France’s credit rating may have sunk, and big brains may have gathered in Davos to discuss the issues with capitalism – but in the couture houses of Paris last week, it seemed no one had received the memo. Except, maybe, Maison Martin Margiela, whose spring/summer “Artisanal” presentation – their version of couture, featuring unexpected materials and their trademark alchemical upcycling – seemed like a case study for the Swiss forum. Nineteenth- and 20th-century embroidered table linen became graceful wrap dresses and the foil from champagne corks made a great metallic trench but elsewhere, well – cutbacks? There were some cut-out backs but mostly, there was more: more skirt, more beading, more corsetry.
Instead of seeming like an act of defiance in the face of uncertainty and economic pain, the way Dior’s extravagant New Look did after the deprivations of the second world war, all this muchness seemed, rather, like a remembrance of things past. Literally so, in the case of Dior, where designer Bill Gaytten decided simply to go back to the archives for his show of New Look shirt-dresses in sheer organza, tucked and curvy cocktail sheaths, and billowing ballgowns. The result was a black-and-white sketch of the house’s former self.
Given that Gaytten is in the unfortunate position of holding down the atelier while his bosses search, very publicly, for a replacement, such a backward glance is understandable. More confusing was the decision by Alexis Mabille, otherwise known as a “young designer,” to quote Proust – “Il n’y a que les femmes qui ne savent pas s’habiller qui craignent la couleur” (only women who don’t know how to dress are afraid of colour) – before sending out a collection of fuchsia 1950s cocktail dresses, floor-sweeping turn-of-the-20th-century gowns, and the occasional daffodil-yellow sequinned tuxedo.
We’ve been there before; do we really want to go back? Do we want to go, for example, to the time of both silver screen and couture legends courtesy of Giambattista Valli, whose second couture outing consisted of structured Dior-like bodices and big bows, little Ungaro-style dresses bristling three-dimensional flowers, feather peplums and floor-length skirts?
The socialites in his front row seemed to say yes but then, that’s part of the issue: increasingly such couture seems destined solely for the red carpet or the charity gala, where channelling yesteryear’s movie stars is de rigueur, and the issue of how to sit down or fit through a door is irrelevant. That’s not the dream, that’s dress-up.
Consider, for example, Elie Saab’s endless dance of filigree pastel fairy-tale embroideries or Versace, where – after an eight-year absence from the schedule – Donatella Versace created a collection of 15 gowns that looked like nothing so much as Barbarella couture, with glinting corset constructions that jutted out into metallic curves at the hip or bust, descending in skintight embroidered and encrusted skirts to the floor. Even Jean Paul Gaultier found his reference in a celebrity, albeit one from the recent past: the late Amy Winehouse.
The result was a runway full of beehives and her trademark trashy 1950s shapes – skintight pencil skirts to the knee and cropped tops, here in sequins or pinstripes; a prom dress with a skirt of layers and layers of tulle and lace plus a wide snakeskin belt; soigné jackets falling off a shoulder to reveal jewel-encrusted brassieres – that didn’t quite make the transition to couture elegance. At least at Armani Privé the celebrities were in the audience, not the designer’s head; rather, he began with the idea of metamorphosis, though it took a literal turn in snakeskin prints and mesh overlays that looked like nothing so much as athletic scales, the one twisting and emerging from the other in a sometimes sinuous, sometimes awkward dance of black and chartreuse.
At Chanel Karl Lagerfeld sent out a collection in 150 shades of blue: sky-coloured day dresses that were a cross between a bouclé T-dress and a sheath with straight dropped waist and low-slung pockets, the better to hook your thumbs; lapis skirt suits with a silvery sheen; sequinned midnight-blue cocktail frocks with sapphire camellias at the throat and balloon sleeves; baby-blue evening gowns shirred and jewelled and puffed – all shown in the faux interior of a jumbo jet. If the point was blue skies ahead, however, it felt more like a show on autopilot: silhouettes and symbols made long ago, with extra encrustation on top. Bling and you could not miss it.
It wasn’t until Valentino that the weight of history got shrugged off, as designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli looked to the past without getting bogged down. Eighteenth-century France became a springboard to modernity with elaborate lace embroideries translated into cotton on gowns to give them a contemporary toughness, and ornate decoration layered on a single piece of tulle. If they spanned the gap between once and future, however, it was Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy who took things forward, with clothes that looked less like what came before than what makes sense now.
From a gown made of crocodile scales that had been cut and reassembled on tulle like a mosaic – with the slightest space between scales to allow for movement – to a skirt with hundreds of tiny sequins sewn on the bias, again to allow for movement, and embroidered feathers at the waist that segued into a silver chain thrown over the shoulder of a cashmere tank top, they were fierce and functional and alluring, and they created their own momentum. After all, whether or not things go upward, they need to go onward. Here was something to wear.
For a slideshow of the Paris couture shows go to www.ft.com/style