Haute couture is, by definition, about the impossible and the unobtainable. It’s a glamorous dream world that simultaneously references the highest echelons of fashion and the astonishing touch of the petite mains, or craftspeople. Yet, even here, reality occasionally creeps in.
As America bristles with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which cast a long shadow at the recent Golden Globes (where an overwhelming majority of women wore black), the question was always going to be: would the current climate have an impact on the couture shows?
The answer is, yes… but only really for the most pro-women maison of the moment, Christian Dior. Under the guidance of creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior has become an outspoken, pro-female, equality-promoting brand, so it feels entirely fitting that it should deliver a collection that could easily be used for the next round of black-as-protest red-carpet dressing.
The collection was inspired by the surrealist painter Leonor Fini, one of the most important female artists of the mid-20th century, who was known for her depictions of powerful women. In addition to their female-first agenda, Fini and Dior share a historical link, too; she was one of the artists whose works Monsieur Dior showcased in his art gallery, in the days before he turned to fashion.
At the Dior couture show last week, the set was decorated with avant-garde motifs, including a black-and-white checked floor, birdcages, and plaster-cast ears, eyes and hands hanging from the ceiling. The models strode in wearing giant domino coats, birdcage corsetry and immaculate Bar coats reconfigured into strapless gowns. A high pleated neck sat over a streamlined bone-white gown, and silk tulle ruffles spiralled to the floor, helter-skelter. One dress was made entirely of openwork evil eyes – a much-loved surrealist motif also favoured in this region – while shoes had toes moulded into the leather, or gloves wrapped around the ankle. One dress had a trompe l’oeil body etched into the sequins, while another had lobsters and sunrays under a gossamer layer that bunched at the neck and elbow. Chiuri tasked British milliner Stephen Jones to create veils, to which he responded with pocket squares of mesh suspended over the face, and what felt like a single layer of fragile silk framing the eyes. Familiar again to this region was a golden metallic rectangle across the brows, like an updated version of the burqa, all of which framed the double feline flick eye make-up.
Another female-led house that joined the black-as-eveningwear bandwagon was Givenchy. Under new creative Clare Waight Keller, who was delivering her first-ever couture show, almost a third of the looks were black; if she was apprehensive about her debut, it didn’t show. Handled with a sharp austerity – even the ruffles and frou-frou were underplayed – the collection was launched with a black trouser suit with a deeply sculpted neck, which segued into a midnight blue gown of severe beauty. A long line jacket opened over a tiered white dress, followed by a lace gown sharpened up by shoulder caps. Among the fiercely feminine pieces, the most mesmerising included a lean ruffled dress under a coat lined in decadent red ostrich feathers; and a plissé-work gown with scalloped gold beading slithering down the hips. Unexpected, uncompromising and brazenly confident, this could herald the dawn of a new female-first era.
When Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli took over at Valentino in 2008, they breathed new life and direction into the house. Now with Chiuri gone to Dior and Piccioli left in sole charge, many questioned whether one could ever be as good as the two. With Valentino’s latest couture offering, that query has been resolutely shut down. Showing a staggeringly beautiful display of expensive dressing-down, here vest tops were high fashion and trousers were the epitome of style.
The opening look had both those elements wrapped in a puffed chartreuse opera coat, and finished with a so-ridiculous-it’s-amazing baby blue ostrich headpiece. A simple mutton-sleeved camel coat was closed with a teal sash, while wide-legged paper-bag trousers sat perfectly with a ruffled red top and opera gloves. Notwithstanding the immaculate cuts and eye-watering price tags, this felt pleasingly democratic, in that – in theory at least – anyone could pull these looks off.
The same can’t quite be said of Iris van Herpen, who walks the path that other couturiers fear, or simply don’t know how to tread. Her work draws comparisons with that of the late Alexander McQueen – both share an obsession for the otherworldly – but she uses techniques so complex they could only make sense in couture. Van Herpen has elevated the genre, much like the shoes worn by her models, to something entirely unexpected. Cutting-edge techniques (listed as foam-lifting and liquid fabric, whatever that might mean) create pieces of absolute precision, with patterns so exact that the effect is like wearing a hologram.
