Paris couture report

Image of Vanessa Friedman

There is a basic law of summer blockbusters, be they literary, cinematic, or sartorial: always leave ’em with a bit of a promise about what comes next. That way, if they are successful, you give yourself the option of a franchise.

This is why, for example, Lee Child’s recent best-selling book 61 Hours ends with the question of whether or not his crime-busting hero, Jack Reacher, is dead – pre-order the next book to find out! Why Eclipse, the third movie in the mind-bogglingly successful Twilight series based on the books by Stephenie Meyer, ends when one of the main characters finally chooses one of her unnatural loves over the other – quick, put the opening weekend of the next instalment in your diary! And why the couture shows traditionally end with a wedding dress, and with it, the suggestion of a new life – for which one needs an entirely new wardrobe!

In Paris last week, however, fashion decided not to play by the rules – or at least a large chunk of it did. For instead of looking forward, most of the big houses seemed to be looking back, and doing so with a nostalgic air, as if lugubriously pining after the days when couture set, as opposed to preserved, the agenda (Giorgio Armani even titled his show “A Play on Amber”).

The most spectacular event of the week, after all, was the party Valentino Garavani held at his château outside Paris to celebrate the opening of an archives/student research centre on his estate – an archive, that is, of the retired designer of the house that still bears his name, not the current work of the designers of said house (though the show by Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri was both light and intelligent, with exaggerated 1960s shapes given a modern makeover). Sitting on the acres of manicured lawn looking back over the rose garden vistas and the castle itself, with hordes of tuxedo-clad waiters and vases of white flowers, however, guests kept murmuring: “We shall not see the likes of this again.”

To a certain extent, the desire to return to the past is understandable, at least on the part of the couture houses. How annoying it must be continually to justify your existence to a world that keeps harping on about the pointlessness of making incredible expensive clothes to order for a few hundred people. If a brand wants to spend the money to employ an atelier, sustain a host of artisans, and show the extremes of what they can do, who are we to deny them the opportunity?

But, on the other hand, as an argument for couture’s continued relevance in an evolving world, this week’s shows were less than convincing.

At Christian Dior, for example, John Galliano drew on the original Christian Dior’s tulip line, circa 1953, for inspiration, so there were tulip-shaped coats and skirts bristling with fringe and blossoms, sea sponge cocktail dresses, three-dimensional columns of climbing roses, and exploding iris ballgowns. There were hand-painted silks, sumptuous colours, voluminous fabrics – there was beauty, but the net effect was puzzling. What modern woman really wants to dress like a floral centrepiece?

Or, for that matter, a sequinned medieval warrior (albeit in a pencil skirt), as was the case at Chanel? Under a 12m tall golden lion, models appeared in versions of the traditional bouclé suit or dress, in shades of burgundy, navy and chocolate for winter, with cropped jackets over high-waisted skirts that fell just below the knee to lengthen the silhouette. These segued into beaded floral tapestry versions of the same, often trimmed in fur, which then became entirely beaded and sequinned and jewelled and otherwise smothered in embellishment.

Chanel is one of the few shows that does still end with a bride (Gaultier and Elie Saab do too), but, in her armorial layers of white and gold gems, this bride looked less like a harbinger of the future than a reference to the past. Fashion may have fought its way out of the economic crisis, but some metaphors are too heavy for clothing. At least at Armani Privé, the colour of the title referred to the spectrum of natural shades that made up the collection – camel, biscuit, ecru, rosewood – as opposed to the natural preservative, though in many ways the echoes of 1930s Hollywood in the beautifully tailored trousers, strong-shouldered, nipped-in jackets, draped dresses (often caught by a polished wood pin at the hip), and metallic evening columns of gold and bronze were vintage Armani.

The ruthlessly beaded, ruched, draped and otherwise red carpet retro looks at Elie Saab were signatures of the house, as were the Smokings at Jean-Paul Gaultier, complete with smoking model. The latter was almost retrospective in tenor, from the trenches to the pinstripes to the cone bra references (recreated in fur), the corsets (in jet, on Dita von Teese) and the hints of the Far East (via turbans and belted muumuu-like golden evening dresses).

The problem is, as Bruno Frisoni said at his Roger Vivier “couture” presentation – which turned out to be not couture at all but rather a group of limited edition shoes and bags that fell somewhere between ready-to-wear and couture – that “couture feels like the past. There is still a customer, but I think people want a lighter approach to individuality today.”

To him, this meant bags of wood “pearls”, court shoes woven from straw in a millinery technique, and clutches made of wood thin enough to curve, which had to be backed on to canvas not to break. The technology took a full year to develop, and was echoed at Givenchy, where Riccardo Tisci likewise abandoned the classic approach to couture and eschewed a runway show in favour of a presentation of 10 looks that showcased the codes he is developing for the house – feathers, fringes, crystal – as well as innovative technique. With heavy adornment layered on the lightest tulle and chiffon, the pieces reflected a coherent thought process that began with Frida Kahlo and ended in three-dimensional lace that articulated the body, all caught in belts of ceramic orchids-cum-vertebrae.

“Couture for me means finding solutions to things you would believe are impossible to do,” Tisci said. “It’s like building a bridge: when you see it and it doesn’t fall down, you can’t believe it.” Bridges lead forward and back, however. It’s designers who decide what direction they take.

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