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Couture on the Edge of Darkness

How does haute couture cope in Paris when real life intrudes, asks Tim Blanks.
Thom Browne Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 2023
Thom Browne Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 2023 (Indigital)

PARIS — The haute couture calendar launched on Monday, but the week really kicked off on Sunday night with Pieter Mulier’s new presentation for Azzedine Alaïa. Appropriately for a house which has always cocked a snook at the “right” way to do things, it was a sexually aggressive, unabashed assault on the faux propriety that creeps relentlessly into the public debate, shrinking women’s rights, gay rights and minority rights generally.

Latex as a weapon! The very ludicrousness of the notion highlights how fragile all those hard-won rights increasingly seem to be. And where the hell does fashion fit into such a situation when Paris itself is riven by riots brought on by the police gunning down a North African teenager? Good lord, am I invoking relevance, the bête noire of haute couture for as long as I’ve been going to fashion shows? It’s always been dogged by preconceptions. Indulgence of the .0001 percent. Promotional platform to boost perfume sales. Or — the more positive spin — a laboratory of pure creativity, uncompromised by commercial concerns. I’ve seen couture elevate fashion to Olympian heights. I’ve seen it reduce fashion to rich old lady drag. Either way, it’s become the go-to spot on the fashion calendar for a particular kind of spectacle.

Mulier booked a bridge. Third time in the last few weeks that a bridge over the Seine has been offered up as a catwalk. Which, in fashion speak, means it’s a trend. But why? Well, bridges cross an obstacle to get us from here to there, and that’s what Alaïa did in an odd way. You start here, as a bourgeois lady, and you end up there as a latex-clad minx. Does that transformation engage a woman in July 2023? It’s a notion that has nibbled at the heart of French fashion since Yves Saint Laurent dressed Catherine Deneuve as Belle de Jour. But Mulier tapped into a more shadowy subtext. Alaïa worshipped Hollywood’s Golden Age. Josef von Sternberg directing Marlene Dietrich? Alaïa’s obsession! Mulier’s interplay of masculine tailoring and feminine corsetry captured the essence of that obsession, with nipped waists and chunky multi-buttoned officer’s coats, perverse counterpoints.

In an interview in the Financial Times on the weekend, Mulier dismissed the idea of sportswear but here was Vittoria Cerretti in a white tank top and black pants with braces. But it wasn’t gym I was thinking of, more a suspendered Charlotte Rampling and the unsettling fetishism of Liliana Cavani’s hellbent-for-taboo “The Night Porter,” which set racing the pulses of thousands of club kids in the early seventies. It was a reminder of how purely fetishistic Alaïa’s clothes often were, and how true to their spirit Mulier has been. Straps, boots, belts, seams, pencil skirts, black leather, latex … restraints. And a pillbox hat. Think about that: in a classic Hollywood movie, it’s what the hotel messenger is wearing, the character who sees everything, says nothing and keeps secrets. But Mulier was in a mood to spill secrets, force confrontations, unleash an argumentative spirit.

Fashion thrives on peculiar synchronicities. On Monday, Thom Browne’s soundtrack featured “Night Porter,” a gothic waltz from cult British band Japan, which sat comfortably alongside the operatic arias that Browne also selected. He was, after all, showing his first-ever couture collection in Paris’s premier opera house.

But the musical motif that underpinned the show was “Fade to Grey,” the 1980 track from a band called Visage, whose frontman, the late Steve Strange, was responsible for the club kid phenomenon that haunts clubland to this day. Richard Sharah’s makeup for the song’s original video was echoed in the models on Browne’s catwalk. Echo, mind you. Browne is no literalist.

Still, he was unusually forthcoming when he talked about the story that drove his show. It was the kind of kitchen sink 1930s drama that would have enraptured Azzedine: a woman who has lost all hope, leaving on a train to who knows where, brought back to reality and the faith that there will be something better. A typically cinematic scenario from Browne. But it was tight, and that tightness was reflected in the clothes. The “eye-rollers” that he has always referred to in anticipation of critical antipathy were not so much in evidence here. Instead, a string of gorgeous coats over short dresses, thigh-high tights and skyscraper shoes. “A real couture look,” he called it, with the presumable presumption that the customisation with which couture seduces its customers demands a major degree of accessibility.

Browne has always delivered a sharp custom edge with his clothes. It’s how he launched his business two decades ago. From then to a half-billion-dollar business now? Maybe he’s reeling as much as we are. Showing couture in Paris was an extraordinary, unanticipated culmination of this arc in his career. And, with all the invitation to excess that couture might have offered this most excessive of designers, it was a surprisingly disciplined collection he showed. It was lavish in its execution but pure in its conception. A gilded lily, in fact. Perfect for Browne’s commitment to taking American sportswear to fashion’s top table.

In designing her latest collection for Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri was drawn to neo-classicism and a quote from Christian himself, that it wasn’t the idea of “l’antique” that appealed so much as the concept of “apparent simplicity.” What a straightforward definition of couture’s essence! An effortless effect underpinned by masterful, invisible technique. With Chiuri’s new collection, the “effortlessness” unfortunately translated into blandness with a somnolent sequence of handmaidenly ivory and beige gowns. Black inserted itself as starkly as a crow’s harsh squawk in the midst of a wispy madrigal.

That’s not to say there wasn’t beauty in Chiuri’s creations. She transformed the classical pleating of ancient Rome, beaded and embroidered sheer dresses so they shimmered, bedazzled a cape with teardrops of crystal. And she de-structured the house icon Bar jacket so it floated around the body in a masterful expression of soft tailoring. But the soundtrack was alive with Christine and the Queens, Fever Ray, Björk, provocative, activist female voices. And Chiuri’s collaborator for the season was Italian artist Marta Roberti, whose work captures an energetic animist spirit in the relationship between women and animals, reflected in the tapestries that lined the wall of the venue. Where was that energy in the clothes? It seemed like a missed opportunity for Chiuri to assert the primal power of women in her actual fashion, especially at a time when women’s rights are as threatened as all the other so-called minorities.

The threat that Daniel Roseberry had in mind at Schiaparelli was more species-, less gender-specific: AI, bête noire of our unhinged era. His response was to create a collection that was clearly of human origin but equally so idiosyncratic that, in an ideal world, AI wouldn’t have a hope in hell of replicating it. True, Roseberry might well be one designer who could resist the predictive essence of the Eye in the Sky for his wayward ability to swathe one model in a slinky or another in a skirt composed of a dozen duvets. Things familiar become things utterly peculiar in his hands. But that’s actually the alluring alchemy of fashion.

The feeling lingers that Roseberry has yet to settle at Schiaparelli. He is still enraptured by the surrealism of the house’s history, by the opportunity he has to marry Elsa’s mad brio with his own fantasies and the technique that is available to him. Turn the paint smears on the walls of artist Lucien Freud’s studio into a huge hand-painted puffer coat? No problem. It may have meant something that the outfits that meant most in Roseberry’s show on Monday were the stark, buttressed architectural pieces that opened the show. But then the extravaganza took over, with a gigantic Yeti mohair shag clasped by carved wood hands, or a “palm tree” with fronds of black goat hair. What are you actually looking at? It’s a bizarre wonder, the point being that AI can fuck off if it thinks it can duplicate this spirit.

Relevance? It’s just a shot away, while Paris burns on the outskirts of town.

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