It’s too bad EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht wasn’t at the couture shows last week. It would have given him lots of ammunition during this week’s EU-US free trade talks (presuming they go ahead) when the question of the French exception culturelle is raised. After all, the fashion industry is not covered – not even the made-to-order highest end of it, as invented and perfected in Paris. What became increasingly clear during the collections is that, other than location, couture no longer seems to have much to do with France.
Part of this is literal: of the big brand names still on the couture schedule, only one, Jean Paul Gaultier, is actually designed by a Frenchman. The rest are created by Belgians (Dior, Martin Margiela Artisanale), Dutch (Viktor & Rolf), German (Chanel), Italians (Versace, Armani, Valli, Valentino), Russians (Ulyana Sergeenko) and Lebanese (Elie Saab). But most of it is aesthetic.
Blame the free market; blame globalisation, blame the internet, but contemporary couture seems further and further dissociated from its roots. As couturiers seem well aware.
At his Chanel show Karl Lagerfeld built a ruined theatre set in the glass confines of the Grand Palais. At Dior, artistic director Raf Simons said he was inspired by four continents (Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas) and a need to make a collection “about Dior not just being about Paris and France, but about the rest of the world.” Viktor & Rolf, returning to the couture schedule after 13 years, chose as their comeback collection a series of black coats and gowns seamed and textured to resemble the lava-like rubble of a rapidly cooling new planet.
At Valentino’s lyrical show inspired by cabinets of curiosities, Hitchcock and the Renaissance – cue double-faced camel-toned tweeds; cocktail sheathes made from a lattice of astrakhan and jet; and gowns beaded with coral branches – Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri noted that all their pieces were made at their ateliers in Italy, by Italians.
“French?” they shrugged, and looked puzzled. “Couture doesn’t have to be French.”
It’s not that this departure from the old world is necessarily a bad thing, but in severing couture from its roots, designers have to situate it in a new geography. At the moment, most of them are – well, all over the place.
Lagerfeld’s Chanel offered a futuristic take on dressing for the new megalopolis – in a 1980s New Wave sci-fi kind of way: think silver, black-and-white metallic suits, skirts very short or hobbled at the mid-ankle, jackets with a rounded shoulder; long, full dresses tailed with metallic sequins; and wide, vinyl hip belts.
Then there was Simons’s quadrilateral Dior, each locale abstracted in its references: Asia represented by a three-tone column in spiky shibori fabrics; Europe by asymmetric, full-skirted, long-sleeved grey flannel and silk dresses; the Americas in the ease of orange and black striped satin ball gown under a navy tank top.
This was smart, but, in conceptualising some ideas, Simons also confused them; a multi-layered “Bar” jacket over an ultra-mini over a sheer embroidered skirt looked over-thought, while the simplest frocks – such as a body-hugging column of iridescent sequin stripes – challenged assumptions and seduced the eye.
Donatella Versace situated Atelier Versace in a global nightclub, with black silk trenches, the seams picked out in diamanté hook-and-eye fastenings; trouser suits paved with micro-sequins that undulated with the light; and cocktail dresses that played peekaboo with corsetry underneath.
Ulyana Sergeenko went the Russian gothic way in Juliet-worthy velvet gowns and high-necked-and-waisted dresses. And Elie Saab stayed at home on the red carpet with sparkling tulle-and-lace gowns and cocktail dresses.
As for Giorgio Armani, he unmoored himself from earth altogether and took off into the clouds. In his best Armani Privé collection yet, he concentrated on lightness; of shade (nudes and pale grey) and fabric, from flowing trouser suits to gowns in layers of lace and chiffon.
Occasionally over-bare? It still made more sense than Giambattista Valli’s imaginary Land of the Porcelain Dolls, where the big idea was 3D blooms attached to cocktail frocks and gowns: how many woman want to look like a mobile arboretum?
Probably about as many as want to live in ye olde Paris of Jean Paul Gaultier, whose work now has a Disney feel. An ankle-length mink anorak was insouciant in the extreme, but trousers with “coronet” pockets were an unflattering gimmick; a leopard print and crystal dress was the right side of kitsch, but a crystal mesh leopard biker was just over-the-top. If the last of the great Gallic couturiers can’t find his place in a continuum, it’s probably over.
For a slideshow of the Paris couture shows visit www.ft.com/style