The set for Karl Lagerfeld's latest Chanel haute couture show was a ruined, razed theatre. Several front row seats were occupied by rubble. Admittedly, with that debris crafted from artfully-painted polystyrene, there were shades of Alton Towers to the edifice, erected in the centre of the Grand Palais in Paris. But mostly, it reminded you of those Cecil Beaton portraits of perfectly-poised couture ladies in bombed-out buildings. Michel Gaubert, the man who masterminds the Chanel soundtracks, had another interpretation backstage: “It's quite 'Paris is Burning', non?”
And in a sense, Paris is burning - the old Paris that was dominated by the haute couture. This week, with a couture show by Viktor and Rolf alongside Christian Lacroix's presentation for the house of Schiaparelli, there's more couture than there has been for a decade. Still, the question remains: what is couture's relevance in the modern world? Real clothes for really, really rich women? Or just fashion as theatre?
Considering that Kaiser Karl bombed-out his theatre, we know where he stands creatively. Chanel is also one of the few houses - possibly the only house - to make money through its haute couture operation. Hence, when the curtains parted under the scorched proscenium arch, it revealed a skyline punctuated by glittering modern skyscrapers, whose multi-faceted glass surfaces were in turn reflected in Chanel's sequin-crusted clothes. Square beading and paillettes generated geometric glitter on narrow column dresses and tweed suits, mosaics of decoration mottling the surface. The signature Chanel boater was tilted back to stand almost vertical, its end squared off like a shovel. It was Chanel, sharpened, like the rest of the clothes, even willowy wisps of chiffon given a new edge, scratched with angular embroideries. Low-slung belts on the hip of every other look were a slight misstep. Belt-tightening isn't what Chanel is about, and they messed with Lagerfeld's otherwise long, lean and mean proportion play.
The most interesting thing chez Chanel was the overriding focus on daywear. It's something other couture houses woefully forget. Or maybe it's wilfully: a neat suit doesn't look good on the red carpet, the environment couture seems to be bred for. By contrast, Lagerfeld can make a tweed tailleur as interesting as a beaded ball gown. Ironically, that kind of expertise is distinctly old-school.
Giorgio Armani's Privé collection is also old-school, albeit in a very different way. His school is Italian ready-to-wear, which Mr Armani practically invented in the seventies. Generally it's left his stabs at haute couture a bit dry - after all, the mass-manufactured mass-appeal of Milan was one of the forces that helped decimate the influence of couture. But this season, Armani got to grips with the sensuality that is so integral to haute couture. He called his show 'Nude', which sounds like a make-up palette rather than a fashion show. In fact, it was the cosmetic palette of taupe, blush and a flushed peach sorbet that made the show a winner, that and an unexpectedly masterful hand with a jabot and a touch of sparkle.