Though the French didn’t like it, there was an ironic symmetry to the fact that British prime minister David Cameron’s long-awaited speech about the European Union took place on the final day of the Paris couture shows. Sometimes life has a fractal quality: major patterns are replicated in a minor way. This was the case last week.
Fashion is, after all, a prime example of the efficacy of the European Union: on the couture schedule, of the seven main shows, only one house – Jean-Paul Gaultier – is an actual French house designed by a French creative director. Chanel is designed by a German (Karl Lagerfeld), Dior by a Belgian (Raf Simons), and the three newest brands, the ones whose injection of new blood helped the Chambre Syndicale argue for the continued relevance of fashion’s oldest art form, are all Italian – Giorgio Armani Privé, Versace, and Giambattista Valli – as is Valentino, another stalwart. Member invitee Maison Martin Margiela is also Belgian. Elie Saab, granted, is Lebanese, but he’s the exception.
However, the ambivalence of the speech was not that different from the general ambivalence about couture – as Cameron said: “We insistently ask, ‘How, why, to what end?’ ” So too does the fashion world. The answer depends, as all these things do, on the idea and the execution.
Sometimes there’s a show like the Dior show, where Raf Simons in his second season once again took up the codes of the house – the moulded “Bar” jacket, the curvy new-look shapes – but intriguingly abstracted them to wink at real life, so that they became ideas as opposed to straight-on references. Strapless evening gowns in sunshine yellow were sliced at the thigh by an insert of sheer tulle to flash some leg, and daywear multiplied in pieces and shades (a pencil skirt under a tank top with a strip of padded satin poking out the bottom, like a wisp of history). Floral embroideries with a hint of neon sprouted from balloon cocktail frocks, and the wedding gowns came five at a time because, let’s face it, on occasion these days so do marriages.
Then sometimes there’s a show like Versace, where Donatella Versace seemed mired in the 1980s and a sea of skin-tight suiting in 24-carat gold pinstripes, gold denim, gold leather, gold and mink stripes – as well as neon pink and yellow baby doll iridescent chiffon gowns that skimmed the thighs in front and swept the floor in the rear. It’s not clear what, if anything, it has to do with today.
And sometimes there’s a show with everything at once – past, present and future – as at Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld sent out a flood of occasionally transcendent, occasionally weighty, glinting bouclé suiting; lace day dresses; evening gowns with a T-shirt silhouette entirely covered by a garden of gleaming sequinned flowers; odd pastel shredded chiffon and feather cancan dresses; and a lace extravaganza that was equally angelic and demonic – all linked by an emphasis on the shoulders, which came girded, portrait, and otherwise clasped.
If they’re going to bear the weight of the world, they might as well get some special treatment. After all, the show closed with a pair of female brides, a direct nod to the controversy over same-sex marriage in France. Who says couture isn’t political?
The ideas were in full bloom, so it made sense that, as with Dior, the house had constructed an entire interior wood as a backdrop – though, coincidently, Giambattista Valli also went to the greenhouse, albeit via a trip to the zoo. His short pastel cocktail frocks blossoming (or bristling) with 3D blooms felt more of a retread than the cooler black and white big cat prints that modernised a curving 1950s silhouette. At Elie Saab, the series of embroidered and beaded lace confections in hues from white to coral were as sparkly and sweet as candied violets. There’s no pretence here at daywear, which is fair enough, but there’s also no surprise. Flowers may be shorthand for spring, without any tension they’re also clichés we could probably do just fine without. “More of the same just breeds more of the same,” to borrow Cameron’s words.
Just consider the contrast at Valentino, where designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli also had gardens on the mind but instead of taking them literally, they abstracted them, so a labyrinth of hedges as seen from above became appliquéd scroll work (220 hand-rolled metres of it) on sheer tulle, and even the floral silks were hidden under layers of lace and bird-embroidered chiffon, like the memory of a garden – one you would always desire but never obtain. Unless you can buy these clothes, of course.
Many of the clients who can are located in emerging markets (you know, the ones Cameron said were reshaping the global landscape), so it makes a certain amount of sense that Giorgio Armani looked to them for inspiration, even naming his collection “Ethnic Echoes”.
The echoes were pretty resonant, it turned out, with a colour palette of crimson, black, and umber, tattoo-like prints, and terrific beaded waistcoats and halter tops made from fabric tubes paired with everything from billowing ball skirts to slick mikado satin trousers. They were just subtle and elegant enough to belong identifiably to no category at all (unlike the fezzes, wincing hobble skirts and weird metallic bars stuck through shoulders and waists, which belonged in the bad idea bin), though it was Jean-Paul Gaultier who ultimately showed the way couture can take common ingredients – in this case the rise of India, which led him down the gypsy trail – and make you think about their relevance in delectably new ways.
Saturated silks were patchworked into a gleaming beaded sarong under a silk button-down blouse; striped chiffon was gathered into asymmetric plissé gowns; and classicism leached of convention and gilded with cool. Still, at the end it was impossible to know: if there was a general fashion world referendum on couture, how would it turn out?
For a slideshow of all the couture shows, see www.ft.com/luxury360