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J-Lo, Versace lead Paris' haute couture revival of 'astronomically priced' gowns

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 center 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 (US$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.

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Models present creations by Italian fashion designer Donatella Versace, as part of the Atelier Versace Fall Winter 2014-15 Haute Couture fashion collection, Sunday, July 6. (AP)

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