x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Aquatic style at Chanel and McQueen

The underwater theme was clear in two of the most anticipated shows of the season.

Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.
Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.

In some strange synchronicity, the shows in Paris yesterday en masse abandoned the twin inspirations of minimalism and mid-century couture in favour of underwater adventures and warrior women.

Karl Lagerfeld kicked off the aquatic adventures with the Chanel show, in its customary Grand Palais setting. It's always a thrill to finally see what kind of interior his fevered imagination will have fashioned in this huge, glass-roofed space, and this time the theme could not have been more literal, with giant glistening white fronds of seaweed, gleaming fragments of coral and leaping fish. In blithe disregard for whatever elegant silks his guests may have donned in honour of the show (and this is one that people really do dress up for), the benches were coated in fine, crystalline sand, which at best left a white dusting on clothes and at worst pulled delicate fabrics.

Of course, everyone was perfectly delighted to put up with it because the Chanel show is the most anticipated of the week, and the snowy-haired Lagerfeld, at 78 starting to look a little frail, still offers more ideas in one frock than some designers have in a whole collection.

Like a number of the season's clothes, a limited, light palette was in play, with interest added in the textures and silhouettes. This season's classic Chanel suit, in cream, white and black, had a lighter, airier look, the neckline more open, sleeves at elbow-length and with softly rounded shoulders. Matching dresses were belted with strings of pearls and some featured graphic black-lined squares drawn on the diagonal. Layers of soft, sea-foam-like ruffles and light-as-air plissé dresses matched the Impressionist harp music that played at the start, and bubble-like black-bordered fabric paillettes layered on a puffed-out skirt continued the watery motifs. But it wasn't costume: for evening, beautiful drop-waisted dresses featured floating layers of tulle on the skirt or cut-up strips of a floral pattern that looked like a view from underwater, broken by surface ripples. Iridescent sequins, ribbons glazed on to fabric, silver boots and bags in the shape of oversized shells kept the theme running, and Florence Welch, of the UK rock band Florence and the machine, standing in a giant clamshell, gave her all, red hair softly waving and wearing a dress of iridescent paillettes, like a sailor-seducing siren or mermaid.

It wasn't all about the sea for Chanel, though: the soundtrack before Welch was a remixed, broken version of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, and that archetypal sound of high mythology could have easily worked with Manish Arora's debut collection for Paco Rabanne. Using Rabanne's trademark metal plating as a starting point (the designer had, in the 1960s, been known for linking metal chains and plastic squares on his radical minis), Arora covered his models in a second skin made from squares of metallic leather, like some kind of hyper-articulated suit of armour, the sort of thing an Arthurian lady of the lake might wear over her samite-clad arm. The hourglass-alien shapes felt a tiny bit old - the sort of thing Alexander McQueen did years ago - but it was an interesting revival for this brand that until recently had been concentrating on scent.

And as for the Alexander McQueen collection itself, out in the seamy environs of the 19th arrondissement, mermaids made another play for the season, this time in astonishingly intricate beading, sequinning and embroidery on shapes that showed us just how well that hourglass shape can work. Tightly corseted-in pencil skirts and strong-shouldered belted jackets in plissé gold and cream started the show, the models walking around two giant neon-rod chandeliers, wearing lace balaclavas tightly sewn over their heads and, in some cases, their faces. As prints seeped on to the collection, and peplums and collars cascaded into ever more ruffles, those headpieces become more and more complex, stitched with pearls, crystals and beads until the encrustations took over the whole face. It was pretty disturbing, but strangely beautiful, like barnacle-covered treasures in a shipwreck - slightly Davey Jones's Locker, in fact - not that it's really fair to compare Sarah Burton's extraordinary work with a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

The subaquatic theme, though, was unmissable by the time the true eveningwear came out, every inch covered in exquisite embellishment, and the shoulders blooming with coral strands. Apart from the dense thickets of silver, gold and iridescent beading, roping and lace, in fact, the one hue that came through was coral, ranging from a pale pink to a vivid orangey version. The final dress, a dazzling construction in silver, with fin-like scalloping all the way down the skirt, was a bright, optimistic resolution to the sinister encroachments of earlier in the show. Burton knows just how to work a theatrical McQueen narrative.