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PARIS (Reuters) - Christian Lacroix staged what could be his last haute couture show in Paris on Tuesday, displaying a stripped-down, mostly black collection put together with the help of friends and artisans who worked for free.
Since the loss-making fashion house was placed under creditor protection more than a month ago, the small community of couturiers, clients and artisans has been abuzz with talk of what this means for the world's most exclusive fashion scene.
While Giorgio Armani and Chanel defied the tense mood with glittery opulence, Lacroix was forced to economize on fabrics and materials, putting all his couture skills into creating the reduced collection.
"It was like a firework even if it was black," model and muse Ines de la Fressange said after the show just next to the Louvre, surrounded by fashionistas wearing badges saying "Christian Lacroix forever."
Like many industry insiders, she worried about the effect of Lacroix' woes on the "petites mains" -- the dying breed of artisans whose skills make Parisian high fashion special.
"It's fine for Lacroix, it's his talent and he's going to keep it ... it's a pity for all the people who've been working for him, especially people doing embroidery, feathers. In Paris, they still exist," she told reporters.
Lacroix, who invented the puffball skirt and is known for his colorful frivolity, placed an untimely bet on high-end ready-to-wear and was hit hard by a sharp drop in U.S. sales.
Bought in 2005 by a Falic group, the fashion firm is now struggling to find a buyer who could turn it around.
The collection of demure black dresses with lace inserts or fur collars showed the subtle side of couture, while a bridal gown embellished with flowers and gold embroidery, topped with a Spanish-style mantilla, made for a dramatic finish.
"He's a national treasure of France and as such, for haute couture, should be saved," said Patricia Rossignol, a client in a black Lacroix dress who had flown in from Florida. "He's a key person in the fashion industry and hopefully he will continue."
Larger fashion houses such as Armani and Chanel have been able to shore up their expensive haute couture units with more profitable ready-to-wear, accessories and perfume businesses.
Chanel used giant white perfume flacons as a backdrop to a show that featured rhinestone-encrusted gowns layered like shimmering jellyfish, bell-shaped veils that covered the models' heads and skirt suits with long trains.
Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld told reporters the trains were a concession to the changing times.
"They don't have the hassle of ballgowns for balls that aren't taking place anymore," he said after the show.
At Armani, black and grey 1980s power suits with peaked shoulders gave recession-stressed career women an extra edge.
But the overall theme was glitzy, with rhinestones and sequins covering dresses, giant bauble buttons and accessories.
With actress Cate Blanchett in the audience and a champagne reception at the Musee de L'Homme next door to launch his new perfume, Armani seemed confident he could weather the crisis.
"When people open the newspaper they want to look at the pictures and dream," Armani, who had swapped his trademark black T-shirt for a white shirt and tie, told reporters after the show at the imposing Palais de Chaillot across from the Eiffel Tower. "I wanted to do something to make people dream."
Additional reporting by Mathilde Gardin