It is one of life’s great ironies that the Paris couture shows always coincide almost exactly with the World Economic Forum in Davos. While the latter focuses on the looming issues of the day – the growing gap between the super-rich and pretty much everyone else, for example – the former caters to said super-rich and to their willingness to contemplate €20,000 gowns. It’s a stark contrast, in black and white and gold and silver.
Yet, uncomfortable though it is, as the industrialists, bankers, politicians and celebrities (yes, they have them, too) at Davos last week debated the problem of young people’s lack of future, the great and good in fashion did their best to create such a future. They’re not eating cake, they’re trying to address the issues. In relative terms, of course.
New fashion houses have been added to the schedule, young designers embraced, ateliers expanded and aesthetics lightened up. The result wasn’t always successful but, for the first time in a long time, it mostly felt relevant.
It began with the reintroduction of Schiaparelli after 60 years, with Marco Zanini making his debut as designer. There was also the unveiling of Vionnet’s demi-couture under Hussein Chalayan. Schiaparelli played it too safe – floor-sweeping empire-waisted chiffons and reversible jackets (tailored on one side, frilly on the other) were accomplished, but they missed the iconoclastic spirit of the founder. Yet Vionnet was too risky (dresses with “staircases” up the front and side cut-outs so large that you could see the models’ backside might work in concept, but not in reality). Still, they brought a sense of promise to the week: interesting things could happen here.
Meanwhile, Bouchra Jarrar had her premier show as an official couturier – the first woman to earn that appellation in 30 years – and her daywear-focused parade of perfectly cut trousers and jackets, feathered and paved in crystal, proved that the kudos was deserved. It looked cool; a counterpoint to Giambattista Valli’s cute ultra-mini party dresses, the tops sprinkled with blossoms, the hips swathed in draped, brightly coloured satin and jarringly redolent of the go-go 1980s. Since Valli is a young designer (in couture, anyone under 60 counts as young – and he, Jarrar, Chalayan and Zanini are all in their 40s) and has a younger clientele, it would be nice to see him break some china.
Likewise, Viktor & Rolf’s ballet-inspired/perfume-launching show of nude latex miniskirts and leotards, with real or trompe l’oeil ruffles and folds, and Ulyana Sergeenko’s Orient Express of satin fishtail skirts and peplum-ed jackets, bustiers and ball gowns, both seemed like nods to the days when couture was to be watched more than worn.
When even Jean Paul Gaultier gets swamped in a theme (dresses jewelled like butterflies; shirts with conical draped shoulders so big that they made arms into wings), you know that the time for such “hooks” is over. However, a white shirt dress trapped under a net skirt that ended in a burst of tulle, a fantastic black leather floor-length dress cut into lacy Monarchs over a burnt orange slip – these need no explanation.
By contrast, the tent-pole couture names all showed a remarkable similarity of intention, defining “modernism” as lightness and movement – though their realisation was, not surprisingly, different.
So, at Dior, designer Raf Simons played on a 1960s futuristic note, with layers of the lightest white silk tucked and cut into an openwork pattern that floated around the body like a space capsule, with a nod to infanta skirts here, an oblique reference to Bar jackets there.
At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld sprinkled diamanté on single layers of tulle, flowers on bouclé, white on white, and kept his silhouette long and slim, or nipped at the waist and rounded on top and bottom. He also paired every outfit with couture sneakers, replete with lace or embroidery or flowers: a gimmick, sure, but one that got the message – ease! – across. It was his prettiest and least forced show in seasons.
Giorgio Armani also relaxed the tendency to stiffness in his Privé show. Here he married the exotic, from northern African textiles and patterns, to sari silvers and blues in elaborately worked tulle and lace gowns, trousers and tunics, and the occasional harem pantsuit. It was fancy but not fussy, and easy to see the red-carpet possibilities – as it was at Elie Saab, whose vision (princess!) is more one-dimensional, but who used black dégradé to add a touch of provocation.
As for Versace, there the red-carpet possibilities pretty much hit you in the face. Indeed, the full-on combination of Swarovski, skin and Sunset Boulevard diva-dom (think satin jackets with draped jersey hoods studded with crystals over crystal-paved tulip skirts for day, and geometric silver beading playing peekaboo with swagged satin on goddess gowns for night) would make Lady Gaga cheer. Like it or not, there’s no doubting Donatella’s commitment to her vision, or that the red carpet is a crucial part of the fashion economy, now and in the future.
Still, if only a starlet were smart enough to wear Maison Martin Margiela’s artisanal collection. Based on the idea of recycling found materials, this season it focused on a trove of fabric scraps – Fortuny and Frank Lloyd Wright textiles, and Aubusson tapestry – and reworked them into chic T-shirt dresses, luxurious coats and one fantastic sculpted minidress covered in rhinestones, ceramic, glass and metal beads, and mirrors. It looked like nothing you had ever seen before, and felt like part of a conversation going on in the broader world or, at least, in Switzerland.
What’s interesting is that so did Valentino – for an entirely different reason. By combining austere lines with extreme handwork, silhouettes that cover the body in single layers of tulle to expose it, designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have redefined the brand. This season, inspired by operas and their women, was no exception, with decoration ranging from butterfly wings made of feathers to an embroidered reproduction of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden to jungle animals – lions, tigers and elephants – worked into cashmere or silk separates that looked almost like haute burlap; suiting for the urban jungle.
The result reflected the growth of Valentino’s couture atelier, which has doubled from 30 to 60, including 10 young petites mains. It is, said the designers, what they are “most proud of”. They were speaking not just of aesthetics but of employment and creating a future. And that has a resonance far beyond fashion.