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At Paris Couture, Digital Decadence and Tradition

Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli and Margiela’s John Galliano were the undisputed winners of the season, one classic, the other hyper-modern, reports Angelo Flaccavento.
Maison Margiela、Valentino 2019春夏高定系列 | 图片来源:InDigital
  • Angelo Flaccavento

PARIS, France — Can couture be modern? The question arises each season and the answers are almost as many as the designers and houses that are part of the calendar. Couture is both an anachronism, completely at odds with the present time, and yet probably the only place left in the modern luxury business where fashion can still produce radically progressive, soulful fantasies. This tension makes for fascinating results. And there was lots of dream-making in the couture week which closed in Paris on Thursday: a crescendo that started with the Dior circus on Monday, passed through Chanel's jolly villa affair on Tuesday and took off on Wednesday with the equally extreme, but almost diametrically opposed visions of Valentino's Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maison Margiela's John Galliano, who were the undisputed winners of the season.

In brief, the offering was festive, indulgent and at times escapist; full of decadence of every sort. It is not surprising: dire, divisive times like ours call for outbursts of joy and excess, for a frenzied dance on the edge of the abyss. If the world as we know it is rotting, why not front the debacle with shimmer and glamour instead of gloom and doom?

If even a master of luxurious restraint such as Giorgio Armani embraces out-there, assertive opulence you have to take notice. Even more so if such a vision comes in lacquered hues of crimson red and royal blue, with whiffs of art deco and an intoxicating Serge Lutens feel of extreme elegance conveyed through a dramatically vertical silhouette. Armani's rigorous take on excess was a perfect demonstration that, indeed, abandon is the way forward.

The offering was festive, indulgent and at times escapist; full of decadence of every sort.

There were shades of abandon at both Giambattista Valli and Schiaparelli, pointing in a rather theatrical direction. Valli sung a eulogy to the Opium (as in perfume) drenched days of Parisian five-star-luxe sleaze, when monsieur Saint Laurent gathered a harem of exotic beauties in his Avenue Marceau atelier, opting for a proliferation of trains, ruffles and fez hats. It was a lot, but it had a brashness that's all Valli's own and loved by his army of the jet-setting Valli girls. Bertand Guyon, instead, channelled a kind of baroque psychedelia at Schiaparelli, letting colours and volumes explode. Although visually entertaining, the effort did not quite stick together. But both Valli and Schiap were halfway between traditional couture and a quest for modernity.


How to make couture truly modern has been a primary preoccupation for Maria Grazia Chiuri since the start of her tenure at Dior. The key has been mostly narrative. Invoking a new form of feminism and paring down all the jolie madame flourishes usually associated with the house, Chiuri has created consistent collections that lack flights of fantasy but are replete with the kind of elegant pragmatism that might really end in the wardrobes of the happy few. This season the feminist narrative was, again, mostly an affair of mise en scene — cue a performance by London's Mimbre circus — while the clothes were as streamlined as usual, with just a smattering of Harlequin lozenges and some clumsy bloomers to add spice. It will definitely sell but there was not much élan.

A fierce herald of modernity is Clare Waight Keller, who keeps taking strides at Givenchy. This was her third couture collection for the house, and certainly her most assured: a feat of engineered precision and icy sex appeal. Waight Keller belongs to the school of cold designers, but below the crisp surface something trembling hides. Something kinky, too: she has a fondness for latex, quite an unlikely couture material. But it's not just the contrasts that speak to modernity. Waight Keller's vision of couture is progressive because it marries the quality of a service — which couture still is, for the most demanding clientele — with a strong design statement.

Modernity — in the sense of clean lines, lack of decorations — has never been an option at Chanel: the imagery Karl Lagerfeld promotes for the couture division of this venerable house is one of pomp and circumstance, done with a light hand and a lot of fun. He is not to blame for this: Chanel owns the clientele who demand such stuff. And it is madames as well as mademoiselles, so there is plenty to rejoice.

It was a blast, aided by the intensely emotional music that scored the show.

Curiously, Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino also seems completely uninterested in honing a modern code for couture. "I love classic couture: something that moves you and makes you dream," he said backstage before a stellar show, an emotional parade of very classic, old school yet super light gowns done in painterly hues and worn by a striking cast of mostly black models. The shift of perspective — couture on black beauties, and on a broader level couture on non-standard beauties — was what Piccioli was after. Essentially, it was a showmanship tool, but the designer claimed that the choice happened early, right at the start of the creative process. It was a blast, aided by the intensely emotional music that scored the show.

This said, past all the visual poetry and the flights of incredible colours, past the casting and the Instagram-worthy tableau vivant finale, what was left was a series of fairly traditional dresses that convey a baroque, sometimes even stuffy vision of femininity. In this contrast lays both the weakness and the strength of Piccioli: he makes wonderful dresses and likes to convey strong messages, but somehow the two entities do not always quite match. What we are left with is a vision of enchanting beauty, and that is what we should savour: the visuals, not the philosophy.

There are not many creators around today who are able to find true poetry in dressmaking. John Galliano, who remains on a winning path at Maison Margiela, is another one, but he belongs to a wholly different breed to Piccioli. Galliano is a born storyteller, certainly the most prolific and inspiring storyteller active today. He tells his stories through the cuts, via the pattern making and the moulding of the fabric, and after that with the show. There is a striking, brilliantly inventive form of coherence keeping together the whole process, and it reverberates. This season Galliano delivered truly inclusive couture: moving fluidly between the genders — calling it a co-ed show is akin to killing the magic — and moving fluidly and madly all over the body.

Reflecting on the visual saturation and ultimate decadence induced by digital culture, Galliano twisted, sliced and morphed forms following a reverse path that from outbursts of excess finally led to restraint (both chromatic and formal, as black outfits blocked the arms like straightjackets). It made for some serious thinking and for some even more striking images: pictures of the show — graffiti brocades staged on a mirrored catwalk against a graffiti ceiling — made it impossible to tell where the clothes ended and the backdrop began.

That's the fundamental trick of modern couture: in order to resonate, it also needs to be an Instagram-worthy affair, as the brilliant Victor & Rolf slogans on tulle extravaganza so clearly demonstrated. Either you like it or not. But make no mistake: couture can be modern, if only as fantastic entertainment.

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