ARE CLOTHES MODERN? This was the question that Maria Grazia Chiuri put on a T-shirt that opened her Dior show in Paris. It was on the opening day of the Paris haute couture – the most exclusive fashion that money can buy, pitched at only a few hundred customers in the world – and it was the question that framed the week.
Couture itself is not modern; fashion’s highest (and oldest) art form sits at the top of the pyramid as a brand’s purest form of creative identity, from which the sales of handbags and perfume flow. And clothes themselves – “the first home for our body”, as Maria Grazia put it, “the first space in which you define yourself” – are not exactly a new phenomenon. She wanted to answer the question posed by the architect Bernard Rudofsky in 1944 for a show he curated at MOMA. “He was very critical about clothes, about how fashion is something that changes all the time and that great design should be timeless. This collection is my point of view, a more positive one,” she said, dressed all in black. “I am from Generation Black,” she added – the colour in which she served up almost all of her collection. All the better to see its architecture, even if that came in a parade of grand ballgowns – all corsets and crinolines, nipped waists and moulded hips – that paid homage to a former era. Her modern take came in the form of new technology that made them comfortable to wear, in the simple draped togas and the march of flat shoes. A few hours after her show, Maria Grazia received the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honour, presented to her by the French Secretary of State for Gender Equality, Marlène Schiappa, who applauded the first female designer to helm Dior and her reframing of it, from feminine to feminist brand.
The most modern thing about Paris couture? That women are now in creative charge of the three most famous couture houses: Maria Grazia at Dior, Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy and Virginie Viard at Chanel. The female gaze not only tipped the balance of power but coloured the entire week. Restraint and wearability became the new mantra in a world where fussiness, fantasy and frou-frou usually belong. Particularly at Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld’s former right-hand and successor stripped back everything to the core.
Her debut solo couture show – held in the Grand Palais, which had been transformed into a giant library – said it most clearly with trouser suits, patent flat black lace-ups, spectacles and simple scraped-back ponytails. Gone were the lashings of pearls and camellias, the fashion reworks, and in their place streamlined silhouettes, their only decoration pearl and diamanté buttons and the occasional eruption of floral embroideries, fan-like collars, a wave of ruffles here and a sprouting of plumes there. Its quiet power, sheer simplicity and restrained elegance signalled a new era for the house.
The same self-control was seen at Clare Waight Keller’s Givenchy, even if her inspiration was that of a muse in an aristocratic house ripping down the curtains to fashion herself a gown for the ball, all ruching and rip cords intact. Part female, part bird, her hair, by Guido, was reminiscent of a raven in flight and her most sensational gowns sprouted zillions of tiny fluttering plumes (who knows how many birds were plucked in the making of last week’s couture shows, but feathers were everywhere). Alongside the flights of fancy came the strictest of tailoring – from a grey tweed pencil suit to a graphic dress whose skirt erupted in a bed of snowflakes. One coat flashed a razor-sharp lapel; a pristine white tuxedo dress and ravishing pink cape were completely unadorned.
Add to those women Iris Van Herpen, another notable couturier making fashion-art through technology. A kinetic sculpture by Anthony Howe twisted and turned as the centrepiece of her show, titled ‘Hypnosis’, around which her undulating laser-cut wizardry paraded to spell-binding effect.
The new stripped-backness was even evident at Mr Armani’s show, on stringent form, opening with narrow velvet coats, peak-shouldered jackets and palazzo pants, before he got to the cobwebs of crystal and ice-cream-hued organza of his eveningwear procession. You’ll see it sometime soon on Céline Dion, Nicole Kidman and Zendaya, all of whom attended the Armani Privé show.
Celebrities were, just like the bombastic fashions that usually colour couture week, in short supply, although Marisa Tomei showed up to Ralph & Russo, held in the garden of the British Embassy, where ostrich, crystal and pearl confections loomed large. If it sounds typically glitzy, it wasn’t – well not as much as the clients that lined the 90-metre runway.
Even Peter Dundas, he of the ruffled glamour gown, didn’t play to the usual celebrity-filled crowd, and his transparent floral fantasies over leather bikinis looked like the most refined version of his party-girl insignia look.
For bold, electric energy, you had to witness Maison Margiela, where John Galliano let rip on deconstruction. “My intentions are impulsive and anarchic… Playing with the clichés of couture… An exploration of decadent cutting,” he explained in his now famous podcast issued before the show. I wish his voice, reminiscent of Kenneth Williams, had played as the soundtrack to his imaginative and inventive collection – next time, please.
If couture week was more sober than usual, perhaps it was because designers were sensing the desires of their clients. Is being conspicuously wealthy unfashionable? Showing off less chic? All was super-subtle, a paler shade of couture. Until the final show of the week: Valentino. Saturated in colour, every outfit was rampantly unique.
“Extravagance is individuality in its purest, rawest form,” said Pierpaolo Piccioli of his sumptuous shapes, jaw-dropping colour, fringes, flowers and quivering headpieces – every look an individual expression of the model who wore it. What it didn’t feel like was a series of textbook reference points; he wasn’t making a political statement, sermonising, or philosophising. “Trying to explain it all would be betraying the deepest meaning of the journey… What unfolds in these rooms is a story that can take as many meanings as all the spectators watching. All different, all valid. Each eye, a path.”
In other words, the audience didn’t need to think about anything except how delightful it was to be there, in the moment, looking at the fashion equivalent of happiness. Pure joy to see, his collection stole the week, with a standing ovation as he took his bow with the entire Valentino atelier. Perhaps it was this rampaging freedom – the permission to enjoy fashion at its most exuberant and fun – that makes clothes truly modern, after all.
Images: Jason Lloyd-Evans, Rex Features & supplied