Florence and the fashion machine

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Guests were met by an underwater playground at the Chanel show which opened the Paris collections yesterday. Florence Welch played live standing in a seashell.

This was a fashion blockbuster par excellence and, as is the custom with the house, the entire interior of the Grand Palais had been transformed overnight. And so the catwalk was a sandy white seabed surrounded by undulating Perspex walls. Sprays of coral, pebbles and even the odd pleasingly rounded fish - about the size of a very lucky child's bedroom just to illustrate the scale - were strategically placed all around.??

Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel ‘s creative director, appeared to be on light and optimistic form. Sweet trapeze line jackets were studded with pearls, Gabrielle Chanel’s jewel of choice, as so too were buttons, belts and indeed models faces and hair. Nods to the heritage of this great fashion name didn’t stop there. The Chanel suit – in optic white, or sea blue and green tweeds – the little black dress – embellished with circles of chiffon at the hip or with a crisp white collar – the camellia – pretty in pale pink on a print – were all in evidence as they always must be. The fusion of the elegant and dignified and the fresh and new was seamless.

It is just over six months since Catherine Middleton married Prince William in a gown designed by Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton. Her first show since that time was a quieter affair than Lagerfeld’s for Chanel but one no less impressive for that.

“I was thinking about a woman as an object of desire,” Burton stated. “We go to such lengths to adorn ourselves that we almost become our clothes. This is a collection about excess – an exploration of ideals of beauty at their most extreme.”

Stepping out onto a cracked plaster platform overhung with lights reminiscent of stalactites, models wore signature power tailoring, ruffled chiffon dresses and the type of exquisitely crafted eveningwear that this name is now famous for. It had never seemed so ornate. Hand-pleating, jewel encrusted lace embroideries, waterfall ruffles and frills, laser cut leather , fine metalwork and more covered every surface and the beauty of it all was that nothing ever seemed heavy or overwrought.

Such was the technical virtuosity of the engineering that clothing appeared almost moulded to the body and that extended to the hair and make-up treatment – heads were veiled with more of the finest lace.

Alexander McQueen died in February 2010 and Burton, who worked with him for 16 years, has risen to the challenge of moving on the label that he founded admirably. In her sensitive hands, every reference to her mentor appears as a heart-felt tribute. Here too references to the ocean resonated. In particular a dress constructed entirely out of opalescent shells was a tender homage to the late designer.

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