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PARIS (Reuters) - Jean Paul Gaultier chose swirling translucent veils, the sound of sitars, and the insouciance of Gypsy culture for his haute couture show on Tuesday, while Valentino opted for an ethereal yet decorative look that evoked the bloom of the Renaissance.
The Spring 2013 collections presented on Wednesday by the two design houses, one French and one Italian, found inspiration from different epochs and parts of the globe, pointing to the diversity seen during Paris Fashion Week, the creme de la creme of the global fashion industry.
Gaultier, often labeled the bad boy of French fashion, turned eastward to India for inspiration, transporting his audience to Rajasthan, with sinewy models sporting oversized earrings and billowy veils in periwinkle, tangerine and pink.
Valentino - under new owners the Qatari royal family and with the designing duo of Maria Grazie Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli at the helm - presented a more sober but no less theatrical vision. Gowns that a 15th century queen would have been proud of featured patterns that brought to mind iron grillwork in a formal garden.
This range of options for women willing to shell out thousands of dollars for a made-to-order haute couture outfit help prop up the global women's luxury apparel market, estimated at 27 billion euros ($35 billion) and growing, according to consultancy Bain & Company.
Only a small number of houses such as Christian Dior, Chanel and Giorgio Armani are allowed to exhibit haute couture in Paris, where manufacturing is carefully regulated and work must be sewn by hand in order to be considered haute couture.
At Gaultier, majority owned by Spanish family luxury group Puig, some expected an elephant as the grand finale, but instead a delightful Mother Goose moment saw an elaborately decorated bride flipping up her voluminous skirt to reveal four little children who scampered down the runway to applause.
Backstage, Gaultier said it was not the first time he had been influenced by India, but this time he evoked the Gypsies, a migratory people whose centuries-old ancestral home is India.
"It's glimmering, it's incredible the colors that you see, it's superb," he told reporters, speaking of Rajasthan. "I tried to recreate a bit of that, but more the Gypsy side, rather than the Maharaja side. It's more like couture Gypsies."
The audience - which included French film star Catherine Deneuve and actress Rossy de Palma, a muse of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar - began furiously snapping photos at the appearance of a black form-fitting gown with an exposed brassiere whose diaphanous hot pink veil added a jolt of color.
Bold stripes, tight pleating and even fringe figured prominently in the collection, where a dose of colorful patchwork offered a fresh, devil-may-care attitude.
Gaultier said the patchwork was hard to recreate, but offered a fashion tip to anyone with scissors.
"In the time of economic crisis, those who are game, take your old clothes, cut them up and make patchwork! It's a new outfit!"
The liner notes for Valentino's collection described it as "sublime art" and indeed, many of the looks could have been stolen from a Botticelli painting.
With founder Valentino Garavani, who retired in 2008, in the front row, guests admired the parade of ivory, black and carnal red dresses, where heavy embroidery reminiscent of armor nevertheless imparted a light, evanescent feel.
"We think that beauty lies in the armor, in the proportion," Piccioli told Reuters. "That comes from the Renaissance, the proportion of Italian master paintings."
Silk piping wove its way across a translucent black cape covering a diaphanous white gown, the cape's swirls and geometric patterns evoking the ornamental gates to a garden.
High necklines and tight long sleeves evoked the gowns one sees adorning the marble tombs of many a deceased Renaissance-era queen, but Chiuri and Piccioli's work never felt old.
The decorative swirling pattern on some dresses evoked tapestries, while the sharp horizontal bodices of others recalled the Elizabethan-era.
Despite the many references to centuries gone by, the collection felt fresh and elegant. Backstage, a note to models summed up what the designers hoped to communicate: "You are all beautiful. Be Light. Be Delicate."
In an October 15 report, Bain forecast the worldwide luxury industry would bring in estimated revenues of 212 billion euros ($281.56 billion) in 2012, of which women's apparel would be a 27 billion euro slice.
Reporting By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Paul Casciato and Jon Hemming