PARIS, France — The weather was vile, the taxi shortage extreme. The gutters ran with filthy water from melting snow. We slid and slithered in ankle deep slush. In short, Paris was not at its best. But this was Couture Week (well, three days, which is symptomatic of how fashion ‘weeks’ have shrunk, but old habits — and titles — die hard in fashion circles) and we felt privileged to be there.
But is everything shown in Paris during Couture Week actually couture? Or is the name as solipsistic as calling three days of shows a fashion week? How much of what we see are merely beautiful clothes made to a high standard and sold at a very high price? In fact, what constitutes couture in a modern sense?
The definition of couture is vague because when it first evolved as a codified approach to dress, in the mid-19th century, a precise definition wasn’t required, as couture was the only form of high fashion. Developed by the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth, who moved to Paris in 1846, couture was not tailor made according to the design ideas of the client, as in the past, but, rather, consisted of a collection of gowns from which a client made a selection, which was then customised for her — normally made in her choice of colour and decorative trim, although not always.
Worth himself was very high-handed in what he allowed and didn’t allow the customer to choose and his general affectation and open contempt for the views of the women paying huge prices for the privilege of wearing his label made him notorious enough to be satirised by Charles Dickens and Émile Zola, among others. It did no harm to either his reputation or that of couture at large. In fact, it made both even more desirable for the nouveau riche of the Belle Epoch. And it set the tone for modern couture.
Indeed, in a few brief years, the designer went from being a servant of the client to becoming the master — and finally the director of fashion change, imposed on women without previous consultation. Yes, you’ve guessed. The last stage was the arrival of fashion dictators like Poiret, Vionnet and Balenciaga, who could hardly bear to meet customers and did all they could to avoid them. But there have always been couturiers and couturiers, divided by talent and the ability to reinvent themselves.
Paris splits into two groups during Couture Week. On one side, the big companies, of which there are four; and on the other, the rest, including some honoured names as well as rather too many small dressmakers tagging along for the ride. Together, both sides provide a polyglot mix. Chanel is designed by a German, Karl Lagerfeld, 79; Dior is designed by a Belgian, Raf Simons, 45; the eponymous designer of Jean Paul Gaultier, 60, is French; and Armani Privé is designed by the Italian, Giorgio Armani, 78.
All more or less follow the traditional approach established by Worth, although it is a cliché that the high point of couture, as far as current designers (and customers) are concerned, was the 1950s. Certainly, the period has been mined to destruction by all designers showing couture ever since. And even today, those designers who are not part of a big company and have to actually make money from selling couture, rather than using the clothes to make money out of fragrances, make-up and ready-to-wear ranges, give us reruns of 50s looks every season. Surprisingly, perhaps, most manage to sell them in sufficient numbers to keep their businesses afloat.
And good luck to them. They are harmless enough and, after all, we all have to make a living however we can. But this season, as always, it’s the big boys who count. And this time around, they gave us some very good couture.
First, for aplomb and chutzpah, comes Lagerfeld at Chanel with a collection and presentation that was magisterial in its total confidence and yet gentle and more feminine than he sometimes is. As always, he referenced the original Chanel, especially the little suit, but entirely rethought it for the young, modern women. It was the evening wear, however, that was the real stand-out.
As Lagerfeld told a gaggle of star-struck British fashion journalists, some of the dresses — all made by hand — took over 2000 hours of work. But what I loved was the breadth of his interpretation of the Chanel aesthetic and his unrivalled knowledge of the history of couture. He took us from pre-World War One Poiret and La Gazette du Bon Ton and Les Choses de Poiret vues par Lepape — seminal publications — to the romantic fluffiness of 1930s evenings and up to the 50s and today. It was a consummate display of creation that put Chanel at the top of the tree this season (rather appropriately as the setting, a tiny amphitheatre and a sandy runway, were surrounded by fully grown trees, imported to the Grand Palais).
It was a hard act to follow, but Raf Simons at Dior certainly got very close this season. His collection was the work of a younger man who has had a great deal of experience and probably knows more about the buzz on the streets than any of the other couturiers in the top houses. So, he listened to that, he listened to his head, and he listened to his heart. The result was a fresh, spring-like collection of modernised traditional Dior shapes, totally wearable and in clear, confident colours. With this show, Simons set the direction for future Dior couture and I suspect many women, who have in the past felt that couture was too grand and pompous for them, will follow him. He gave us a viable glimpse into what modern couture could become, but he must be careful in his modernisation not to blur the distinction between couture and high-priced ready-to-wear, which is always the trap when it comes to modernisation of this very idiosyncratic form of fashion. If I were to advise him, I would suggest greater emphasis on tailoring. After all, Dior was a master tailor and Simons has already proven his ability to cut.
Nobody who knows me or reads my couture reports can be in any doubt about my admiration for Jean Paul Gaultier. As saucy as the can-can, as satisfying as a bifteck saignant, as titillating as a premier cru champagne, his couture is a distillation of everything that Paris stands for. But there is nothing inward-looking about Gaultier. He is fascinated by exotic worlds, many of which were actually once part of the French empire. And he takes their dress codes and totally reinvents them as the most beautiful haute couture. This year, he celebrated his 10th anniversary in couture by visiting that ever-exotic dress-up box called India. And he took its culture and gently turned it into a modern and, indeed, very French couture statement, flashing with colour and patterns, in some of the most intricate cutting seen in Paris. Gaultier is a master in the great couture tradition — a tradition that he alone, of all the designers offering couture, knows from his early training. And it shows.
Another man who knows (and has probably forgotten) more than many of the young hopefuls of couture will ever know is the Italian maestro Giorgio Armani, whose Privé line is so beloved of Hollywood stars and other red carpet regulars the world over. Sitting opposite me, Hilary Swank and Uma Thurman were both showing a highly professional concentration on what was coming down the runway, whilst Claudia Cardinale, a long-time Armani client, looked positively beatific. They were entranced by full-strength Armani sophistication, shown in the way he knows best. There were many variations on the tautly tailored pants that are an Armani trademark and a new twist in that he showed many with backless waistcoats that made the whole effect light and fresh. As always, the colours and patterns were rich, shiny and opulent and the cut and balance of everything we saw in a long collection showed why Mr Armani straddles both the world of Paris couture and Milan ready-to-wear with such aplomb. Like all the other big names, he knows exactly what he is doing and, again, like his Paris rivals, he is actually beyond criticism in that he also does everything a couturier should do and does it right.
Due to the snow and Eurostar delays, sadly I missed the show of the other Italian designer worthy of praise for the beachhead she has established in the home of haute couture. Donatella Versace has taken Paris gently, beginning with several seasons of simple displays, followed by a small presentation with models, and, now, a full-force couture fashion show. I have seen the pictures and spoken to colleagues and it is clear that I missed a really exciting show, pulsating with energy, wit and in-your-face audacity.
But perhaps the nicest thing I heard about Versace couture was from an old lady who I have not seen since I lived in Italy many years ago. She suddenly appeared at my side as I was leaving a restaurant and said of Donatella’s show: “Gianni would have so loved it. It had his spirit.’ There can be no higher praise for his sister.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.