The French call the all-important opening number of a fashion show le passage. It means "the entrance". As you can imagine, the first ensemble of the first show on the first day of the fashionistas' favourite event of the year - the Paris haute couture autumn/winter season - really has to make an entrance. It certainly did at Alexis Mabille. The 30-year-old Lyon-born designer kicked off the 2009/2010 season with an outfit as pretty as it was short.
It's no wonder the Chambre Syndicale, the body behind French haute couture, relied on Mabille (for the second time this year) to blast away the cobwebs and drive home the message about the highest form of French fashion no longer being aimed at ladies of a "certain age". Mabille's opening number of sky-blue georgette crepe micro-shorts and a tailored jacket festooned with gold lamé flowers screamed of youth and a new era of haute couture.
Interestingly, Mabille, who hails from an impeccable pedigree, having trained at YSL and Dior, rides a new wave of designers (many of whom are Arabs) who are dressing new money, particularly families from the Middle East, and a younger, more fashion-conscious customer. His show, staged in the Paris headquarters of the hair giant L'Oreal, close to the Place de la Concorde, featured an often contradictory wardrobe. Something sophisticated for a mother but, perhaps crucially, something more relevant to the lifestyle of her daughter or even granddaughter.
"It's more an attitude than a theme," the designer said backstage about his collection, which featured draped Grecian togas and fluid satin hooded djellabas in featherweight fabrics in a palette of sky blue, white, gold and black. "It's about lightness and fabric moving around the body. A sense of frivolity that is also comfortable. "Clothes are about comfort right now," said the designer, who is currently dressing France's first lady, Carla Bruni, along with the likes of Keira Knightley and Dita Von Teese.
Le passage at Stephane Rolland, another young designer who trained at the couture house of Jean Louis Scherrer, was striking in its homage to Joan Crawford but paled into insignificance when compared with the opening number at Christian Dior. Imagine an embroidered fuchsia wool crepe jacket smothered with a rainbow of Swarovski crystals, lace sleeves and a waist yanked in to 18 inches, teamed with a bottom half consisting entirely of undergarments.
This wasn't the Dior designer John Galliano pushing the underwear-as-outerwear trend again but models in a state of semi-undress (corsets worn over dresses, slips peeping out of hems, pointy bras worn with floor-length tulle ball skirts), inspired by iconic photographs lining the walls of the famous Christian Dior headquarters in Avenue Montaigne. Since 1999, lavish Dior haute-couture shows have taken place in Parisian landmarks including the grounds of the Musée Rodin and the Palace of Versailles, in aircraft-hangar-sized pop-up marquees.
On Monday, the show reverted to Dior's exclusive salon, where in 1947 he unveiled his New Look. All 35 outfits in the show, which was in effect an homage to the same silhouette that once shocked the world, contained at least one piece of structured rather than saucy underwear. Anyone who read the lengthy show notes or had time to glance at the shots of Monsieur Dior and his favourite mannequins on the three flights of stairs on the way up might have made sense of the show. Here were models wrenched from the dressing rooms halfway through their wardrobe changes.
Was underwear used to detract from the fact that this season the great French brand famous for lavish shows has downscaled to a mere salon? In fact, the effect of semi-clad, bird-like supermodels drove home the exquisite workmanship of the clothing rather than highlighting the underwear. Although, I predict a run in the sales of black silk seamed stockings. Anyone lucky enough to witness supermodels close up in virtual daylight in made-to-measure Dior can hardly object. This, after all, is couture as Dior intended.
The dropped jaw of the French movie star Marion Cotillard, who sat front row at the first of two shows, was no act. The decision to stage the show at the Christian Dior salon was taken by the CEO Sidney Toledano. "We want to do it in this house again to feel 'at Dior'." The French haute couture autumn/winter 2009/2010 schedule, which features presentations by Chanel, Christian Lacroix and Arab designers including Zuhair Mourad, Georges Chakra, Rabih Kayrouz and Elie Saab, runs until this evening.