We roundup the haute couture fashion shows that wrapped in Paris this week.
Haute couture triumphs in Paris
In spite of the dismal rain and grey vistas that greeted visitors in Paris last week, there was a bright, bold and optimistic mood on the catwalks for the spring/summer 2012 haute couture shows.
This most inaccessible yet seductive of fashion disciplines, ruinously expensive to produce and within the reach of only a few thousand people in the world, is where the few designers who still take part get to unleash their imaginations and display the unparalleled skills of the teams at their ateliers - those "petites mains" who spend thousands of hours painstakingly appliquéing, beading and embroidering these one-off pieces.
Indeed, this was the first set of collections since the great couture embroidery maestro François Lesage died last month. The head of his eponymous Chanel-owned atelier, Lesage had worked with everyone from Christian Dior to Yves Saint Laurent, and his will be a profound loss to the business.
This season, too, comes on the back of several years of difficult market conditions, during which the whole tone of the industry has become, out of necessity, more commercial, wearable and sometimes muted.
It was a delight, then, to see bright hues, youthful shapes and spring-friendly pastel tints return this week. Alexis Mabille offered perhaps the most vibrant collection, overtly inspired by flowers, with bright slender satin or chiffon dresses topped with enormous rose headpieces in the same colour.
On the side of iced pastels and crisp innocence was Elie Saab, who interspersed his trademark bias-cut beaded evening gowns with demurely pretty short prom dresses in white, mint, coral, ice blue, yellow and sugar pink. This full silhouette is fairly new for the streamlined Saab, and provided him with some characterful looks - flirty on one hand, coy on the other, coolly severe when teamed with a high cowl neck and three-quarter sleeves, and lightheartedly elegant on the final wedding gown, when the full skirt extended to the ground in a Grace Kelly-meets-Barbie white and pink brocade.
This 1950s-inspired look may have become especially popular in the last two years, but it is a style with which Giambattista Valli is synonymous, and over the seasons he has refined it to a beautiful austerity. For this collection - his first as a fully fledged haute couturier rather than a mere guest of the Chambre Syndicale - he combined rigid silks, voluptuously folded into beautiful, pure tulips, bows and arched peplums, with some of his favourite appliqué techniques, densely clustering silk and lace flowers over shoulders, down skirts and across the décolletage. His creamy palette was punctuated with black, most effectively when dramatically waterfalled down a white lace skirt.
His designs echoed some of the Dior heritage, and as ever Dior was one of the most eagerly anticipated shows - the brand still without a creative director since the dismissal of John Galliano in March 2011 after his anti-Semitic outburst. Bill Gaytten, Galliano's long-time studio head, who has been holding the fort ever since, had a dismal outing at the last couture season, cruelly derided by the fashion press. But he earned a grudging thumbs-up from the industry for his next collection, at ready-to-wear in October 2011, and for couture he genuinely excelled, raising the question of whether he might, in fact, get the gig himself, after the toughest job interview in fashion history.
Sticking to an almost monochrome palette, with blasts of scarlet and purple, this collection had a neat concept, revealing the "skeleton" of the clothes as if through a sartorial X-ray. Light-as-air fabrics sprang from visible seaming, white stitching appeared on black tailoring, sheer black and red gazar silk were layered over white to show immaculate hems, and all with the polish that one expects from Dior.
Another heavily themed show was Jean Paul Gaultier's, an ode to the late Amy Winehouse. Taste issues aside, it was a fun, light and sassy collection, all beehives and eyeliner, with pencil skirts, tiny waists, coquettish scraps of lace and colour combinations so vivid they almost vibrated.
For Stéphane Rolland it was the business of fabulosity as usual: high-octane hourglass shapes were carved from heavily draped jersey in cream, black and red, with a sense of 1940s Cruella de Vil drama - strong shoulders, sculptural Plexiglas panels and sophisticated, haughty silhouettes.
Donatella Versace returned to Paris couture after eight years with the Atelier Versace label, which she showed as a presentation of gowns that were, if anything, even more pneumatic than normal. Tiny curved dresses and white kinky boots were Barbarella-cute, while those wonderfully constructed gowns - out just in time for the Oscars - were fit for a futuristic red carpet.
After all the colour and drama, Karl Lagerfeld's entirely blue collection for Chanel at the Grand Palais offered no 1950s nostalgia or space-age shenanigans: just lots of instantly recognisable dresses, jackets, trousers and - this being Lagerfeld - an outrageous set made up of a replica plane interior, complete with airline-style seating. Simple woollen shift dresses, long, slimline coats, boat-neck collars and the classic high-cut sleeves moved into cutaway shoulders on halter-neck dresses and icy, frothy confections for evening, accessorised with large metallic or sequinned camellias.
Of course, whatever happens to couture, Lagerfeld will be fine, with a finger in every fashion pie: on Thursday, he also launched his budget line, Karl, on Net-a-Porter and in pop-up shops in New York, Sydney, Berlin, London and Paris. The prices? From Dh115 for a canvas tote. Talk about spreading your risks.
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