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Such Parisiennes, numbering perhaps 7,000 to 10,000 in all, are the couturier's most exacting critics. They live in a closed, intimate world, scarcely visible to the passing visitor, slipping silently across Paris in their limousines, disappearing behind the iron gates of Paris' aristocratic and ancient mansions. With them, manners and grooming are topmost; with enough of them, one of the couturier's necessary secrets is who pays for the lady's dress. An elegant Frenchwoman will spend hours searching for the exact shade of stocking to go with a certain dress, spend days debating the choice of a dress or a hat. At her couturier, she will sit down, stand, squirm and wiggle to test her dress for an unsightly wrinkle here, a crease there, for she knows that when she dines out, every eye that is turned in her direction will be educated and practiced.
The Spaniard. In this close, inner world of high fashion, Dior is sometimes deprecated as "the General Motors of Fashion." For the few women who can wear his severely elegant suits and dresses, the designer's designer is a handsome Spaniard named Cristobal Balenciaga. His admirers speak of him as of a dark, mysterious priest in an inner shrine. Said one elegant Parisienne: "Dior is a great publicist, a kind of Barnum of fashion. He has superb workrooms, everything is beautifully and interestingly done. But the only real designer is Balenciaga." Son of a Spanish boat captain, 61-year-old Balenciaga refuses to admit the press to his showings, avoids all Paris society, appeals to women who like his austere, sculptural designs. Enormously respected by his fellow designers ("We all call Cristobal 'seigneur,' " says Pierre Balmain), Balenciaga usually scorns to institute a new "line" for every season, but last week he startled Paris by showing skirts cut off right at the knee, defying nearly every other designer's trend.
The man who claims the largest private clientele in all Paris is sturdy, bristle-haired Pierre Balmain, who is charming in several languages. Balmain numbers among his customers Actresses Vivien Leigh and Marlene Dietrich, many South American millionairesses. Some of his biggest customers are Italian designers, who reproduce his dresses for the Italian market. On Italian designers' claims to rival Paris, he is tart: "Their ambition is to design dinner and cocktail clothes, but their ability is to design sport clothes."
There are other top couturiers, each with his champions. There is young (30) Marquis Hubert Taffin de Givenchy, a gangling giant (6 ft. 7 in.) with a title more than four centuries old, whose gambit is daring colors and bizarre fabrics. In the Rue Cambon, Coco Chanel has staged a comeback with soft, clinging suits that suppress the bosom ("Madame Chanel doesn't like itsince 30 years, she doesn't like it"). At Lanvin-Castillo, the place where Parisiennes used to go if they wanted to be sure they would not be mistaken for Americans, Designer Antonio Castillo made a hit last month with 180 variations on an Oriental theme.