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At around the same time Donatella Versace’s Atelier Versace opened couture, tens of thousands of Greek people were congregating in Athens, the rowdy manifestation of a No vote that had seen them rejecting the austerity plan proposed by their European creditors. Cocooned among the fashion press in Paris, surrounded by the world’s most sumptuous dresses and exclusive clientele, the extremes of economic scale were bizarrely illuminated. Was there a significance to be found in the shredded goddess gowns at the show’s centre? At times Donatella’s modern Aphrodite, classically beautiful but a little broken, seemed an appropriate metaphor for the condition of the ancient capital. But at couture, any resemblance to persons living or dead is mere coincidence. The only narrative is fantasy.

Versace, so fluent in the sartorial language of glamour, had opted out of her comfort zone, offering a gentler muse dressed in sugary pastels and layers of chiffons that had been hand-combed to look almost like ostrich feathers. “I call it impeccable imperfection,” she said of the collection’s distressed appearance. It was not so fragile as it looked, however. Skirts made from whisper-thin fil coupé, and embroidered with flowers, fell from tough, transparent corsets — like breastplates — decorated with narrow boning. A baby-pink dress in double georgette with long fluted sleeves and a short flippy skirt was studded with silver staples. The most ambitious piece, a chainmail gown with raggedly beautiful lace inserts and floral cords, had taken 600 hours to complete: a knockout piece of sartorial engineering.

From left: Elie Saab, Schiaparelli; Atelier Versace

Versace’s soft romantic take on femininity set the tone for a week in which dreamy etherealism informed many of the collections. Some called it the Valentino effect. The Italian house designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli staged its collection in Rome, outside the schedule, but the aesthetic established so successfully by the duo in their seven years at Valentino echoed in many of the Paris shows, from the limpid draping at Bouchra Jarrar to the golden fairytale laces at Elie Saab.

No surprise it was most clearly felt at Schiaparelli, where new designer Bertrand Guyon arrived in April from Valentino couture. His debut collection instilled a softness at the house famed for its surrealist quirks. In his hands, the Schiaparelli codes — the Dali eye, the shocking pink, the painted faces and the bold silhouettes — were still in evidence, but handled with caution. It was an encouraging show for a house that has struggled with its quixotic legacy.

From left: Bouchra Jarrar, Alexandre Vauthier, Fendi

At Dior, Raf Simons had looked to the “garden of earthly delights” for inspiration, and his collection recalled Hieronymus Bosch, the Puritan Flemish masters and the gentle French impressionists — often all at once. A simple white chiffon gown opened the show, followed by cashmere cloaks, worn like medieval mantles and set with a single fur sleeve. A voluminous pitch black taffeta coat, as might become a Van Dyck portrait, was followed by pointillist silk dresses, hand-painted or embroidered with tiny feathers. Lusty velvet coats with exaggerated sleeves were paired with giant corduroy flares. (Corduroy at couture! Whatever next?) At first, I found Dior confusing and unfocused. I wanted it edited to fewer ideas. Yet, in the days since, I have studied it again and again, each time finding something new to enjoy.

Karl Lagerfeld and Kendall Jenner may have staged a wedding but there was little whimsy at casino Chanel, for which the Grand Palais was transformed into a gambling den, lined with Chanelified slot machines. Film stars Isabelle Huppert, Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart perched at poker tables while models traversed a pit furnished with a bespoke Chanel carpet.

The set proved quite the distraction — even though it felt a bit “couture in Macau” (where Chanel has three stores, incidentally) and rather sterile in atmosphere. Perhaps the recreation was simply too authentic? No matter: a keen eye could still admire the house’s new manufacturing technique, “selective laser sintering” — a form of melding in which powdered metal is transformed into a 3D material.

From left: Armani Privé, Chanel, Maison Margiela

Here, it was used to reimagine the classic tweed suit, now laser soldered into a heavy-metal mesh, on to which the tweed effect was painted or embroidered. A baffling technology, it was described in the show notes as being “mainly used for low-volume production”. Big stakes, high tech, low volume: that’s modern couture for you.

No sintering, but lots more melding at Maison Margiela, where John Galliano was playing with hybrids: Madagascan raffia mixed with neoprene, English tweed with Moroccan pom-poms, crochet panels with patent leather. So were the clothes themselves mutant: a lace coat was furnished with bright blue gauntlets repurposed from a pair of velvet trousers. A strapless dress was redrawn from a double-breasted jacket and artlessly draped at the back. There were quilt skirts and tapestry dresses stitched from vintage needlepoints. The collection had a lighter touch than Galliano’s first show for the house, in January. This was easier. And there was humour, too: one dress had been a potato sack in a previous life.

From left: Dior, Giambattista Valli, Jean Paul Gaultier

Shocking pink and black velvet underscored Armani Privé, in which jackets, pinched high on the shoulder, skimmed the body, and bustier dresses were spun with Swarovski crystals. Black velvet was key also at Jean Paul Gaultier, in which the galette was a central motif (guests were served pancakes to drive the point home), and nautical details cruised throughout. At Giambattista Valli, a tailored silhouette was volumised with sculptural ruffles, and a giant rippling ball gown in neon orange won the award for most extravagant skirt.

The most astonishing show, however, was Fendi Haute Fourrure: the house’s first couture outing and the week’s grande finale. Staged in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, and set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Lagerfeld’s debut fur collection featured 30 looks, each a wizardry of craftsmanship. Furs were fashioned into flowers and feathers, striated over latex and conjured into ovoid silhouettes that shimmered with expense. One sable coat, every follicle silverised to look as though cast in moonlight, costs an estimated €1m. At Fendi, impeccable perfection ruled the day, and the week closed with a roar of approval from an audience for whom no less will do.

Photographs: Pierre Debusschere for Dior; Catwalking.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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