One series of dresses had a laser-etched moiré pattern that felt like the composition of a butterfly wing viewed through a microscope. With such a focus on man-made innovation, it is sometimes easy to forget that van Herpen’s inspiration is the natural world, which came through in a palette of mossy greens and fresh-cut wood. While it is sometimes difficult to think of who would wear these pieces, or where, they are without doubt works of borderline genius.
Elsewhere, Jean Paul Gaultier dedicated his show to the ingenuity of his former boss Pierre Cardin, who at the age of 95 sat front row to receive the accolade. Declaring Cardin to be the forefather of creative freedom, the show was a visual journey through the pop art of the 1960s that Cardin is best known for – all illusionary swirls and shifting focal points.
This being Gaultier, however, he still managed to cut a trench coat on the round, carve pinstripe into a body-hugging top, and finish a suit with lavish cowboy fringing. The best look of the show was, by JPG standards, the quietest. Almost lost among the baby-doll shift dresses, was a crisp white column gown, with a single asymmetric strap and a folded-over black top. Finished with a looping bow and wide choker, it proved that although Gaultier has lost none of his enfant terrible attitude, he has lost none of his excellence, either.
Speaking of excellence, it is worth noting that even in couture, Chanel still manages to be one step ahead of the game. The show delivered 68 looks, and most came with their own matching shoes, or Victorian ankle boots, to be more precise. The collection felt fresh and lighthearted, with bomber-jacket-style pockets; pretty and feminine shades of pinks and champagnes mixed with ruffles and feathers; and the obligatory Chanel beading in the palest of pinks. In a show stated to be about the present mood of casual optimism in France, which Karl Lagerfeld attributes to President Emmanuel Macron and his fashion-savvy wife, Brigitte, the silhouettes moved from swing coat, through tailored and even tiered bell skirts, to the parade of closing looks that were layered under transparent silk, creating an almost blurred focus effect.
No one understands subtle nuances, most notably when it comes to dusty greys, better than Giorgio Armani, who has made the palette his own over a long career. Under his careful hand, Armani/Prive’s recent couture collection was yet another display of the art of quiet dressing. Even a crocodile jacket in raspberry pink felt elegant when teamed with straight-cut grey trousers. With watery flowers on washed silk as the favoured pattern, standout looks included a lavish tweed jacket over a tubular sheer skirt, with painterly washes of violet and ochre; and a strapless sheath gown with a swag of fabric caught on the bust line. The best look, however, had to be a strapless gown, falling to the ankle in a perfect curtain of beading that shifted imperceptibly from champagne to dove grey. Worn with ballet strap flats, it will no doubt, be donned by the likes of Cate Blanchett on the red carpet before long.
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Another red-carpet favourite, Rami Al Ali knows his clientele well, and is deft at guiding them along his chosen path. Staying true to the sugar almond palette he handles so masterfully, this collection had a more retro feel than usual, with an air of the gilded hedonism of Princess Margaret in Mustique, circa 1968. One gown was beaded faux-devoré under a neckline of folded shantung silk; and a fabulous wide-legged jumpsuit with bishop sleeves was finished with gilt frogging. On a more genteel note, a nude tulle gown was given a bateau neckline; and beaded appliqué was embellished onto a sculptural tube dress, with what could well have been curls of florimund gold foil.
Fellow Middle East couturier Zuhair Murad based his collection on the indigenous tribes of Northern America, with what looked like Navaho, Hopi and Mexican Otomi patterning splashed across many of his luscious pieces, exquisitely executed in beadwork on tulle. A sheer black gown was rich with Navaho motifs, hand-appliquéd in white, and fringed with firebird feather wings, while a deceptively simple buttermilk dress shimmered with fringed silver beadwork. The showstopper look was undoubtedly a sheer black sheath, heavy with folded silverwork, which was densely embellished in art deco lines of glistening metal and elaborate starbursts. Call it cultural appropriation; call it an homage; here at The National, we call it stunning.