Middle Eastern patronage has long kept the world's most renowned haute-couture houses in business. But now local traditions are beginning to affect design, as well.
Style of the region
There's nothing quite like a Paris haute-couture show to remind you that just when you think you've seen everything in fashion, you really haven't. From the ghostly "talking head" apparitions of Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn that floated out of the towering headpiece containing a hidden digital projector on the bride at Jean Paul Gaultier's catwalk finale, to the soft down of dove feathers sewn onto the cap sleeves and neckline of Rabih Kayrouz's angel dress, surprises abounded at the French capital's autumn/winter shows.
Twice a year, in January and July, for three days only, fantastically extravagant clothes shown in mind-bogglingly ambitious presentations become the norm. Having witnessed spectacles that made me want to pinch myself to check I wasn't dreaming, I'm still not entirely convinced magic was not used. Take Stephane Rolland's shiny tulle dress with the wafting train that appeared to float on its own accord, for instance. Even when the handsome Frenchman talked me through its construction, I still felt I needed a physicist to explain why it felt lighter than a feather and had the texture of a droplet of rain.
The couture season opened on Monday morning on a positive note with the Alexis Mabille show, one of a growing number of newbies helping to give the annual frock-fest a youthful makeover. By the time the Valentino show drew the event to a close on Wednesday night, with clothes created by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli - the duo who had worked alongside the now-retired designer but who now put a fresh spin on house style - the makeover seemed complete. Valentino's couture show, with its black, lacy, ruffled dresses with a hint of silver embroidery and transparent tulle sleeves, echoed a trend that dominated the season. Hemlines swung from short to floor-length, occasionally palettes were bright, nude or icy white but mostly dark, shadowy and dominated by black.
After last season's all-white affair there was a back-to-black feel at Chanel. The tweed suits so beloved of customers featured a long panel which was edgy enough for the shows but will possibly will be omitted when it comes to actual orders. This has been the irony of the 21st-century couture show so far. It exists ultimately to raise the profile of the brand or fashion house, which will benefit from perfume, make-up, accessory and prêt-a-porter sales, rather than to dress a handful of customers, most of whom are not celebrities and live a lifestyle that is rarely seen by anyone outside rarefied circles.
So, designers put on spectacular shows and the catwalk images bounce around the world, but then the orders that are taken behind closed doors are essentially wearable. This season something changed. The burst of youthful clothes wasn't wasted on many clients sitting front row and it was clear to see that it's not the clothes that are getting younger - it's the customers. Last week young designers such as Kayrouz, Georges Chakra, Stephane Rolland, Riccardo Tisci, and forever young-at-heart figures such as John Galliano at Dior, Giorgio Armani and Jean Paul Gaultier proved they have something to offer the Facebook and Twitter generation - if they can afford it.
Three very beautiful young Middle Eastern faces in the crowd caught my eye at several shows. The women, possibly in their early twenties, sat together, giggling, Twittering on customised iPhones, mostly in the front row, occasionally the second and always being fussed over by the pretty French PR of each particular atelier. At every show I made a mental note to ask them who they were but inevitably, after each breathtaking finale, yet more incredible clothes diverted my mind.
Then bingo. On Wednesday lunchtime I found myself seated next to one of them at Jean Paul Gaultier. Sensing it was now or never I asked her where she was from. She was a Saudi in Paris, helping her sister choose a wedding gown and get a dress to wear for the occasion herself. Thankful that the paparazzi had finally found someone to photograph (Kylie Minogue and Mickey Rourke), she removed the programme she had been using to hide her face and shot me a smile.
Three days into their haute-couture shopping spree, the wedding dress had been narrowed down to three designers: Givenchy, Armani Privé and Stephane Rolland. Having seen the dresses on the catwalk they would now do salon appointments - and just then the lights went down and the show began. It's odd. If you don't actually inhabit the world that wears haute couture, it is very easy to forget that it exists, particularly when you are being mesmerised by those extraordinary clothes.
Being at least 40 years younger than any couture customers I had previously met, my Saudi friend was, however, as fascinated and delighted by showstopping outfits destined for magazine editorials as I was. The big difference was that she was going to buy them. Midway through the Gaultier show, which was inspired by the silver screens of Hollywood and featured typically outrageous designs, I asked her if, so far, she'd seen anything that she liked.
She told me that the striking black velvet siren gown with nude tulle sleeves and a corseted torso had caught her eye. "But I would not order that colour, of course." Of course. That's the beauty of couture - you can have anything you want. Gaultier, she explained, was as popular as Dior in certain closed but very fashionable young circles in Saudi Arabia which reminded me of something Stephane Rolland, whose main client base is in Saudi Arabia, had told me earlier.
