The unbearable lightness of couture: The spring/summer 2014 collections from Chanel and Dior are the most relevant for decades

Stellar showings summarise the new spirit of modernity that’s revitalising the stuffy world of haute couture, says Alexander Fury

The death knell of Parisian haute couture has been clanging for 50 years. The youthquake of the 1960s, the birth of designer ready-to-wear, the soaring expense of actually producing  haute couture, the most labour-intensive clothing in the world, for which hundreds (even thousands) of hours of concentrated work go into the simplest pieces, with a profit mark-up of about 1 per cent – all these factors should, by rights, have swept the whole archaic institution away decades ago. RIP, ma cherie.

So what are we witnessing right now? Is it an especially energetic death-rattle? Or is it possible – just maybe – that haute couture is transforming, like those infernal butterflies that peppered the catwalk of Jean Paul Gaultier, from one state of being to another? Maybe. But it’s not so much emerging from a chrysalis as recreating itself from the inside out. Haute couture is finally being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

The chief proponents booting couture’s well-clad derrière are an old master and a new pretender: Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Raf Simons at Dior. The striking thing this season was their similarity. The houses are fierce rivals, even if the designers aren’t (case in point: Karl Lagerfeld wore a jacket from Raf Simons’ eponymous menswear line to take his bow at Chanel). More to the point, their aesthetics are polar opposites. Coco Chanel herself witheringly stated that “Dior doesn’t dress women. He upholsters them”, among many other barbed comments. Dior himself was an admirer of Chanel, but his New Look turned her aesthetic edicts on their head. Out with jersey simplicity, in with taffeta-lined, cinched-waist extravagance.

That was back in February 1947. Times have changed. And haute couture seems to have finally caught up. Both Lagerfeld and Simons presented trainers with their haute couture, Lagerfeld across the entire Chanel collection, Simons with a clutch of Dior evening dresses. It looked a bit like Lily Allen in her “Smile” era incarnation, but what was more interesting chez Dior was the way that the idea of a trainer, rather than its injection-soled actuality, infected the entire collection. The spirit of aeration, of woman and dress breathing, the freedom of billowing bloused-back shapes, the general sense that Simons had knocked the stuffing out of that eternally boned and bombasted Dior silhouette, was profoundly refreshing. It felt completely contemporary. A few outfits in, it also silenced your niggles about who would wear this new breed of couture. It will appeal immensely and absolutely to couture’s new guard, to a new generation of clients who demand go-faster couture.

The most refreshing thing about Raf Simons’ spring Dior is that, as the silvery finale dresses of his last ready-to-wear show seemed to state, he’s not only got firmly to grips with the Dior archive and aesthetic, but is now ready to move it on. Karl Lagerfeld always moves Chanel on to some place fresh and new every season. He’s been reinventing Coco’s boucle-tweed wheel for more than30 years. And while those Chanel trainers – handmade by haute couture bottier Massaro in pearl-embroidered tweeds – are probably a seasonal gimmick, the qualities they emblemise were reflected across the Chanel collection as a whole. They represented freedom, and movement, and speed. The models raced down the stairs of Chanel’s futuristic set like Olympic athletes speeding across an arena, darting through like shimmering lightning flashes in iridescent pastel shades of opalescent pink, yellow and white. It was a new kind of fast fashion – lightweight and easy to move in, reflecting Madame Chanel’s own idiosyncratic viewpoint. Clothes must be logical, she once intoned. This Chanel collection made perfect sense.

It also highlighted one of the great selling points of haute couture: the workmanship. The impossibility of haute couture is where it has ready-to-wear beaten. Ready-to-wear, after all, can now encrust an evening gown with just as much ostentatious embroidery as its haute couture counterpart. But as with a high-performance sports car – or a high-performance trainer – the engineering behind haute couture, not the glossy carapace, is what makes the difference. Haute couture can create clothing of unbelievable lightness. Hand-stitching allows for more elasticity than machine-stitching. The clothes move in a different way. And for all the age-old techniques employed, they’re finally looking modern.

Dior and Chanel are the figureheads, but these new ideals for a new couture were evident across Paris as a whole. Take Donatella Versace’s Game Of Thrones-style cowled and cabochon-encrusted evening dresses – somehow, they stayed featherlight. “It’s about the fragility in the Versace woman, and the fragility in me,” said Versace before the show. True to form, her clothes were fragile, but forceful.

Couture has often seen itself as a dressing-up box, a place for clients to indulge fanciful whims, a modern masquerade. Nowhere was that more evident in years past than at the house of Elsa Schiaparelli, where the eponymous founder proposed get-ups based on Chinoiserie, the circus and Surrealism. The new creative director, Marco Zanini, romped joyously through her archive. However, everything stayed effervescent. He – and the expert Schiaparelli ateliers – compressed 80 metres of chiffon into a bubbling ball gown. They kept the grandeur, but lost the pomp.

As, too, did the best pieces in Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino collection, their barely seamed cashmere daywear and evening gowns of a monastic purity. They should have felt lost amid the operatic splendour of expansive ball dresses in laces or brocades, or scrolled with hand embroidery. Instead, their tender message was all the more strident.

That’s the takeaway from the couture season as a whole: speed, stealth and simplicity. It feels very now. Or, at least, it feels very new.

Paris Fashion Week: Jean Paul Gaultier tries to transmogrify haute couture at spring/summer 2014 show

Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

    Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

    Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

    Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

    £50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine