In a grand town house near the Arc de Triomphe last week, Raf Simons presented what's being hailed as the new 'New Look' for Dior. The autumn-winter 2012/13 collection at the Paris haute couture fashion week marks a fresh chapter in the story of the French fashion house in much the same way that Christian Dior did with his first show in 1947.
Simons, the avant-garde minimalist from Belgium, was appointed creative director in April. His love of a streamlined aesthetic resulted in a calm, stripped-back debut that sets a new agenda for haute couture.
Simons reworked the house's shapely 1947 bar jacket into a moulded tuxedo that flared out gently over the hips, highlighting the architecture of Dior's original design. Full-skirt ballgowns were cropped short and slipped over black cigarette pants for a clean, modern effect. The collection focused on purity of colour and silhouette.
'It's modern, understated and very elegant,' gushed Chinese actress Ni Ni after the show. Designer Alber Elbaz described the collection as, 'Absolutely poetic. It is perfection.'
Sidney Toledano, the CEO and president of Christian Dior, says the most satisfying moment for him was watching the looks of approval on the faces of the designers around him. 'Hiring Raf Simons was the right decision and he brings a new aesthetic to the house.'
The Dior spring haute couture collection was shown in Shanghai a few months ago, and Toledano says the atelier has since been swamped with orders. 'Chinese customers are looking for something exceptional in both couture and fine jewellery,' he says. 'They want innovation, high quality, savoir faire and that breath of modernity.'
There are only about 1,000 haute couture customers worldwide, but couture is about quality and exclusivity. 'Since the financial crisis we have actually found more new customers and young customers coming to haute couture,' says Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel. It has surprised the couture houses.
'There are fewer customers from existing markets like America and Europe and more from China, Russia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Brazil. It is becoming global,' he says.
A few weeks ago Giorgio Armani presented his couture Prive collection in Beijing, while Chanel has been making exclusive salon presentations of its haute couture to private clients in Hong Kong and China for a number of years. 'It is about adapting to the needs of our clients,' says Pavlovsky. 'They love to come to Paris if they can, but, if they can't, they like the intimacy, discretion and exclusivity of a private presentation.'
Those who couldn't attend the tea salon setting of the latest Chanel collection missed out. They could have nibbled on macarons as models wandered among white tables in 1940s-style tweed swing coats and over jackets, elegant lace and crystal embroidered evening trousers, and slender evening dresses. The dresses are a testimony to the skills of the atelier flou where fragile laser cut organza is delicately appliqued to tulle, and slim column dresses are constructed from tiers of tiny bands of chiffon and sequins.
A mood for modern refinement was the thread that connected most collections at the haute couture shows, whether in the feminine sculpted shaping of Dior, Giambattista Valli and Stephane Rolland or the discreet luxury of Valentino and Armani Prive. Armani's couture silhouette has become more relaxed this season with jackets swinging from peaked shoulders and paired with either fluid silk and velvet trousers or long black skirts. His palette covered the hues of sunset from pale pink, through the shades of blue to midnight. The collection included a pearly white gown and black jacket worn by Chinese model Ming Xi.
Inky blue and black gave an air of mystery to the Valentino woman who might normally be wearing red or pale nude shades. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli presented elegant capes over silk dresses that looked both spare and luxurious at the same time. The mood was late-19th century, from the dark, long-sleeve gowns to the William Morris 'Tree of Life' inspired heavy brocades and painted floral patterns that brought colour to the collection.
The late 19th-century, in all its romantic, decadent glory, was also inspiration for Jean Paul Gaultier. His influences were in the literary world of Oscar Wilde, George Sand and Proust, and resulted in beautifully crafted androgynous clothes - tailcoats and top hats - worn by both sexes on the catwalk. These were followed by fur-trimmed kimono-style evening robes with fringing and art deco beading.
As shown by Gaultier's gowns, couture draws on the skills of the atelier. There were the gold brocade applique and embroideries on Chantilly lace in Elie Saab's pretty collection, and the dramatic 3-D woven leather passementerie and degrade silk fringing in Givenchy's gypsy inspired collection. The other great skill of the atelier is the cutting, as seen on the sculpted silhouettes of Valli, Rolland and Dior.
Valli adorned his bucolic flower and lily-pond printed dresses with an orgy of overblown ruffles. They cocooned the body, framing, reshaping and adding volume to skirts and coats, while necklines disappeared in a froth of frills.
Rolland, like Raf Simons, is a modernist and his dresses are created like pieces of modern architecture with long sweeping lines and gold-framed windows on the body. His muse this season was Chinese actress and singer Fan Bingbing, who closed the show in a white hourglass gown with a cape.
The heavy dress is six-metres long. 'I had high platforms, so I was a little nervous at the start but I just tried hard to act normal,' said Fan.
Two days earlier Fan was in the front row at Atelier Versace, where Donatella Versace was making a comeback for the house at the Paris Ritz, where her brother Gianni used to present his collections. It was a poignant moment, and Versace admitted to feeling emotional. But she needn't have been nervous, for the Tarot card prints and embroideries on her short party dresses and gilded coats were predicting good fortune.
Certainly, Versace was all smiles the next day at Dior. Here we have two designers - Versace and Simons - with strong identities and two very different visions making their couture catwalk debuts.
Hot in couture
Veils in 1930s style added an air of mystique on the Paris haute couture autumn-winter 2012/13 catwalks. Giambattista Valli's veiled heads were whimsically studded with butterflies, while Philip Treacy's tulle veils twinkled with jet beading and white crystals on the catwalk at Armani Prive (below). Stephen Jones' versions featured at the Dior finale.
'If I could pick anything from Chanel's show, it would be Stella [Tennant]'s big coat. You can put it over everything,' said actress Milla Jovovich. Relaxed coats were belted 1940s style in sparkly tweeds at Chanel, collarless and in black velvet at Armani Prive, in yellow brocade at Valentino, and with a giant ruff at Valli.
Loose, palazzo style trousers featured strongly at Armani Prive and Chanel. Armani's were in sophisticated silk styles. Chanel's were luxurious patchwork and laser-cut lace.