Chanel Paris Haute Couture week
Chanel Paris Haute Couture week
Image: Getty

I read the FT’s investigative piece about the all-male Presidents Club charity dinner in London this week while waiting for Elie Saab’s haute couture show to start in Paris. Reading about the degradation, harassment and abuse the event’s female hostesses were assumed to tolerate in return for a meagre salary and a cab ride home was gruesome. As was the hateful “smart sexy” dress code — the corset belts and short dresses they were provided to wear.

And then I watched a fashion show in the world’s most rarefied environment, before some of its richest people, featuring clothes costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. Young women, some barely more than girls, strutted down a catwalk in transparent, crystal-strewn mini-dresses and gowns trimmed in marabou. Their feet were clad in clear plastic stiletto heels. At the show’s close they gathered at the foot of a stairwell — a shiny delectation of lovelies, all arranged for our delight. Something knotted in my stomach. And it wasn’t rapture.

Designers repeatedly talk about how haute couture is an expression of the “dream”. The clothes are meant to embody a fantasy of womanhood to which we all aspire. But too often in Paris, the fantasy was weirdly eroticised, and barely balancing on spindle heels. If this is the dream, we need to wake up. Obviously, I have no desire to tell a woman how to dress, and the couture business is only furnishing its clients with what they want. Nor was Elie Saab the most extreme expression of this ideal. But it made for a depressing spectacle to find so much couture conjuring the same simpering femininity beloved of fat-cat men in suits.

Rant over. And thankfully there were notable exceptions. Clare Waight Keller, the British designer overseeing the house of Givenchy, delivered an excellent debut in her first couture collection for the house. After showing a dull and somewhat flabby ready-to-wear show last September, this was rigorous, intelligent and smart. To find her spare aesthetic, she had revisited many of the 1950s couture shapes first developed by the house’s founder Hubert de Givenchy before “chopping them up and reimagining” them. Floating chiffon skirts were toughened up with sharp tailoring and roll-neck sweaters, a silvery beaded gown shimmered under an oversized coat: the equilibrium between the tailleur and flou was perfectly tempered.

Waight Keller was one of the few designers who had read the current mood and engaged with ideas about modern femininity. The result? A ravishing, relevant show. Was the collection better because she’s a woman? Does she have better intuition as to what a woman wants to wear? It’s the dogged little query that sits at the heart of every discussion about female-led design. But in the broader cultural discussion about how women are seen, and treated, the female designer must now take a view.

For Maria Grazia Chiuri, the Rome-born creative director of womenswear at Dior, the prerogative for every woman is that “she should be able to express whatever she wants to with her dress”. Her autumn/winter 2018 collection took its inspiration from the Surrealist artist Leonor Fini, an early associate of Christian Dior and one of Elsa Schiaparelli’s collaborators. Fini believed that the more beguiling an outfit, the more one would show of oneself — clothes as self-expression were a key part of her schtick.

Like Givenchy, Chiuri’s collection was mainly monochrome, featuring optical, arresting chequerboard designs, domino spots, slim-tailored suits and sober blacks. The Surrealist touches were subtle. A lot of it was lovely. Even though Chiuri’s ready-to-wear is grounded in the everyday, her previous couture collections for Dior have placed an emphasis on a more whimsical femininity — fairytale tulles and mythical motifs. This was a bolder, stronger outing, save for the odd transparent cage dress. A mink cape, in white, was cut like a fish net and worn over a column of black. It recalled a guest at Truman Capote’s 1966 Black-and-White ball. And that is no bad thing.

Iris Van Herpen, the Dutch designer, is more occupied with the natural state of things than the matter of gender politics. The laser-cut body suits and dresses of her “Ludi Nature” collection were created with 3D print technology to mimic the topographies and “engineering” of the natural world. Van Herpen’s interpretation of couture is to push boundaries, both technical and conceptual, where the body becomes part of a bigger sculptural statement. Some of it is surprisingly wearable, too.

In the broad cultural debate about how women are seen and treated, the female designer must take a view

At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld had looked to the French formal garden to create his flower-strewn collection. It was very pink — fuchsia, peony, millennial, baby and Barbie. Some might say saccharine, especially if you consider the flower-topped head veils that accompanied every look. I found it all quite charming. The tweed jackets, with their floating, round shoulders and cambered backs, had a restorative loveliness about them. And every so often, along would come a piece that just blew your socks off; I envy the client who walks away with a black tulle skirt and floral bodice encrusted with thousands of tiny Lesage-embroidered flowers; or the long navy column dress with an overlay of crystal beading; or the silver jumpsuit with slanted welt pockets, and matching silver mesh gloves.

Pierpaolo Piccioli had dedicated his Valentino collection to the women who work in the atelier and the “dream” of couture itself: the technical skill that enabled a seamstress to construct “Irene” a gown combining 600 teardrop-shaped pieces of gauze, or the voluminous cloud of taffeta that made up “Maria D”. Vast feathery hats, created by Philip Treacy, quietly bounced atop the head.

Valentino Paris Haute Couture Week
Valentino Paris Haute Couture Week
Image: Getty

Piccioli had wanted to explore the spirit of the gowns captured by his childhood idols Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn, the photographers who introduced him to the idea of couture. The looks were feminine, but they lent the models a grandeur and self-possession that suggested they could dispense with undesirables with the swish of a skirt.

And then there was Maison Margiela, where John Galliano sent out an army of techno-sport punks who were not always as they seemed. Using a fabric incorporating layers of polyurethane, PVC and prism film, the garments looked grey, but with a camera flash a trenchcoat turned electric blue, skirts burst into technicolour and new translucencies revealed the skeins of the garments worn beneath. Rather like the Northern Lights, the effect looked better on a smartphone. Other looks were less illusory but no less dazzling; a 3D printed Aran sweater in rubber was intriguing; a black suit, cut on the bias, slid around the body like liquid silk.

The models stormed the catwalk with silver lips, lacquered hair and clumpy great big sneakers. Were they relevant? Not really. The clothes were barely tethered to real life. But they represented another kind of fantasy woman: and she was fierce and furious. For those men who dream of women being “sexy smart” they were your worst nightmare. Bring. It. On.

This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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