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Fashion crowds want more than just an extravaganza – they need reality too

There has to be a justification for all the hullaballoo, even if it’s tenuous

One often finds oneself searching for meaning at the Parisian haute couture shows. Not meaning in the clothes – they’re loaded heavy with themes. Haute couture is rarely subtle. It’s quite often camp – as Susan Sontag said: “Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” That’s a thrice-daily occurrence at couture.

It’s more an existential meaning that you crave. Oddly, the visibility inherent in that kind of camping is a meaning in itself. In the seventies, haute couture morphed from real clothes into, primarily, a marketing exercise, an advertising method designed to generate press buzz about a designer name, and shift fragrance and licensed products. Today, for the big brands, it’s about reinforcing the status of the participating labels, not selling the clothes.

However, it’s not enough to throw a lavish, loadsamoney fashion extravaganza any more, of the ilk of John Galliano’s nineties fits of histrionics. There has to be a reality to the clothing, something people can relate to. There has to be a justification for all the hullaballoo, even if it’s tenuous.

The most elaborate show of the week was Karl Lagerfeld’s for Chanel, staged in a set that painstakingly recreated a burnt-out Belle Epoque theatre. The clothes, by contrast, were luxurious, smothered with glittering embroidery and clever fabric manipulation. But they felt light, and fresh, and new. There’s an ironic economy to a Chanel show that’s striking. Karl Lagerfeld doesn’t bombard you with stuff. He lets you breathe and appreciate the luxury of it all. When he took his bow, he seemed to shrug at the tumultuous applause: “What’s new? I’m just doing what I do.” His is the surest couture hand.

The Dior staging veered too close to pure branding – having Patrick Demarchelier, Paolo Roversi, Willy Vanderperre and Terry Richardson all photographing the models backstage and projecting their images live as the show’s backdrop made your head spin. It was all about the might of the house of Dior, but also like being trapped inside a billboard on Piccadilly Circus, the spectacle overshadowing Raf Simons’ collection of quiet, considered clothing. There were some beautiful dresses there, silk columns knotted with velvet bows, iridescent dresses trembling with fringe, and suiting with subtle plays on checks and houndstooth. It’s a pity you ended up watching their digital refraction on the backdrop, not the movement on the real, live models.

Donatella Versace doesn’t give a damn about overshadowing her clothes. She sent out Naomi Campbell, twice, wearing nothing bar strips of glitter and a shredded fur cardigan. Because Versace isn’t about getting you into clothes, it’s about getting you out of them. Backstage, the garments were raggedy, albeit beautifully so – deconstructed to composite parts of sequins, crocodile or mink with diamanté-embellished hook-and-eye fastenings. Some of the dresses seemed to disintegrate as the models twisted on their high, high heels, making it difficult to see where flesh ended and fabric began. “I’m confident,” she said, when asked why she decided to show the Atelier Versace line on the catwalk again. These clothes screamed it.

Jean Paul Gaultier is also confident about his couture, proud even. Pride like that comes before a fall. He gave us some of the week’s campest moments, echoes of Mugler and Montana as well as a hefty dose of eighties Yves Saint Laurent. As a designer not only showing back then, but offering a rebellious antidote to the period’s crass excesses, it felt odd to see Gaultier pastiching them so liberally and literally. The technique was admirable – a hand-painted feather coat appliquéd with leather panther markings, for example, was as intricate as that description suggests. You just wish you didn’t have to strip away arcane accessories like bizarre pointed hats, gauntlet gloves or tonsured hair-dos to actually see the damn stuff.

A heavy hand has often been a problem with Giorgio Armani – especially his Privé line, where the press has been privy to such dodgy delights as vomit-green semi-opaque hosiery, glittery fencing-masks, or hobble-knee geishas with chopstick-punctuated hairdos like couture Kerplunk!. Cast aspersions aside: the latest Armani Privé show was one of the loveliest in Paris, and certainly the best Giorgio has turned out. He called the show “Nude”, which was a cosmetic counter description for his palette of skin-toned peach, pink and ivories. It was ravishing, a word you don’t often hear. You also don’t expect Armani to have such a sure hand with lace, and frills, and embroideries – indeed everything that runs counter-intuitive to the beige suits that made his name.

Armani included the suits because he’s old-fashioned. In a good way. He’s crafting a wardrobe for a woman. That’s the striking thing about Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s approach at the house of Valentino. Despite the house’s legacy of lacy evening wear, they don’t constrict their clientele to moving only after cocktail hour. Their cashmere capes, severe satin dresses and houndstooth coats were sleek, chic and no doubt tremendously expensive.

Alongside those haute couture giants there are smaller houses whose couture is born from a lust for something unique. Giambattista Valli is the best example, with an audience packed with clients ranging from twenty-somethings to sixty-somethings, in twenty-something’s dresses. The fragility of porcelain was Valli’s inspiration, translated to trembling, flower-strewn dresses and an elegant elongated line.

Viktor & Rolf, oddly, had something in common with Valli – they too transformed women, into pebbles. In a recreation of a Japanese gravel garden, 20 models curled, crouched and stretched into yoga poses, their voluminous, granite-grey ensembles tailored to exactly fit their twisted bodies, transforming them into stone monoliths.

The designers themselves were on hand to tweak every look – the hand being what couture is all about. That was evident at Maison Martin Margiela, whose artisanal line reappropriated cast-off fabrics and tore down embroidered tulle curtains, Scarlett O’Hara style, to make a dress. The human history behind the pieces was as important as their final effect.

The finest example of couture all week, however, wasn’t intended to be worn. It’s to be devoured visually, courtesy of Christian Lacroix, who made a one-off return to haute couture to stage a joyous homage to the thirties’ Italian couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, whose house is being revived by her countryman Diego Della Valle. Rarely, if ever, has a designer fit a label so well: the colours, the shapes, the signs of the house of Schiaparelli all belong to Lacroix, too. He mounted his outfits on a carousel, each one harking back to a piece from the Schiaparelli archive, but each pure Lacroix from Lesage-embroidered shoulder to duchesse-satin bow. The outfits were not for sale – Lacroix approached the project as if he were costuming Elsa for a theatrical performance. Commerce wasn’t the intention. And yet there was a succulence to Lacroix’s colours and fabrics that made so many other collections seem parched. They made you yearn for a price tag, no matter how high.

Maybe that’s the meaning of haute couture today.