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In Paris, Couture’s Return to Clothes Making

Haute couture, once the realm of unbridled dreams, is getting back to making clothes, reports Angelo Flaccavento.
Even Daniel Roseberry, whose over the top surrealism has made Schiaparelli a darling of the red carpet, opted for a stricter approach this season.
Even Daniel Roseberry, whose over the top surrealism has made Schiaparelli a darling of the red carpet, opted for a stricter approach this season. (Getty Images)

PARIS — There was the palpable feel of a rappel à l’ordre to the haute couture week that closed in Paris on Thursday. Not in the sense that the aesthetic was conservative — in fact, it was decidedly sensual, at times even sexy — but rather that the focus was on wonderfully made dresses that oozed savoir faire and not needless flash. Up to a point, of course: this is still couture. In a kind of inversion, as ready-to-wear embraces entertainment in its many shades, sometimes at the expense of the clothes, haute couture, once the realm of unbridled dreams, is getting back to clothes-making.

It was telling of this new climate that even Daniel Roseberry, the creative director whose surrealist and kitschy over the top antics have made Schiaparelli the darling of the red carpet, generating incredible buzz and media exposure around the house, opted for something quite strict, avoiding both the buoyant excess and the bright colours of previous seasons. Instead, the goings took a slightly monastic, even Spanish turn, in a Cristobal Balenciaga kind of way: the curvaceous cuts and the reduced palette of black and white with touches of gold pointed clearly in that direction.

Actually, with a face-off of sensuality and rigour, and an almost farcical hourglass silhouette, the outing felt like a menage à trois between Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristobal and the late Thierry Mugler, whose presence could be clearly felt all over the endeavour. It made for a line up that wasn’t particularly memorable but was brave in breaking the mould in an age when fashion formulas tend to be repeated ad nauseam.

At Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri celebrated the work of the ateliers in all its forms: from the subtle to the bold. Stripped of the feminist messaging and the artist blah blah of the past — that was saved for the incredible set by Madhvi and Manu Parekh — the collection focused on immaculately made pieces whose true value will only be only by those who wear them. Such strict masterpieces of stripped-back grace — there was a whiff of Valentino to them — alternated with dazzling creations swarming head to toe in embroidery, including stocking and shoes. And yet, even at peak sparkle, there was a newfound sense of balance to this outing, an almost provocative stress on normality.

Chiuri, in fact, by avoiding the bold tricks that make couture feel like couture — or the cliché of couture — brought to the collection a welcome subtlety that is completely counter to the prevailing winds of today. At a time when on the gilded chairs of couture shows sit not only coiffed madames but plenty of influencers, the idea of clothes that feel unique for the women who wear them, but normal to the public who looks at them, was refreshing.

Kim Jones, at Fendi, was feeling rigorous, too. Monastic, even. Celestial, to be precise. In exploring another shade of Romanity, Jones devised a court of alien empresses decked in long robes, togas and short skirts with trains. Half angels, half demons, faces glistening with rhinestones, the Fendi goddesses looked like living sculptures: for the solemnity, but also for the rigidity of the endeavour. Nonetheless, the vision had power.

On a marvellous vein was Pierpaolo Piccioli, whose stress on inclusivity finally came together in a way that felt truly poignant. No one can dream up a couture show charged with emotion quite like Piccioli, and this one, held in the Place Vendôme Valentino salons for an audience of just 65, was another lyrical high: the rooms whitewashed in cream carpeting, Antony & The Johnsons on the soundtrack, and a cast of women of different ages and body types meandering through the rooms.

Breaking and rewiring the traditional design process, Piccioli conceived the collection not on one single model with a perfect body of idealised proportions, but on a variety of women of different shapes and ages. His aim was not simply to create a parade of diverse bodies, but to make diversity integral to the creative process, disappearing into it. This makes a huge difference and is potentially a point of no return even for future collections. While couture typically involves adapting items to the body of the client, in this case it was the body that drove the creation itself. And it worked, because the message, despite the politics, was ultimately not the body, but a very Valentino tour of vibrant perfection, hot coldness and otherworldly colours.

The Chanel show, hosted in the grandiose spaces of a temporary Grand Palais was a sum of elements whose connections were not exactly clear.

The set, designed by the artist Xavier Veilhan, was a spiralling of curves on a sand floor. The dreamy set was amplified by the soft music composed by Sébastien Tellier. And the show itself opened rather dreamily with Charlotte Casiraghi touring the catwalk on the back of a horse — but the collection was not equestrian.

Rather, it was full of diversions, much like a dream, the parts held together by Virginie Viard’s sense of svelteness and freshness. The collection was all about delicate femininity, celebrated in a pile-up of Bakst-esque exoticisms, Fifties demureness, Twenties linearity, Thirties frivolity, tweeds and broderie anglaise. The execution was flawless, but the far-roaming references diluted the impact.

There wasn’t an ounce of randomness at Gaultier Paris, where Glenn Martens, this season’s guest designer, offered a marvellously theatrical, intricately distorted take on well known Gaultier tropes, from the ubiquitous corset to red velvet and breton stripes. The detour was quintessentially Martens, but the couture execution made it truly grand, and the result was an orgasmic feast of the imagination. Sure, the body here looked quite restricted and idealised, but as an exercise in showmanship, it was a blast.

Pieter Mulier’s sex-charged yet oddly romantic second outing at Alaïa saw the Belgian designer coming to terms with the ghost of Azzedine, bringing things into his own territory, which made for a more fashion-forward, even extreme proposal, without forsaking a quest for beauty. It was a wise move: there is no point in competing with such a master, and heritage is something that can be interpreted in a very personal way. The collision of sharp tailoring and sculpted dresses was noteworthy.

Distortion was the theme at Viktor & Rolf. By raising the shoulder line and elongating the silhouette, the Dutch duo delivered an hilarious parody of Nosferatu elegance that felt weirdly timely in this era of endless media distortions and everyday horror. The trick worked because of the severity of expression. Indeed, it felt like a rappel à l’ordre.

Further Reading

A year into his tenure, the designer talks to Tim Blanks about wrestling with the riddle of one of fashion’s most intensely personal and technically challenging legacies.

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