PARIS (Reuters) - The who's who of the fashion world came out to toss flowers at the feet of Christian Dior's new creative director on Monday, applauding the fresh and modern approach Raf Simons has brought to the feminine extravagance of a grand French atelier.
The Belgian couturier greeted oversized expectations for his first Dior collection with a decidedly architectural look that reveled in sumptuous understatement. The house has been without a permanent designer since former star John Galliano fell from grace over a drunken, racist tirade.
Rival designers Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, Louis Vuitton's Marc Jacobs, Versace's Donatella Versace and even veteran couturier Pierre Cardin were on hand for the Simons debut in a grand Parisian mansion festooned with flowers.
"Flower women" is how Christian Dior referred to his revolutionary 1940s creations that used an abundance of fabric cinched in tightly at the waist to create his "New Look" silhouette that personified post-war elegance and excess.
That floral idea, deconstructed, found its way into the new autumn/winter 2012-2013 Haute Couture collection, as the designer known for minimalism used dramatic color and delicate workmanship to revive Dior's vision.
Models navigated a catwalk that wound through five color-coded rooms whose walls were covered floor to ceiling with either blue delphiniums, white orchids, red and orange roses or pink roses and peonies - a showstopping stage that would have struck fear into the hearts of anyone with allergies.
On the runway, structured bodices were intricately stitched to resemble petals, with subtle folds of fabric that opened like new buds on flirtatious dresses or curvaceous suits.
"The architecture of flowers is analyzed in a different way for the contemporary world," wrote Simons in his collection notes, adding that an "intense, new use of color" was central.
Following the show, as a crush of photographers and television cameras encircled Simons, designer Elbaz summed up the collection succinctly: "Voila modernity."
Others agreed. French actress Marion Cotillard, wearing a navy floral dress with a short full skirt, called the collection "sublime," while black-clad Sharon Stone dubbed the floral motifs "very witty."
As for Simons, who appeared relieved that it was all over, more prosaic concerns were on his mind.
"I need another drink," he said, heading backstage after greeting guests. "Now, a glass of wine."
Dior is the elegant feather in the cap of luxury goods group LVMH, which besides fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and Givenchy also owns Moet Hennessy and jeweler Bulgari.
Sales in Asia and the United States helped LVMH to a 25 percent rise in first-quarter revenue in April, but some analysts worry that wealthy buyers may balk at continued instability in the global economy and pull back on purchases.
The hiring of Simons for Dior's top creative spot put to rest a more than year-long search to replace disgraced ex-creative director Galliano, who was fired after he was caught on camera hurling anti-Semitic insults at people in a Paris cafe.
That negative publicity was forgotten on Monday with one look at the hyper-feminine dress in light organza sewn to resemble the petals of hydrangeas, or the deluxe red cashmere coat that made a swooshing sound as it wafted past.
Black suits had exaggerated "New Look" waists, while a half-top, half-cape creation in electric fuchsia wool crepe over black cigarette pants was a dramatic nod to Dior's love of flowing fabric.
"It seemed very modern even though he was working with silhouettes from the '40s," said Hamish Bowles, an editor at Vogue. "It was interesting to see him use those lines in a different way."
(Additional reporting by Mathilde Gardin, editing by Paul Casciato)