"They call me and say, "Did you see the new bags by..." Rolland said of his Middle Eastern clients. This had prompted him to launch a limited edition of couture handbags himself, handmade from asymmetrically cut crocodile skin ("classic, chic and a bit rock 'n' roll") featuring 75-carat diamonds and pink gold which start from 15,000 Euros (Dh77,000). My Saudi friend had also loved the Givenchy show. "Did you see the masks at Givenchy?" she asked me. "They were like the ones that Emirati women wear and the white embroidered dresses were so very pretty."
At the Gaultier show I also chanced upon someone who further broadened my mind about the new Arab couture customer. Ahmed Abdelrahman jets between Abu Dhabi, Los Angeles and various Middle Eastern centres choosing haute-couture clothes for a select group of clients. Given his front-row seat I suspected he too was a very, very good client. Abdelrahman described himself as a "doctor who looks after his special clients who are interested in true luxury."
"You'd be surprised that what you see at couture is the very low end of what luxury can be. This is a glimpse of what luxury culture is all about," he said. Had he found anything suitable at Gaultier? "I've already reserved half the collection," he whispered. "And that's just for one client."Perhaps I should not have been quite so surprised. Middle Eastern customers have financially supported French haute couture for a considerable amount of time.
It's encouraging to see the next generation, so international, so educated and so fashion-aware, continuing this tradition. Perhaps this is why so many clothes in this autumn/winter season were so youthful and why Arab designers, who are finally getting the recognition they deserve, made up one third of shows on the official and "off-piste" circuit. Earlier this year, for instance, a Georges Chakra gown was chosen by Karl Lagerfeld to feature in a "best of" couture shoot for the prestigious fashion magazine Numero. Many couturiers seemed to take their inspiration from the sensuality and mystery of the East, particularly the newcomer Rabih Kayrouz. The 36-year-old designer staged a static presentation on 21 mannequins in his new headquarters - a 1930s theatre famous for staging the first ever performance of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Kayrouz is already being called the next Albert Elbaz. Their fashion signatures are certainly similar. Kayrouz's clothes are as restrained and minimalist as some of his fellow Lebanese designers (namely Zuhair Murad or Georges Hobeika) are over-the-top. While a tinkling piano played softly in the background, Kayrouz (who was, incredibly, accepted onto the official schedule on his first try - it can take decades) told me that the sensuality and lightness of fabric was 100 per cent to do with him being Lebanese. "What I create must be part of where I am from. It's part of my subconscious."
Highlights included trapeze dresses and structured blazers that drifted away from the body, and curved back seams on long, fluid gowns made in gazar, silks and jersey mohair. Elie Saab, who showed at the Pavillon Cambon, is possibly the most successful Middle Eastern designer on the international circuit. As well as his Arab clientele he dresses Hollywood royalty, including Angelina Jolie, Evan Rachel Wood, Mischa Barton and Michelle Yeoh on the night it matters most: the Oscars.
His latest haute-couture collection bared no reference to his home in Beirut. The striking show, more youthful than ever, played out in just one colour, glacial white, featuring ultra-short tutu and sheath-style skirts and his signature long, fishtail evening gowns fused with lavish floral embroidery and embellishment. One-shouldered gowns were showered with twinkling crystals. Boleros with bouffant sleeves dripped with tasselled beads teamed with tight rock-chick trousers. Unfortunately, though, the bridal dress - normally the pièce de resistance - slipped by virtually unnoticed as just another white gown.
Saab's trademark is evening wear and long, lean dresses glittering with lavish beadwork and occasional ostrich feathers proved winners with his front-row clients. Murad also followed an Arctic theme despite sweltering heat in the Salle Le Notre, underneath the Louvre museum. Here, models sashayed down a runway during a staged snowstorm of foam ("inspired by Narnia," explained the designer post-show). Thankfully, the ice crown worn by the Snow Queen bride in the finale was made of plastic, otherwise it would have melted.
Meanwhile, Hobeika's show at the Hotel Georges fizzed with colour. The opening soundtrack - Flashback by Imagination - hinted at what the show might be about: the Eighties. Short and long gowns in a cocktail of tropical-fruit colours and hypnotic prints were wildly creative. Some may have thought it all a bit too wild, but the designer's loyal customers - a mix of older women sitting with younger teenage daughters - seemed to love it. And, really, if you can't go wild with haute couture, when can you?