credit: AFP 2009 LYON, France (AFP) — Haute couture is the preserve of the elite, clothes with astronomical price tags that only the wealthiest can afford -- or so the received wisdom goes. Everybody has heard of the big players -- Chanel, Dior, Givenchy -- but few outside the business will have heard of Franck Sorbier, who is nevertheless regarded by many as a highly inventive creator. This year he is celebrating 20 years in fashion, the last 10 in haute couture, one of only 11 houses entitled to that designation under the strict rules of Paris fashion's governing body. To mark the occasion he has a major retrospective of his work in the world-renowned textile museum in Lyon, home to the silk industry in France, and a book to accompany the exhibition, which is open until the end of September. "Couture is what I always wanted to do, I knew I had found my vocation," he told AFP in an interview. He is not sure if he would be tempted to go back to ready-to-wear even if he had the major financial backing that is needed these days in such a cut-throat market. His approach to couture is quite idiosyncratic: he is certainly not interested in only producing red-carpet gowns. His pieces are genuine one-offs, and not necessarily made from the precious materials associated with couture. He is a free spirit who likes to do things his own way, and above all a hands-on craftsman. In the end it all comes down to workmanship -- "you have to earn your spurs" -- which is what the exhibition, "Couture: body and soul," gives a rare opportunity to examine at close range. The clothes are not displayed chronologically but chromatically, starting with black, "to show that couture has a certain timelessness," he explains. Examples abound of Sorbier's trademark method of "compression" which can best be compared to giving fabrics a quality akin to papier mache by sewing over them time and again. He had already perfected the technique with a bustier made up of offcuts of tulle all the colours of the rainbow in 1999. The sheer labour involved in turning sometimes humble raw materials into works of art is fascinating: a jacket in black and white organza ribbons is frayed to look like fur, his "Old Silk Road" patchwork coat is made up of hexagons cut from men's silk ties, an ivory tulle skirt has fringes of shredded chenille, a top is woven out of velvet ribbons using the same technique as the American pioneers to make their rag rugs. Sorbier's whimsical sense of humour comes out in his design for a robot costume in a production of the "Tales of Hoffman" in June 2008, involving a breastplate of real clock faces, cogs and wheels, or in his Tosca outfit with Venetian silver-plated icons. In his 2008 collection dedicated to famous women he imagined dressing Mother Teresa in a raincoat fashioned from plastic shopping bags. A love of nature is another leitmotif, seen in a bordeaux velvet coat embroidered with parrots and flowers in silver and gold thread. He and his wife Isabelle Tartiere are great fans of love birds, which can often be seen perching on their shoulders, sometimes mistaken for giant exotic brooches until they move. Extraordinary fragile confections of raphia and macrame, like an African witchdoctor costume with grass skirts, reflect his interest in ethnic design. A patchwork linen dress in the exhibition was worn to a debutantes ball by the daughter of Senegalese world music star Youssou N'Dour. It was designed to be worn "inside out" with the deliberately frayed seams on top, Sorbier says, showing that underneath it is perfect, as is the rule with couture. For all that he is not a household name, even in France, but has many fans, including the veteran rocker Johnny Hallyday whom he dressed for his 2006-7 tour. Former top model Carla Bruni, now France's first lady, is among the many public figures who contributed to a bridal "happiness veil" for his couture show in July 2004. Everyone was sent a square of organza and a marker and afterwards they were all sewn together: "Carla sent in a doodle of a girl smoking a fag."