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There was a clear message from the couture shows in Paris this season: that despite a reputation for providing overblown ball gowns to a tiny elite, couture is relevant and – word of the week – modern. Of course, the client base for five or six-figure dresses is limited but couture functions as a laboratory for ideas and a brand showcase, so its message matters. For several major houses this modernity was achieved through a sophisticated fusion of the past, present and – sometimes – future, and of opposing aesthetics.
At Dior, Raf Simons was “interested in the process of finding something extremely modern, through something very historical”. The show was staged in a circular marquee in the gardens of the Musée Rodin, its interior walls plastered with white orchids and a futuristic white catwalk so bright that sunglasses indoors were no longer an affectation. Watched by power couple Sean Penn and Charlize Theron, and President François Hollande’s former girlfriend, Valérie Trierweiler, it began with floor-length white dresses, some with panniers, which put a fresh twist on 18th-century gowns thanks to sporty tank-top bodices and pockets.
Nasa-style flight suits and “flight dresses” – a lovely, sporty take on a 1950s shirt dress – followed, rendered in silk taffeta with embroidered flowers. Dior’s iconic Bar jacket was reworked into coats, while masculine court coats from the 18th century – essentially frock-style with embroidery – were particularly wearable. It struck a fresh note which set the tone for the week.
At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld took a similar path. He was inspired by Le Corbusier, in particular an apartment conceived by the architect that featured a gold oval baroque mirror set into a concrete wall. Thus the collection, which dispensed with the fantastical sets of yore (nightclubs, supermarkets, organ pipes and icebergs) was brutalism meets baroque, with clean architectural lines and even mini concrete buttons, paired with flashes of lavish decoration. The couture clients’ trusty tweed suits were there but felt younger thanks to short, gently flared skirts and a 1960s quality to the cut of the jackets, while the fact that they were all worn with flat sandals and Tour de France-inappropriate cycling shorts added to the effect. The couture handiwork was worn lightly, as beautiful gold and silver embellishment appeared on white empire dresses, single-breasted evening coats and an egg-shaped maternity wedding dress.
At Valentino, too, designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli were reinterpreting the past: the Pre-Raphaelites and their sensuality, combined with classicism. Chiuri and Piccioli took simple lines, reminiscent of ancient Greek dress, adding rich patterns and embellishment. Supremely graceful dresses for 21st-century goddesses came in tulle and mousseline with skirts that seemed to waft on a gentle Elysian breeze, and wrapped bodices in shades of black, eau de nil, nude and forest green. They recalled the 20th-century couturier Madame Grès’ updates of classical dress, and were updated further with leather ties criss-crossed round the body. These ties also added detail to column dresses, some with mosaic-like wheatsheaf and flower patterns or geometric shapes, and a simple white shirt and long navy pleated skirt. It was both rich and restrained: all offset by, yes, flats, in the form of Greek sandals laced up the calf.
It’s just possible that the reality TV star Kim Kardashian is about to embrace a new, modest phase, given that she was at Valentino (although it hasn’t happened yet, judging by her plunging dress) but, for the client who wants to show herself off, there is Versace. Donatella was also on a mission to “make couture modern”, and for her that meant deconstructed tailoring and corsetry – in other words, flesh-baring cutaways. Thus a pair of sharp black trousers were teamed with a wool jacket with one shoulder and sleeve, while several gowns came with skirts rolled round one leg to become a trouser.
At Armani Privé, the 80-year-old Giorgio Armani turned his tailoring to cropped and cape jackets in red, black and white, which came with neat little shorts: another sign of the bid for a younger look. Evening wear is Armani’s other emphasis, and net coats in red, black and grey resembled puffs of smoke or clouds.
As at Armani, red, black and white were the key colours at Jean Paul Gaultier, where the designer clearly didn’t get the memo about toning down the theatrics. His models evoked 1980s power women via 1950s B-movie vampires, in quiffs, red eye make-up, noirish tailored trousers and Morticia Addams-style gowns.
Of his second couture season at Schiaparelli, designer Marco Zanini said “moderation was not Elsa Schiaparelli’s formula. I was proposing amusing things. I design for the client who is after something that looks unique and will help her to express a bold personality.” Playful clothes which evoked the 1930s and 1940s included a midnight-blue organdie velvet dress embroidered with a 3D heart and teardrops in ruby glass beads and crystals, and a heart-printed yellow chiffon gown with pom-pom-like carnations on the skirt.
There will always be clients who want to unleash their inner princess – after all, some really are princesses – and so there was Elie Saab and his fairytale ball gowns in lace and tulle encrusted with micro-paillettes, crystals and marble-sized pearl beads. They were ideally suited to the red carpet, but which humorous star will opt for Viktor & Rolf’s short frocks made out of actual red carpet (some wrapped like a bathrobe, some curved into egg-shaped minidresses)?
A subtler wit informed the Maison Martin Margiela “Artisanal” line. This lovely collection reworked and restored vintage clothes – including a Paul Poiret coat trimmed with metal lace appliqué, worn with a sheer skirt covered in old coins, and Japanese “souvenir bomber jackets” from the 1950s which were extended with silk skirts to become evening dresses – into garments which felt both storied and original. As a literal recycling of the past into something fresh, it was perhaps the most modern show of all.
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