New-look Dior blooms at Paris couture

Dior blanketed a mansion in fresh-cut flowers Monday to fete its new designer Raf Simons and his playful, modern spin on the house's iconic silhouette on day one of the Paris haute couture shows.

The fashion galaxy had been bubbling with excitement to see the avant-garde Belgian's debut at Dior, more than a year after its flamboyant frontman John Galliano was sacked in disgrace over a racist outburst.

Sharon Stone, Marion Cotillard and Isabelle Huppert were among the A-listers there for the show, set in five opulent rooms bedecked wall-to-ceiling with a thick canopy of flowers -- a million buds in total -- each in a different hue.

Workers toiled through the night to display the white orchids, red roses, blue delphiniums, yellow goldenrods, and for the "Christian Dior" room pink roses and mixed garden flowers in a nod to the house founder's passion for the floral.

For the clothes too, the 44-year-old Simons said he looked to the house's 1950s roots, when the couturier was at its helm, taking the "architecture" of his classic silhouettes and reworking them for a modern woman.

The Dior "bar suit" -- a pencil skirt and jacket with a nipped waist and a flare at the hips, called a basque -- was suggested in slender black pantsuits, in bustiers, on coats and bare-shoulder dresses with structured, flared skirts.

For the past year Galliano's former right-hand man Bill Gaytten had kept the Dior ateliers ticking over -- and sales buoyant -- with polished looks built on trademark Dior codes, but fashion-lovers were hoping for something more.

Judging by the crush of people pressing to congratulate him after the show -- including top designers Marc Jacobs, Alber Elbaz and fashion veteran Pierre Cardin -- Simons did not disappoint.

"There was all of Dior's fragility, and Raf's modernity," approved Elbaz, Lanvin's star designer, while Vogue's creative director Grace Coddington told AFP she "thought it was really beautiful".

"And my expectations are always very high," she smiled.

"It takes me back to my 20s," Cardin -- who turned 90 on Monday and was Dior's very first employee when the couture house opened in 1947 -- said as he embraced the young designer.

"He is a true disciple of Dior," Cardin told AFP. "He is respectful of the house. But with time he also has to be himself if he wants to be a great couturier. It has to be recognisably his work."

Dior's owner Bernard Arnault, head of the LVMH luxury empire, said Simons was given "complete freedom".

"I told him, 'Give us your version, you imagination of what Dior means today'," said the tycoon.

For cocktail time, Simons matched bare-back dresses of fluid silk crepe, in fuchsia or trademark Dior red, with black or navy cigarette pants.

A band of electric blue silk was draped bustier-like over the breasts, joined at the back with a panel of coloured embroidery, worn over black wool pants.

And for chillier nights Dior's woman could step into midnight blue dresses of mink and astrakhan fur.

From blacks and deep blues, the palette swept up via intricate floral embroidery, to the palest pinks and blues, like on a show-stopping series of ball gowns fully embroidered with downy feathers.

The result won a ringing endorsement from the celebrities present.

"We are very lucky to have this very intellectual designer with us," said Stone, one of the faces of the luxury brand like Cotillard who found the show "sublime, very inspired."

But former top model Ines de la Fressange was more nuanced, judging the look: "graphic, romantic but with a bit of a vintage side it."

"It's honestly done, but very reasonable, quite solemn," she said.

Catering to no more than 200 of the world's richest women, haute couture is a protected appellation in France, awarded based on strict criteria such as the amount of work carried out by hand and in-house.

Two dozen houses will be sending out their one-off creations over three days of exclusive shows, with Chanel and Givenchy to follow on Tuesday and Jean-Paul Gaultier on Wednesday.

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