If you wanted a visual metaphor for the unique, fin de siècle attitude that characterises the world of haute couture, you would have done well to stand on the steps of the Grand Palais in Paris this week. Here you would have found the world’s 1 per cent, head-to-toe in bespoke Chanel beads and tweeds, battling against a blizzard that struck during the presentation of that brand’s Spring/Summer show.
The show’s set, constructed in the frigid exhibition space, imagined a Mediterranean garden, replete with palm trees, grassy beds and a shallow turquoise pool. An Italianate villa was painted on a backdrop and all was bathed in balmy light. Yet the thermometer read -1C, and the front row was a-shiver.
On the catwalk, bare-limbed models wore neat little black day dresses, all buttoned up, and sherbet-shaded floral gowns. The bride wore a silver-beaded swimsuit — with a long gauzy train. The silhouettes were a nod to designer Karl Lagerfeld’s favourite era, the 18th century, although the Barbie-pink bubble skirts, cropped bomber jackets and spiky up-dos seemed more redolent of the 1980s, another epoch of cultural bombast and booming excess that ended with a bust.
That couture represents the most extreme and exclusive tier of the industry is no secret. But its presence in France at a time when the country’s gilets jaunes are taking to the streets to protest social inequality and class impoverishment does seem rather awkward.
The total figure of global couture clients numbers only in the hundreds; and each one represents a huge share of the world’s total wealth. They occupy another world — and are encouraged to do so. This season, the couture client was transported to a garden at Chanel, a circus at Dior, a chinoiserie-inspired salon at Armani and a Technicolor poodle-doodled mirror maze at Maison Margiela. But even these most imaginative environments could only offer temporary escape. Seeing the besequinned super-rich stopped short by a snow flurry seemed like an apt metaphor: these are strange and unpredictable times, and sometimes the real world catches up.
That Karl Lagerfeld failed to take his customary bow at the end of either of the two Chanel shows on Tuesday morning also felt disquieting. A statement released shortly afterwards said that Lagerfeld was “feeling tired” and had asked Virginie Viard, director of the creative studio, to represent him in his absence. Now in his mid-eighties, the designer, who also works for Fendi and his own eponymous line, is one of the most hard-working and prolific designers in the world. But he is still only human.
In a conversation with Bruno Pavlovsky shortly before the show, the brand’s director of fashion talked about the company’s recent restructuring as it prepares to face the future. “We are moving in a strong direction, to prepare for the next 15 years and to seduce a new generation of clients,” he said of the house, which announced revenues of around €10bn last year, and is in the process of moving its headquarters to London.
He said this year’s numbers “have been quite good” again, and was quick to brush off fears that the Chinese economic slowdown will impact the brand’s growth (he sees Asia, where Chanel has a still “small” presence, as being a key area of new business). But despite Chanel’s new glasnost, no one was talking about creative succession — it’s too unconscionably sad to discuss.
At Dior, creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri continues to “puzzle” together all sorts of elements in her vision for the label, while drawing deep on the archive. No surprise that this season, and only days before a huge Dior retrospective opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, her attention was drawn to the designer’s first show in Britain, in 1950.
A contemporary headline — “the Dior circus comes to town” — mixed with a bit of Ballet Russes and a female empowerment narrative helped inform a show that featured many of the Big Top archetypes, from the gymnastic all-in-one pantsuits, worn with long tulle over-layered skirts, to the ringmaster tuxedos with pantaloon legs and the Pierrot-like sparkly bonnets. It was staged alongside choreography by the London-based acrobatic troupe Mimbre, a 20-strong team of women who built human towers for the models to walk between. Chiuri wanted the show to be a display of female strength, and all sorts of shapes and sizes, and the result was as competently executed as a trapeze-artist’s dismount, if not quite as enchanting.
Clare Waight Keller does enchant at Givenchy — although hers is a kind of technical bewitchment. Her “bleached canvas” set was a wall of white — she wanted only the couturier’s skills to provide the pizzazz. And did they. Each look started with the waist — be it the seam on a structured lace jacket, the curves of a red latex bodysuit worn under a full-skirted gown, or the fine-boning of a bodice in acid yellow. The details were exquisite, while the silhouettes — both rigorous and voluminous — were delivered with near puritanical control. It looked fresh and modern, and light. Waight Keller’s tailoring is as sharp as a pin. And these clothes were totally killer.
Couture may furnish the incomparably privileged, but it does have a part to play within the broader culture. There were several red-carpet stylists at Givenchy: no doubt hoping to make the right awards season acquisition. Most of us will only come to know many of the looks shown this week when they see them on the actresses, singers and public servants who choose to wear them.
Givenchy’s most notable couture patron right now is the Duchess of Sussex, who has worn Waight Keller’s couture looks on several occasions since her wedding, and has thus transformed the brand’s reputation. Likewise Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, who often wear couture for their public engagements and performances. Lady Gaga upstaged almost everyone at the Golden Globes in January when she wore a custom-made periwinkle gown by Valentino. It was the kind of sumptuous fantasy dress that has made its creator Pierpaolo Piccioli fashion’s current favourite.
Piccioli embraces the dream of couture, he understands the power of the narrative, and he delivers magical, tear-pricking collections. His massive skirts for SS19 couture were so capacious and fanciful they could conceivably provide a shelter from Brexit. But this season Piccioli was not satisfied to simply make breathtaking clothes. He wanted to shift his perspective.
WATCH | Valentino Haute Couture Spring Summer 2019:
More specifically, he wanted to look at the iconography of couture and rethink it for women of colour. How do different colours look on the skin? What should a dress be lined with? What do we mean by flesh-coloured clothing? “Imagine the most famous picture in couture, the one of all those Waspy women wearing dresses by the couturier, Charles James, shot by Cecil Beaton in 1948,” he explained of the famous Vogue image that epitomises the couture attitude of the traditional west. “And then imagine replacing all of those women with black faces.”
And so that’s what he did. Of the cast of around 60 models, 48 were non-white, and many names, Naomi Campbell excepted, were totally unknown. The looks, with their bold colours, regal silhouettes and effusive volumes, tripped through centuries of seamstress-ship and all sorts of style icons — Renaissance queens, Southern belles, Elizabeth Taylor’s muumuu years and dresses fit for fairytale princesses — but each was worn to tell a story about now.
“It’s not about the market,” said Piccioli of his intentions. “I just did it because I wanted to try and look at something differently.”
Statistically, a person of colour is less likely than ever to be a couture client. According to Forbes, black households in the US are projected to lose 18 per cent of their wealth by 2020, by which time the median white household will own 86 times more wealth than its black counterpart (and 68 times more wealth than its Latino one). But Piccioli insisted his decision was less about making a statement — “this isn’t political” — than exploring fashion from another point of view.
The truth is most of us will never wear couture. We can only appreciate it via the ideas it projects. And Piccioli’s was a good one. He had stuck to the codes of the ages to dress the spirit of the future. He had a dream, and it was absolutely ravishing.
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.