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At Couture, the Murmuring 30s

The first days of the Paris couture shows offered subliminal reflections of other times and places when things were just as bad as they are now, writes Tim Blanks.
A look from Schiaparelli's Autumn/Winter 2022 Haute Couture collection.
A look from Schiaparelli's Autumn/Winter 2022 Haute Couture collection. (Getty Images)

PARIS — It’s virtually impossible to block out the world. Terrible news has a way of seeping through our self-defences. Even if we’re not actively engaging with it, instinct hints at the horrors outside. Haute couture may exist at the most rarefied stratum of fashion, up above the clouds, but it is still acutely sensitive to the changes in atmosphere in the valleys and plains below. So it was possible to parse the first two days of the new couture season for creative responses to current events.

The most suggestive might have been the subtle hints of the 1930s, a decade where conflict in Europe widened into a world war. Giorgio Armani often claims inspiration from the cinema of his youth. This season, he mentioned the Italian genre called “Telefoni Bianchi.” When Armani was growing up in the Thirties, a white telephone was a luxury item, used in glossy escapist comedies as a symbol of opulence.

At Schiaparelli, Daniel Roseberry had the natural advantage of the house’s roots in Surrealism, an art movement which evolved as a reaction to the senselessness of World War One. It still works as a pointed response to the mad machinations of men, meaning that Roseberry’s provocatively beautiful work occasionally casts dark shadows.

Virginie Viard filtered Chanel in the Thirties through a Seventies lens. There was also a slightly Surrealist bent to her presentation for Chanel, courtesy of the selection of objects that made up artist/collaborator Xavier Veilhan’s mise-en-scène, both outside and inside, but I felt more of a melancholic zeitgeistlich spirit in the peculiar dreaminess of the Chanel show, with Veilhan’s huge screen of mesmerising pixelations accompanied by Sault’s celestial “Time is Precious” on the soundtrack.

But before couture week got off the ground, Pieter Mulier showed his third collection for Alaïa. It’s not couture, he stressed, though it is shaped with a couture hand. “That’s why it looks rich and very well-made. But it’s ready to wear, and that’s the beauty.” And beauty there was, plenty of it, delivered with the uncompromising fierceness that made Azzedine Alaïa’s work fizz.

“Rough and elegant at the same time,” was how Mulier himself saw it. Like the jacket patchworked together from scraps of leather (“We never throw a piece away”). Or the coat that looked like it had been borrowed from Genghis Khan. Shaggy fur footwear was kept in check by big metal cuffs, boots for an astronaut in the Stone Age. Asymmetric white cotton ruffles formed an unruly cascade of skirt. But the rawness was balanced by the incredible precision that always distinguished Azzedine’s work. With this collection, Mulier truly locked into that groove, with the help of an atelier that can drape leather like it was silk.

Alaïa Autumn/Winter 2022 Haute Couture look 12.

Draping was something Mulier had never been able to explore in his previous jobs. Here, he drew on Azzedine’s first, little-known collection from 1984 as inspiration for a series of skirts and dresses sinuously wrapped, ruched, tied. For maximum impact with minimum fuss, it was hard to beat the single large panel of boiled cashmere that draped Anok Yai. “The idea is traditional Tunisian dressing,” he explained. “They do it in cotton, but boiled cashmere stays. It keeps the roughness.”

Mulier’s feeling messianic about his role at Alaïa, like he wants to explain the codes of Azzedine to a young generation that doesn’t know them. And where better to start than with the house’s bodycon signature? The show opened with bodysuits. “The silhouettes look so simple but they’re not. They’re knitted silk, three layers: body, underbody, legging, sometimes a skirt.” Mulier pinned a pearl drop to the nipple of one bodysuit, slung wanton strings of pearls around the neck of another, this season’s version of last’s armfuls of bracelets. Pure, yet carnal — the fabulous Alaïa paradox.

It seemed appropriate that, the morning after Alaïa, Daniel Roseberry’s presentation for Schiaparelli should raise the curtain on couture week. Roseberry is the new standard bearer for the kind of luxurious, idiosyncratic, even eccentric fashion that defines couture in the minds of many. Much like Mulier with Alaïa, Roseberry has made himself at home with Elsa Schiaparelli’s formidable legacy. The audience reaction suggested this was the season when the planets truly aligned for the designer: his own vision for the house was enhanced by the drama of a great big live show staged in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a few hundred yards away from “Shocking!,” a huge and spectacular new exhibition celebrating the life, times and influence of Elsa herself.

