Paris haute couture fashion week: A combination of 21st-century and historical antecedents

At the autumn/winter 2014 shows, designers riffed on history to create something new and relevant

Every July, a funfair lands smack-bang in the middle of Paris’ Tuileries Gardens – it’s flashy and brash, with a lot of neon and noise. It’s a bit like the illuminations that transform the Eiffel Tower as soon as the sun sets: history gussied-up with fancy lights and all the attention-deficit tricks of the 21st century to become a hot tourist attraction.

Sometimes, the haute couture shows feel the same, steeped as these clothes are in their own storied past. They feel saturated; dripping with the stuff. The history of most of the fashion houses here is inescapable – and omnipotent: Dior’s Bar, Chanel’s suits. Even Versace has a glitzy, if far more recent, past from which to hew inspirational nuggets.

The big question is how – or, perhaps, if – haute couture can escape that constant remembrance of frocks past and push itself to create something that resonates with contemporary women.

Then again, how much does that actually matter? Haute couture is sold to “the happy few, about 1,000 customers in the world”, to borrow the words of Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion. That is a fairly constant number: older couture clients die; oldish Oligarchs marry youngish wives (third or fourth time lucky), so new couture clients are born.

Like the masses thronging around those illuminated French monuments, however, the majority of the audience at the couture shows are mere tourists, looking for cheap thrills rather than expensive frills. A touch of histrionic historicism looks much more impressive on a newspaper page or glossy cover than a neat little suit does. And as no one’s going to end up wearing these clothes anyway, why not give the spectators what they want – and ignore that tiny elite? The temptation must be there: after all, couture is driven by marketing, not by actually making. It’s the dream they’re selling, really, not the dresses. Because, historically, haute couture is about a relationship between people, so says Raf Simons, of Dior.

“The concept of haute couture is very modern,” states Pavlovsky. “It’s about exclusivity; it’s about being able to design for every single customer, the unique and the best.”

While haute couture may not necessarily have an afterlife, the best examples today have a degree of practicality – perhaps that’s because designers have finally twigged that their visions are all the more seductive and compelling if you can picture yourself, rather than just Marie Antoinette, wearing them.

That’s about technicality, rather than taste. The autumn/winter 2014 haute couture shows had a sense of pragmatism; of 21st-century reality, while also nodding heavily to their historical antecedents. Raf Simons’ Dior found a new energy – and, indeed, new life – in the panniered gowns of 18th-century court dress; Karl Lagerfeld fused Louis Quatorze with Le Corbusier; Marco Zanini reinvigorated Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1930s shapes with a sense of 21st-century irony. And although Donatella Versace talked up 1950s couture inspirations before her show, she chopped, and chained, and super-charged the era into souped-up, racy dresses precisely to house specification. It was retro, but viewed through Versace eyes.

The same approach characterised Raf Simons’ aforementioned Dior collection – it wasn’t through the eyes of Dior, though, but of Simons. In fact, both were somehow involved, the final result refracted through their paired but very different aesthetics. Like bifocals.

It made for compelling viewing, as models ricocheted around the circular show venue like so many marbles inside a pinball machine. Their clothes drew on eras from the 18th century through to the 1950s, and while Dior’s waspy-waist Bar jacket was a reiterated silhouette, it didn’t feel like a restrictive presence. It did, however, skew the collection’s focus towards day – which, in a world obsessed with red-carpet dressing as justification for its continuing relevance, felt exciting, and even a little anarchic. The vision was 20/20.

Anarchy in the atelier leads inevitably to Karl Lagerfeld – who is not so much subtly subverting the conventions of the craft, as socking them a black eye. This season, he blitzed baroque Versailles and cemented it to Le Corbusier’s modernism. It wasn’t superficial, despite gimmicks such as beads made of concrete (Coconcrete?) and the streamlined set that crammed Louis XIV ormolu into a Brutalist box. He did the same on the clothes, scrolling arabesques of embroidery across clean silhouettes with seams streamlined and hidden at the rear. It was subtle, but an example of couture at its hautest. These couture collections seem a rag-tag bunch. That is the strength of haute couture – it’s about individuals. Not just the individual women paying through the nose to have clothes made to satisfy their every whim, but the individual houses, expressing their own identities. Couture is a massive marketing exercise, and those client numbers are tiny: Jean Paul Gaultier estimated his hardcore couture cadre as about 80 women; Dior’s Raf Simons mentioned 300.

Even at Chanel, the best-selling house of them all (allegedly: Chanel is a privately owned concern, and hence figures are never released), “business is small”, says Pavlovsky. “It’s targeted. We are not trying to develop that. It’s about this idea of keeping haute couture focused on people that want to have this very specific and exclusive relationship with the brand... we are not trying to expand, just trying to target the right customers.”

The right customer for the right house is key. It’s difficult to imagine the same woman wearing a natty, modernist tweed suit by Chanel then changing into a glycerine-dipped ostrich bolero and dress printed with rats and scampering squirrels by Schiaparelli. However, it is feasible that customers exist for both.

Hence, the disparity of visions at couture is clever. Ignore the embroidery and applique: the most successful houses’ most important technique at the haute couture is simple.

Divide... and conquer.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

    Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

    £96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

    Recruitment Genius: PA

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert