pulled-back hair.

This isn't the first time Versace and the American singer have been linked. Lopez wore an unforgettable plunging exotic green Versace silk chiffon dress to the 42nd Grammy Awards ceremony in 2000 that critics have said represented the turning point in Donatella Versace's career following the murder of her brother, Gianni.

VERSACE'S SILICON PRINCESS

Donatella Versace injected a little bad-girl attitude for Atelier Versace's fall-winter show Sunday, which showcased a voluminous ball gown in double duchesse silk coated with black silicon.

Elsewhere, it was all about revealing slits — and a couple of over-the-top blue fur coats with a dazzling organza and mink patchwork.

Some of the asymmetrical looks worked well — like a column dress slashed at the front with one leg covered like a hybrid pant.

But Donatella Versace is the queen of excess. One black one-legged office pant suit was twinned with a billowing split duchesse gown in midnight blue, and might be too much for some.

STEPHANIE COUDERT

It was great, creative couture debut from up-and-comer Stephanie Coudert.

The French fashion designer from Belleville, a down-market district of Paris, impressed critics with a decidedly upmarket collection that included medieval-style cone hats and delicate, beautifully constructed coats.

Set in a 19th century mansion, the show featured a sumptuous teal green silk column dress that softly encased the model.

The cuts were finessed. One navy woolen coat sported such long, generous lapels that they almost looked draped.

FRED SATHAL

Fred Sathal competed with Versace for the most excessive show of the day.

The former opera costume designer has fashionistas gasping at one chunky fur coat made only from sewn-on animal tails.

Otherwise she continued with her "boho luxury" styles, including cocktail dresses with slightly random sequins and beads. Hand-dyeing gave a nice edge to a Mandarin-collared column coat, but some of the embellishments looked haphazard.

___

Thomas Adamson can be followed at http://Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP

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