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It’s been a long, dry January. Even without the self-imposed prohibition of new year resolution, the relentless news ticker of grim has made sobering reading: oil price collapse, economic instability, a migration crisis and the looming spectre of Donald Trump as a potentially legitimate US presidential candidate. It’s enough to persuade anyone to get back on the booze.
Thrown into relief against this backdrop, the haute couture presentations in Paris seemed more surreal than ever. In Davos, the key themes of debate were populism and automation — the very antithesis of couture philosophy, which is built on the sale of bespoke handmade garments costing tens of thousands of pounds. Rather than dismiss it, however, one could argue that the business serves as an excellent (if somewhat flouncy, tulle-sheathed) metaphor for the state of the world economy.
In a report published on January 18 and presented to delegates in Davos by Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s international executive director, “An Economy for the 1%” highlighted the fact that 62 individuals now account for $1.76tn of the world’s global wealth. A few score billionaires, therefore, hold the same wealth as the 3.6bn people at the other end of the wealth spectrum — half the world’s population. Nine of the billionaires are women. It makes discussion of the relevance of couture itself irrelevant when one considers that just one of these individuals could likely sustain the entire industry.
Meanwhile, business is booming. Dior couture announced a 60 per cent increase in sales under Raf Simons shortly before he left the house in October, while the British house Ralph & Russo now has an atelier of 110 staff and was given a nine-figure valuation when they sold a minority stake in the business to John Caudwell in 2014. Giambattista Valli launched his eponymous couture line in 2011 and still retains sole creative and financial independence of his label, acting as both chief executive and creative head. When asked about sales of Chanel haute couture last year, Karl Lagerfeld, the house’s creative director of 33 years, said: “Unbelievable. It’s incredible how well it’s doing.”
Couture may be an elitist playground, but the play remains characteristically discreet, especially in Paris, where the taxi drivers were striking and a cloud of depression still hovers over the city in the wake of the Bataclan massacre: at Armani, I was told many Asian clients had cancelled their travel plans for fear of further terrorist atrocities. Another visitor told me her driver had been advised not to wear his chauffeur’s livery lest he be attacked for working in contravention of the taxi union’s advice. The fleets of sleek limousines that customarily dispatch their diamond-clad transport were in limited supply. Nevertheless, the couture clientele were still much in evidence and the sport of admiring its more extraordinary patrons no less entertaining (the correlation between extreme wealth and extremely bad facial surgery is a very useful measure with which to gauge the 1 per cent).
As for the clothes, it was a mixed season, with the aesthetic swinging between elegant restraint and a rather unabashed, brash extravagance: there was no shortage of vulgar gowns. More notable, however, was the shortage in direction, as evidenced by the continued absence of a new creative head at Dior. This season, Dior haute couture was conceived by the house’s studio heads, Lucie Meier and Serge Ruffieux, the creatives charged with keeping Dior on a steady footing until a new designer is finally announced (at the time of writing the speculation was focused on Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, and Saint Laurent’s Hedi Slimane).
Dior’s acting custodians, who were joined by five other studio staff to take their bow, had an unenviable task. Their collection was a meditation on the famous Christian Dior “Bar” jacket, created as part of The New Look in 1947 and then revitalised under Simons. It’s one of the house’s most distinctive totems. Meier and Ruffieux had played with its proportions, reconstructing it and peeling it seductively down the shoulders, unbuttoning it over delicately embroidered skirts and, in its most charming incarnation, decorating it with lily-of-the-valley beadwork and fluting the sleeves. Staged in a spectacular mirrored set in the grounds of the Musée Rodin, the backdrop was grand, but this gentle, flattering collection that built on Simons’ themes of wearability and careful containment lacked the knockout pieces, panache and precision one craves at Dior.
No such lack of focus at Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld had taken the themes of ecology and recyclability to create a collection of astonishing ingenuity and refinement. His spare wooden set recalled the chicest bathhouse in Sweden — grass lawn, a simple, slatted central structure, cerulean blue backdrop.
Against all expectations, conservation and couture made a beautiful marriage. No granola hippies here — the eco-details were so subtle as to be almost concealed within the craftsmanship; a crystal-trimmed tunic dress and pencil skirt looked like tweed but was instead made from thousands of wooden tiles stitched to create a textured mosaic; wedge shoes were sculptural and cork-soled; the beads and details were wooden; feathers were spun into bird motifs, and there were buzzy bee brooches — an expression of Lagerfeld’s concern for their dwindling population.
The show’s highlight, an extraordinary bridal ensemble, featured a long dress worn with a bomber-jacket-cum-opera-coat and train. It looked like an exotic fur. “No, it was tufts of white cotton,” said Lagerfeld. Couture cotton wool; I loved it. The croissant-shaped hairstyles and graphic eye make-up, meanwhile, were a debt to Picasso’s Head of a Women (1931), though Lagerfeld had sensibly refrained from mimicking her giant proboscis nose.
Bomber jackets were a recurring theme of the collections, alongside the more usual organza frills, Swarovski crystal and tiered tulle. At Armani Privé the bomber was mauve, iridescent and silky, in keeping with the purple haze that permeated almost every look. At Maison Margiela, it was elevated and exploded in a cloud of brocade and cloqué. Jean Paul Gaultier’s bombers, in mandarin-coloured fur, crushed velvet and old-school black, recalled 1980s trash disco, worn with heavy kohl-rimmed eyes, pyjama suits and smoking cigarettes. At Atelier Versace it was weighty, beaded, multicoloured and sporty. For SS16, Donatella Versace was focused on athleticism and strength. She had used a “water jet” technique to create the clothes’ cage effect and silicon gel to give the collection a spidery sense of fluidity. “I wanted it to feel like a second skin — like water on the body.” Whatever about their athletic potential, Versace won gold for casting: the finale featured an Olympian elite of current fashion icons — Mariacarla Boscono, Lara Stone, Joan Smalls and Gigi Hadid among them.
No supermodels at Valentino, but the designers had drawn on the same themes of movement to create their ethereal collection. The models walked barefoot on a petal-strewn catwalk, save for the antique-looking jewels that laced around their ankles. Sounds cheesy? It worked. Designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli had been inspired by the dancers Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, and the technical precision of the Spanish couturier Mariano Fortuny, whose finely pleated Delphos gown, created around 1907, set the template for modern goddess dressing.
The dresses were dreamy and feather-light: “antiquated” velvets with gold painted details, whisper-thin tulles in powder-coloured pastels, a cape in a patchwork of Elizabethan brocades and an incredible ivory gown in pleated nappa leather. The duo’s deftness of touch, precision and obsession with the gods of antiquity make them the natural successors to Fortuny. And these gowns had the same transcendent, timeless quality. Graceful, beautiful and completely otherworldly. Unless you’re in the 62 club.