BoF Logo

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

Paris Couture Week: All or Nothing

Couture Week was a polarised affair, opposing restraint and excess, technique and showmanship, real clothes and wild storytelling, with little in between, writes Angelo Flaccavento.
Schiaparelli Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 2023.
Schiaparelli Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 2023. (Getty Images)

PARIS — Set amid violent protests after the police shooting of a North African teenager, which took France by storm and says so much about socio-economic inequality in today’s world, the Paris haute couture week that closed Thursday was a polarised affair, opposing restraint and excess, calm and loudness, technique and showmanship, real clothes and wild storytelling, with little in between.

Restraint was not even an option at Schiaparelli, where Daniel Roseberry was back at the freeform experimentation and theatrics that defined the early days of his tenure at the house, with a new taste for the gigantic that gave the clothes a Claes Oldenburg, supersized quality.

By now, of course, Roseberry has devised a successful formula for the house, igniting customer desire with anatomic bijoux, chunks of glistening gold and bold accessories, much to the pleasure of patron Diego Della Valle. And yet, with its randomness, wild stagecraft and constant referencing of Gaultier, Moschino and Lacroix, the designer’s latest collection felt like a step backwards. Gone was the sensual, baroque severity Roseberry has successfully explored for a couple of seasons, replaced instead by an arty drag that felt costumey and, at times, homemade. Visually, the outing was a feast, but it could have used a little more grace and elan.

Thom Browne, who was Roseberry’s former employer, is another designer prone to the visual and theatrical outburst — albeit of a stricter variety. His couture debut in Paris, marking the 20th anniversary of the brand, happened on the stage of the Opera Garnier, and was cryptic, long and repetitive — but hey, that’s Thom Browne. Love him or hate him, at least he is original.

Complete with veritable feats of craftsmanship, incredibly rich in details, the clothes were an extensive exploration of shades of grey, either in curvaceous or straight shapes. As much as the collection was fantastic and exquisitely made, it also looked unnecessarily complicated. A bit of simplicity would do Browne a world of good: after all his work is based on uniforms, and there’s nothing better than simplicity rendered with the means of couture.

Pieter Mulier is another designer who would benefit from simplicity. Due to too much conceptualising, his Alaïa — which is not couture but is presented alongside the couture calendar — seems to have lost contact with the female body, coming across as overly idealised, in a 80s kind of way. It’s a pity, because Mulier is a genuine lover of beauty, and that’s what the Maison Alaïa requires. Following his own guts and reconnecting with the atelier would do the designer wonders.

The overwrought but static styling did not do any good at Julien Dossena’s one-off takeover of Gaultier Paris, which was also Dossena’s first foray outside of the metallurgic Paco Rabanne (now just Rabanne, not Paco) codes. Dossena is a futurist as much as he has an eye and a feeling for intensely chiseled yet modern decoration; he is skilled and talented, but feels oh so very controlled, a trait that was apparent in his Gaultier interpretation.

All the familiar Gaultier elements, from breton stripes to conical breasts, from nudity to sensuous draping, were there, but they didn’t really come together. The looks felt a little lifeless, and there was no sign of humour or sexiness to lift it all up.

There was plenty of sass at Viktor & Rolf, which celebrated its thirtieth birthday with a “best of” collection in teeny-weeny swimsuit form. It was hilarious. There was both complication and spontaneity at Charles de Vilmorin, though it was as homemade as it was charming.

Despite quoting Constantin Brancusi’s belief that “Simplicity is complexity resolved” designer Pierpaolo Piccioli only partially managed to deliver vibrant, soulful simplicity — something at which he truly excels — at Valentino. The collection, presented outside at sunset around a water basin in the garden of the marvellous Château de Chantilly, swung constantly between simplicity and complexity, between draped goddess and feathers-sprouting showgirl, but it did not feel completely resolved.

On the contrary, it looked as though it was inhabited by two different souls — one restrained, the other excessive — which came together rather bluntly. And the styling, with the heavy chandelier earrings and demure pointy flats with outsized bows, made it look rather clunky.

Meanwhile Piccioli confirmed his status as brilliant, outsider colourist: the way he freely mixes painterly hues with off notes is outstanding, if by now a little formulaic. A little more editing, and a stronger dive into Brancusi’s mantra would serve Piccioli well, as well as a little less storytelling: the Château was a joy to behold, but added very little to the clothes.

Master purist Giorgio Armani was in a different mood this season at Armani Privé. Convinced that couture must shine and glisten to avoid looking like ready-to-wear, Armani peppered his trademark timeless cleanliness with a blooming of lacquered roses, a lot of chinoiserie and even more shine. The effect was mixed: at times wonderfully sophisticated, at times as kitschy as an Orientalist fantasy. Armani is at his best when he delves into lessness, and in fact it was the simpler pieces, the pantsuits in particular, that shone.

Vigorous editing would do wonders for Virginie Viard: her take on Chanel, the couture in particular, is a bit clunky, even more so when she tries to freshen things up. This season, things went in many different directions, from madame to hippie chic — all a little burdensome.

Couture Week was at its best when we saw clothes made for real life, not Instagram posts, though this approach can lack a wow effect and translate into something, erm, rather boring. The most pared back of all was Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri, who produced a masterful lesson in monastic, graceful draping that owed a lot to her tenure at Valentino. Set inside a box with the walls embroidered with the layered, captivating drawings of artist Marta Roberti, the collection was certainly monotonous, but also gorgeously powerful in its favouring of the subtle, including unthread embroideries. And yet, it would have benefited from a more intimate presentation.

Giambattista Valli presented in the new headquarters of his Maison, all white carpeting and marvellous staircase. The collection was just as calm. From the sculptural volumes to the bows to the vertical lines, it was a reaffirmation of the Valli codes, without ostentation, without preciousness, in a quest for timeless classicism that felt elating.

Seductive restraint, with a sprinkle of Krizia, came forward with remarkable sharpness and focus at Alexandre Vauthier, and Iris Van Herpen managed to wed the experimental with the precise, fantasy with focus. At Fendi, Kim Jones went on a quest for precious lessness that had an operatic feel to it. Dresses served as a springboard and a display frame for the high jewellery pieces designed by Delfina Delettrez: they came in shiny satin, and lots of chiffons, but what was missing was lightness. There was an air of aristocratic elegance that felt contrived.