Obviously, a substantial part of “Shocking!” is dedicated to Schiaparelli’s renaissance under Roseberry, offering an opportunity to marvel at how a young American from a conservative religious background could so thoroughly get under the skin of a wildly adventurous Italian aristocrat. The fiercely articulate Roseberry is more than ready to reason away the transmutation, and even to place his faith in context. But when Roseberry insisted he was in search of “creative innocence” with his latest collection, he really meant being “less burdened by everything that’s going on.” His soundtrack was John Williams’s greatest bits: some Jurassic Park, a little Indiana Jones, a hit of Star Wars, childhood favourites which took him “back to a place where you fell in love with fashion first, a very childlike, romantic, innocent place which is what I’m craving.”

Schiaparelli Autumn/Winter 2022 Haute Coutre look 32.

Still, there was nothing childlike or innocent about the clothes he showed. Schiaparelli was a woman of the world, and the highly charged eroticism of Roseberry’s work distilled that world into sharp-shouldered silhouettes or sensuous swags of satin, infused with suggestive flourishes like the black velvet chokers, the casually bared breasts, the dresses that dipped way down, front and back, and the corseting on which the collection was built. There is something of the libertine in Roseberry. Again, the paradox of purity and carnality co-existent (Alaïa was unsurprisingly obsessed with Schiap). It makes him more “serious” than the effervescent Christian Lacroix, an obvious precursor, but he is the magic Christian’s equal as a great showman, helped by Stephen Jones’s fabulous trompe l’œil hats.

The confident over-scaling (Eva Herzigova’s white satin shirt, with billowing sleeves fit for a galleon’s sails!), the extravagant details (bunches of silk and leather flowers bursting from bodices) were a dream of couture, but they also placed the creative excess in the here and now, beauty rampant, defiant in the face of so much ugliness. And in the end, there was a vision of a sort of innocence. Roseberry sent out a model in a fishtailed midnight blue velvet skirt, her bare breasts decorously scattered with glitter. On her finger perched a white dove, in its beak an olive branch. It was a perfect, Surrealist closer.

Whereas Chanel was all about the opener: Pharrell Williams on a huge screen, banging away at a drum kit. It was a strikingly casual intro for a couture show, but it set a mood. Cowboy boots with almost everything sustained that mood. The bride at the finale was the capper. She was wrapped in a fringed shawl, for a relaxed, rustic village wedding.

Chanel Autumn/Winter 2022 Haute Couture look 26.

In fact, “relaxed” applied to the whole situation. Williams is one of the collaborators Virginie Viard has drawn around her as she claims Chanel for herself. Artist Xavier Veilhan and musician Sebastian Tellier are also helping her experiment. It was Veilhan’s sculptural forms that added the immersive scale we expect from Chanel presentations. Viard herself was so obviously at ease in this environment she’d assembled that she even managed an extended walkout at show’s end. And the 30s-through-a-70s-lens filter that contributed to the collection supplied a winning languor. It has been a hardy perennial in fashion, drawing in Yves Saint Laurent and Ossie Clark among others. Viard adapted Chanel’s long-skirted silhouette from the era, then she gave it a glittering 70s flair. A suit of silver sequins stood out. The floppy hats were vintage Bowie (he called them “bipperty-bopperty”). Way back then, the titans of glam rock also loved their Art Deco. Here, Viard lavished geometrical motifs with Lesage beading.

In their Art Deco pomp, film sets in the Golden Age of Hollywood often featured a white telephone. Apparently, it was the same in Italy. The memory gave Giorgio Armani the opportunity to revisit the celluloid fantasies that sustained him through an adolescence that was plagued by war. “Some people won’t like it,” he mused before his show, “but I do Privé for me. The ready-to-wear is for everyone else.”

He came to dislike his association with greige, which toned the Armani revolution in fashion, but that seems long ago, before the pink and blue spectrums became his sweet spot. A sequinned pantsuit, hems encrusted with starry sparkles, evoked the night sky in Pantelleria, Armani’s island refuge as much North African as it is Italian. That same particularly lustrous midnight shade coloured the closing passage, but earlier in the show a column of midnight blue velvet, bisected by a ripple of pink, was a spectacular riposte to those who carp that Armani cleaves too often to a formula.

Giorgio Armani Autumn/Winter 2022 Haute Couture look 87.

Some models carried mesh evening bags printed with the iconic image of Armani the Moody Matinee Idol. Doubtless he dreamed of that in the movie theatres he went to escape from the bombs when he was a kid. The silvery translucent haze that lingers over his Privé collections is like the filtered light of a projector sending its dreamy images to a screen. Armani turns 88 on Monday and you can only wonder what he makes of the world now.

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