It was one of the most poignant and emotionally fraught haute couture shows ever: a collection produced on a shoestring at the last minute, and only made possible by the collective will and donated time and skills of the seamstresses, embroiderers, jewelers, milliners, and shoemakers loyal to Christian Lacroix. As the whole world knows, his future is in limbo after his former owners put the Lacroix business into administration and laid off all but 12 workers—an unclear and messy situation that leaves one of the greatest creators of the genre out on his own. Only the models were paid—€50 each, according to French law — but they too ended up in tears. "I didn't want to cry," said Lacroix, amid a standing ovation and a tumult of support from clients. "I want to continue, maybe in a different way, with a small atelier. What I really care about is the women who do this work."

If the collection was a pitch to new backers, it was one that showed Lacroix at his most restrained and approachable. Without access to the oodles of extravagantly hued and embellished materials he has lavished on his couture fantasias since 1987, he pared it back to mainly black and midnight blue, concentrating on shape and wearability. Little caped coats and coat-dresses, short and flirty bell-shaped skirts, peplum jackets, and bunchy taffeta party dresses all brought rapturous applause from a packed room of friends and clients. Fantasia it wasn't, and couldn't be. Yet no financial constraints can detract from Lacroix's mastery of his art: Witness the simplicity of a floor-length navy one-shouldered dress swooping into an asymmetrically curved back with a satin bow nestled into one side. Then there was the extraordinary wedding dress, an eau de nil satin gown with a gilded headdress, a vision evoking an image of a saint in a devotional church painting. As the designer came out to lead the bride in the finale, the whole audience stood to honor him.