Watching the spring 2011 collections was a rather unusual experience: seven-inch heels, glimpses of stocking, banana skirts, beaded hems and a few towering, feather headdresses for good measure.
These were established catwalks – those heels were Louboutin and Blahnik, the stockings had three-figure price tags and the feathers came from the esteemed house of Emanuel Ungaro (albeit via the irreverent imaginations of Stephen Jones and Giles Deacon). After a post-recession period of retrenchment, re-evaluation and reduction, courtesy of Phoebe Philo's lean, mean Céline, fashion feels ready to have fun again.
Of course, fashion isn't known for doing things by halves. When fun's in the offing, fashion goes all-out. Hence designers have layered on all the bells and whistles of the Parisian cabaret to ensure it has a ball. Liza Minnelli is seldom quoted as a style icon these days, but designers have decreed that "Life is a Cabaret" nonetheless. And they're offering the perfect wardrobe for any type of divine decadence that springs to mind.
Miuccia Prada led the way, with an homage to cabaret's favourite bad girl done good, Josephine Baker. Her embroidered silhouette danced across drop-waist shift dresses, while her signature banana skirt – the succes fou of La Revue Nègre in 1925 – was re-interpreted as a punchy, primary print splashed across a hip-hugging pencil-skirt with a ruff of movement above the knee. That kind of cunning stunt is, of course, what the British do best. Both Giles Deacon's own-label offering and his debut catwalk collection for Emanuel Ungaro featured gargantuan ostrich manes that seemed more at home atop a chorus girl's head at a sleazy Broadway Revue show than on a runway. The Louis Vuitton catwalk saw the hand of British stylist Katie Grand in lurex trouser-suits, jewelled brocade and embroideries depicting lions and tigers and bears.
In London, Mary Katrantzou's collection reinvented the Victorian fringed lampshade as a micro-peplum skirt dripping Swarovski crystals at the hem. Think early Christian Lacroix meets Nijinsky's Petrushka, with a touch of the Ziegfeld Follies. "They were kind of crazy pieces," she said. "And we never expected those skirts to sell. But women want to wear them! They want to buy them!"
That's one of the most interesting aspects. This isn't a couple of shonky shock-frock samples with make-believe price-tags – consumers are buying into the new fun feeling in fashion and in a major way. A Katrantzou lampshade skirt will set you back five figures: she's shifted a couple of dozen. Likewise, that Vuitton collection called for an investment of over £800,000 in Lesage embroidery alone. Prada's profits leapt a gigantic 150 per cent in 2010. That wasn't built on bananas alone, but a new mood of optimism must deserve some credit.
What's the take-away from all of this? Think Technicolor Toulouse Lautrec – colourful, glossy and patently artificial. It's high fashion gone high camp. And for those tempted to take Vuitton's chip-shop Chinoiserie seriously, Marc Jacobs included an extract from Susan Sontag's Notes on Camp on every seat. It could have been the footnote to the season. I couldn't help but quote Sontag in my review of the Chanel show for SHOWstudio.com: "The hallmark of camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers."
Those feathers got the full work-out chez Chanel and made more than a fleeting appearance at Zac Posen's first Paris show too. This was stuffed with more feathers than a goose-down pillow; plumes sprouting from hips and flecking chiffons in a blowsy ode to Frenchy finishing – received rather less favourably than Chanel, but not for want of effort (another hallmark of the truly camp). In the same realm of the very hautest of low-brow taste, at Jacobs' Vuitton there were colour-saturated animal-prints, glittery body-paint and miles of beaded Flapper fringe.
"Paris Is Burning glamour" and "Disco Twenties" were just two epithets that summed up the high-camp mood of that Vuitton spectacle, which brings us neatly back to cabaret – or rather, to Cabaret, the Oscar-winning apotheosis of this decadent mood. Perhaps Sally Bowles was too chic a heroine for any current frivolity, but the camp was certainly there. It always is in cabaret, a world where artifice trumps over nature, where every heel is high and every eyelash is false – and preferably beaded, to boot.
The time is ripe for a revival of such thrills and frills and not only on the fashion front. This month, Paris' famous Le Crazy Horse crosses the water and pitches up at West London's Supper Club. An avant-garde revue show that has wowed celebrity audiences since the 1950s, "Supper Goes Crazy" marks Le Crazy Horse's British debut, showcasing their showgirls dressed famously in little bar make-up, fishnet stockings (the show runs through some 2,500 pairs per year) and elaborate light projections.
Odd as it may seem, the art of women wearing very little has been a source of inspiration for Parisian designers for generations. Le Crazy Horse's dancers have been barely-dressed by the very best, including Emanuel Ungaro, Azzedine Alaia and Christian Louboutin – the Le Crazy dancers each have half-a-dozen tailor-made pairs of scarlet-soled Louboutins to hot-step through their routines in. The most recent convert to the Le Crazy cause was Jean Paul Gaultier, who recruited a high-kicking Crazy Horse fille to close his January haute couture show with a can-can so energetic you occasionally wondered if she was going to knock herself unconscious.
"I'm Crazy about Le Crazy," opined Gaultier, which perhaps explains why the lining of said showgirl's tufted tulle evening-frock featured a truly crackers repeat print of her fishnet-stockinged leg: a one-woman couture take on the classic chorus line.
Gaultier is known for snubbing his nose at snobbish tradition and bringing humour to haute couture, but the cabaret-couture feeling is no laughing matter. Or at least, the joke isn't on you – it's more about raising a wry smile than outright guffaws on the street. Those Prada prints are a case in point – even worn with multi-coloured tango slippers and fox-fur dyed in humbug stripes of satsuma and limoncello, their fun was tempered with faultless elegance. Ditto the crazy crystal Vuitton handbags and jazz-babe fringing and the haberdashery thrills of Katrantzou's lampshades.
Camp, maybe; tongue-in-cheek, probably; but undeniably chic. That's the tune to which fashion's cabaret is swinging.
Le Crazy Horse Paris is at the London Supper Club from May 25 2011. For tickets see www.suppergoescrazy.comAlex Fury is fashion director of showstudio.com