Celebrating his 70th birthday and the 30th anniversary of his company seems to have galvanized Giorgio Armani to scale the last remaining untraversed peak in his career: haute couture. With his new Armani Privé collection, he stood up to be counted in Paris, a daring gesture of self-confidence in that rarefied—and otherwise shrinking—circle of fashion expertise.

Armani took on the challenge with a collection of 31 evening looks. They focused on a long-line fishtail silhouette in fluted gowns, skirts, and tiny jackets sprinkled with beaded embellishment. He opened with a black tulle crystal-embroidered jacket and a narrow skirt in champagne duchesse satin that broke into a stiffly undulating petaled hemline (this became a recurring theme throughout the show). Among a mainly black and neutral series, punctuated with some deviations into pale mauve and chartreuse, he sculpted necklines off the shoulder, into halters or rigid crumb-catcher bustiers, and bared backs with athletic crisscrossed racer straps. To emphasize the luxurious slant, bodices came encrusted with crystal and fringed bugle beads, while accessories took the form of tiny minaudières swinging from bracelets, or oversized flowered neck pieces from the new Armani Privé jewelry line.

To pull off this made-to-measure collection, Armani has hired 22 seamstresses to work in his Milan headquarters. It's a serious financial investment, but also a logical, pragmatic move: ultraspecial dresses like these are aimed directly at the Hollywood market he's had a handle on for years. According to Armani executives, stylists for Academy Awards nominees have already been jamming the phone lines in anticipation of the show. Next step: The collection will be flown directly to L.A. for client presentations.