Paris Haute Couture spring/summer shows: Focus is on fantasy for a city on terror alert

We can forgive its irrelevance when it offers such a production line of beauty

There has been a mood of heightened tension at the Paris haute couture shows. Which is understandable, staged as they were in the wake of the January terrorist attacks on the magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in the city, which left 16 dead.

It may seem strange, even facetious to some, to connect those acts of brutality to the catwalk presentations of Fashion Week. However, above and beyond vehicles to showcase garments, these shows are vast events, staged with all the pomp and ceremony of affairs of state, inside French national monuments. Hollywood movie stars are prerequisites. The wives of presidents have attended (which we almost got this season, as Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was in the audience at Jean Paul Gaultier). Monsieur Bernard Arnault, the richest man in France and CEO of the luxury conglomerate LVMH, obviously sat front row at the show staged by Dior. LVMH is the holding group that finances fashion follies such as Dior’s customary drum-like venue in the gardens of the Musée Rodin. Its rival, Chanel, took over a Paris exhibition hall, the Grand Palais, while Versace showed in the Hôtel Potocki, the mansion that houses the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

In all cases, the security guards, who are usually presumed merely decorative – heavies whose primary job is to wrangle celebrities through thronging crowds – took on sinister overtones as they frisked attendees and sifted the contents of a multitude of expensive handbags.

 

But if you’re expecting an inkling of the tensions beyond the doors to have permeated the clothes that the couture houses produced, you’ll be disappointed. Fashion is often a reflection of its times – but when those times are troubled, its highest echelons tend to grope for the ejector button. Especially at the haute couture, where the clothes, although much photographed, are bought only by a microscopic elite who can afford the time and money these handcrafted garments require. Their climate-controlled lives are far removed from everyday experience, so why should their clothes reflect it?

That’s why there was a disconnect at the spring/summer haute couture collections – and it was only exacerbated by the season butting heads with the winter menswear, whose undertones of uniforms and militia seemed oddly prescient for collections devised several months ago. The couture, however, made no attempt to wrestle with the deeper, darker subtexts of the times in which we live. Instead, we got superlative technique married to elaborate showmanship and escapism. Lots of escapism. The haute couture sought to amaze, to delight but ultimately to distract.

That isn’t such a dreadful thing. However, it stands in marked contrast to the goings-on of a year ago, when Raf Simons at Dior and Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel offered dynamic, compelling arguments for haute couture’s relevance in the 21st century. Those shows even spawned some stuff the rather wealthy, rather than astronomically loaded, could afford, such as embroidery-encrusted trainers. Dior’s “fusion” styles have been a runaway hit.

Rather than those ripostes to couture’s naysayers, the collections this season were a little apologetic. Couture is irrelevant, you say? Oh, you’re right, we’re sorry, here’s some flowers. Flowers exquisitely realised in embroidery, lace-work, feathers, microscopic origami pleating and the like. Designers lavish their haute couture with hand-workmanship as justification not for the fuss, but for its continuing existence at all. Haute couture is the only arena where Chanel can appliqué evening gowns with inches of layered feather blooms, like overgrown herbaceous borders, or where Valentino can encrust a tulle gown with lace specially woven with Apollinaire poems, proudly stating that it required 2,000 hours for the embroidery alone. Elie Saab’s couture shows often strike you as a meandering book of embroidery samples. His clients will choose their favoured technique, then redesign his dresses to suit their tastes, figures, and the cultural traditions of whatever country their palace is plonked in.

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The Chanel’s show, staged in a Paris ‘garden’ (AP)

Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The best shows in Paris – Dior, Chanel, Valentino, a tour de force by Jean Paul Gaultier – directly addressed not the needs of real-life women, but the needs of the haute couture. Gaultier created 61 wedding-inspired looks, a sly jibe at the fact that the big business of big bridal frocks is universally acknowledged as couture’s life-blood (many evening dresses are commissioned in white, to be worn as such). These are the collections that will keep all those petites mains stitching, and those very few clients ordering their very few dresses season after season.

The clients – often presumed mythical – were indeed in evidence. Sort of. They apparently elect to watch Atelier Versace shows online, Donatella Versace tells us, then order their couture looks based on that. (Hence the “emoji”-inspired embroideries with which Donatella emblazoned short evening dresses, and the liquid-crystal chainmail that shimmered like a luminescent LED screen. ) Still, they deigned to show up as the catwalk-flankers of Giorgio Armani and Giambattista Valli (the former generally the grandmothers of the latter), ringing looks in the show notes with profligate glee. As for the Schiaparelli crowd, God knows who they were. At this house, more sinned against than sinning, the bosses saw fit to show a spring couture collection without a named design head, despite harping on about the singular appeal of the personality of Elsa Schiaparelli. (If you want a gold bustle-backed python jacket, you’ve found your match.)

The clients will be satisfied by these offerings, though. Watching Raf Simons’ stellar show, you were struck not by the power of the image he is constructing for Dior, but by how desirable everything looked. You hope it can be harnessed for the ready-to-wear (read ‘able-to-buy’)  in March. And for every odd look at Valentino – sheepskin corsets, heavy embroideries, an empire-line dress in haute couture hessian that looked like a chic penitent’s haircloth shirt – there were half-a-dozen beauts.

A production line of beauty is really what the haute couture is. Which is why we can forgive it its irrelevance, even its ignorance of the world outside. We longed for something deeper, but all that surface dazzle proved, in the end, enough to sate. Life isn’t a bed of roses, but Chanel can be.

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