Haute potato

It is an irony not lost on the fashion world that couture week, the ultimate display of clothes made for the 1 per cent, happened to coincide with the French government’s announcement of new taxes targeted largely at that 1 per cent. The juxtaposition worked to put an issue that has preoccupied the boardrooms and backrooms of some of France’s biggest luxury companies in pretty stark terms: in François Hollande’s France, is there a place for such seeming sartorial indulgence?

The answer, from the industry, is two-fold. First, take a look at the front row: most of couture’s clients are neither French nor even western European; they are Russian (one Russian client, Ulyana Sergeenko, even had her own, off-schedule couture show this week), Middle Eastern and Asian, and they are more than willing to support the ultimate in the art of dressing. Fair enough; the proof is in the patronage.

And second: this isn’t indulgence, it’s the preservation and continuation of a French tradition of craftsmanship and savoir-faire, part of this country’s patrimoine, and as such, should be valued like any art form, not derided as a relic of gross profligacy.

That’s a more complicated and challenging argument to make because it has to be done in garments, and the (sometimes too strenuous) effort to convince formed the undercurrent of much of last week’s collections. Just consider the fact that Karl Lagerfeld, as canny a fashion world strategist as we have seen, called his Chanel collection “new vintage”, drawing a direct connection to the past.

As an example of what an atelier can do, it was a case study in skill (as well as pink, from dusty rose to candy-floss, and grey; black and white), with bouclé suits of trompe l’oeil tweed that was actually embroidery or beading; loose trousers crafted from a patchwork of lace under billowing embroidered blouses; and dresses paved in sequins or blossoming a garden of silken roses and feather puffs. However – and here’s the danger when you look back to go forward – it also felt leaden, the shapes boxy and thick, as though any idea about the woman underneath had been lost in favour of the effects.

This is also an issue for Giambattista Valli, who, despite being the newest couture name on the schedule, seems obsessed with a fantasy of a Roman past, creating beautiful sculptures in lush, impressionist satin that exploded in ruffles from the waist up and down, or were drowned in three-dimensional blooms and leaves – either way turning his women into female topiary, made for planting rather than power plays.

At least when Elie Saab feeds his clients’ fantasies, he does so in (relatively) wearable, red carpet ways: encrusting lace and tulle, jersey and chiffon, with embroidery and sequins, so the result, this season, was Cinderella by way of Constantinople.

Modernity is a complicated proposition when the modern world itself is so ambivalent. No wonder many designers stuck to their signatures.

Giorgio Armani, for example, said his Privé collection was inspired by a sky segueing from morning into night, which meant sunsets silkscreened on to dresses and jackets – collarless and lean, over easy velvet trousers – and velvet columns ringed by silver, as well as heavily beaded skirts and bristling iridescent collars. Jean Paul Gaultier played a lengthy riff on his greatest hits, from multiple versions of le smoking – in a crocodile tailcoat, an abbreviated tux bolero over a beaded jumpsuit – through gold-embroidered sunbursts of catsuits under billowing opera capes, cage corsetry and beaded, fringed flapper frocks. And Donatella Versace, returning to the couture catwalk after seven years, also returned to super-body-conscious form via corsets of narrow leather strips and slithery evening gowns “scarred” here and there by stitched leather slashes.

Eye-catching as they were, however, in their familiarity they lacked the persuasive power of the unexpected. As Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli at Valentino said before their show, the challenge is showing that “traditional craftsmanship can be alive”, that contemporary couture is not, in fact, an oxymoron.

They managed it by marrying simple shapes to lush materials, from liquid velvets to extravagant brocades and embroidered chiffon – one grey gown had 45 different colours of thread in it – so dresses and gowns and even jumpsuits had a kind of regal effortlessness (a regal jumpsuit? Who knew?). And Raf Simons did it in an elegant debut at Christian Dior by building almost all the silhouettes on the classic Dior moulded bar jacket and then liberating them from the reference.

So embroidered ballgowns became truncated peplumed tunics over skinny cigarette pants, and the decoration on strapless dancing frocks was reduced to its essence: broad horizontal stripes made in the tiniest feathers; a Seurat-like garden composed of minute swatches of fabric. If some of the updates didn’t work as well (most obviously, odd seams and folds on the bust), overall the result was smart, respectful and engagingly independent.

Likewise, at Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci took familiar tropes – the gypsy; the 1960s – and abstracted them into something original: a simple biscuit wool skirt with a sheared mink shawl bodice, the fur under-embroidered in raised leather-covered patterns, the two connected in a knot at the waist like a slightly feral version of a silver screen gown, or a jumpsuit covered in caviar beading with a cashmere halter evening scarf as a bodice, caught by a cummerbund of matching fabric.

Aside from some heavily fringed leather pieces that were technically mind-boggling but too weighty and constricting to allow for real strides onward (both literally and metaphorically), these were fierce and functional clothes, and thus they harked back to the original point of couture: giving women self-confidence and the ability to move with purpose through the world.

At its best, couture can take the spirit and skills of once upon a time and use them to vault – not into the happily ever after but into the here and now; to show you can have your past, present and future too. That’s worth it, in any country.

The problem is the rest of the time.

For slideshows of couture and menswear visit www.ft.com/style

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