Haute confusion

Couture week kicked off on American Independence Day with the news that former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was being granted his own independence, from house arrest in New York. In Paris, as the debate raged about who was in the wrong, and news came about a novelist suing him for assault and his counter-suit, people asking each other whether or not DSK should return to politics weaved their way through a series of fir and poplar trunks, like a forest of uncovered tepees, that had sprouted outside the Louvre – there courtesy of a Save the Trees movement, presumably to demonstrate the artistry of nature.

All of which shows the prevailing state of mind as the autumn/winter 2011 shows began: confused.

Sometimes fashion – and especially couture, which is specifically tasked with making women feel wonderful in their skin – can help make sense of it all (you see a garment and understand: “Hey! That solves xyz problem”). Sometimes it just makes it worse: you see a garment and wonder, “Goodness! What were they thinking?” This week, it was mostly the latter, beginning with Christian Dior.

Held in the familiar confines of the Musée Rodin, with the throbbing beat and runway pyrotechnics long associated with former designer John Galliano, the show was a collection created under Bill Gaytten that began with the usual Dior vernacular of New Look suits; furled rosettes-cum-skirts; de- and reconstructed ball gowns, but leached of Galliano’s swooning romanticism and reinvented in pig Latin. The notes said the inspiration was modern architecture, from the Memphis school to Frank Gehry, plus Marc Bohan’s Dior. It makes sense that Gaytten (who would like to be in the running for his former boss’s job) would want to put his own stamp on the brand, but the clashing greens, blues, and browns; the ice cream colours, unfinished edges and lumpy shapes were hard to understand.

Meanwhile, Chanel’s decision to hold its show at 10pm had people scratching their heads, until someone mentioned it was because Karl Lagerfeld wanted moonlight streaming through the glass ceiling of the Grand Palais.

Did it make a difference? Given that the skies were cloudy, there was no moon in sight and most of the wide-shouldered, black and white and sparkling boucle skirt suits, often complete with exaggerated peplum, are going to be worn during the day, the obvious answer is “No”. Besides, clothes need to hold up in every light; some did (black cocktail dresses in a magic mix of lacy chiffon, feathers and frippery) and many didn’t (bejewelled tweeds feathered at the shoulders and crashing to the floor; studded asymmetric tunics; weighty elongated shapes).

And so it went. The inspiration was clear at Armani Privé, where Giorgio Armani dedicated his collection to Japan and showed cherry blossom prints and “Mikado silks”; obi belts on slick velvet trouser suits; and columns of tangerine sequins, but the decision to extend the elegant restraint to literally restraining skirts that trapped the models’ legs so tightly they could barely mince down the runway was puzzling.

At Giambattista Valli’s debut, the convincing equation of social dressing – trapeze tweeds shot through with lamé, billowing chiffons complete with floor-length capes and waist-length flounces, and two-tone 1960s shifts and coats bristling with three-dimensional flowers and coral beads – plus socialite audience made sense, until it tipped off that fine line between touchability and too much, and the extreme encrustation began to look like woman-eating foliage half-way through its snack.

Even Jean Paul Gaultier, whose ability to add ineffable elegance to a silken trench gown and pinstriped suit is almost alchemical, whose Fair Isle sweater woven of feathers and fur-and-gazar gowns redefined the idea of black tie, waded into muddy waters by adding men to his presentation and sending them out in transparent puffa coats filled with multi-coloured feathers and beaded leggings under fur-trimmed pea coats. It was not immediately apparent why – it might have been a joke, or gender commentary, or an ad for his new men’s fragrance – but ultimately it just distracted from a truly masterful collection.

At least at Givenchy, now a presentation instead of a show, someone is around to tell you what designer Riccardo Tisci was thinking, which this season involved things like “angels’ wings” and “clouds”. In practice this meant garments built on a single piece of tulle, embroidered with millions of tiny caviar-beaded fringes to resemble ostrich skin or overlaid with sequins of chantilly lace in a pattern of mermaid scales, each up to 32 layers thick yet seemingly light as air. As a demonstration of what a couture atelier can do, it was mind-boggling, but in a good way.

Notably, Tisci was not the only couturier using the contrast between extreme transparency and extreme embroidery as a way to make a succinct point about the way couture can make sense of seemingly apposite concepts: Elie Saab did it too, in a more conventional, very pretty fairy-princess way, as did Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli at Valentino, where devore chiffon flowers were embroidered on to sheer tulle, golden beads made a zigzag over the same, and even velvet, transformed into lattice-like embroidered detail, was given an incredible lightness of being.

As to why this matters: couture is, in many ways, fighting to prove its legitimacy in a world where spending extraordinary sums on clothing can seem not just passé, but wrong. To say it provides jobs is one argument; to say it changes our understanding of things is another, more powerful perhaps, though harder to prove.

To do so, “The materials need to speak for themselves,” said Bruno Frisoni at his eye-opening presentation for Roger Vivier of shoes made from straw spun like gold, and leather cut to reveal its secret kinship with the aged whorls of trees.

This was also the guiding principle behind Azzedine Alaïa’s return to the catwalk after eight years. In a bare-bones show, seams celebrated the female anatomy, traced in zippers over the curves of wool skirt suits and dresses that hugged the torso and rear only to cascade in tiers to the floor, while silver slithered under punched-out velvet and Mongolian lamb boleros and skirts were cinched with corset belts. It came without fancy oration or sleight of hand, just a rethinking of both the raw material of the body and what goes on top. And seeing it like that, it did, indeed, make sense.

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