Return to splendour
The world of haute couture has had a rough ride over the past few years, with designers retiring (one forcibly), ateliers closing, and one of the worst economic slumps in decades reducing clientele, so it is refreshing to bring good news from the recent couture week in Paris.
Atelier Versace is back after an eight-year hiatus. Giambattista Valli has been elevated to full haute couture status by the Federation Francaise de la Couture after one season (the fast-tracking a result of his record at Ungaro). A fledgling Chinese-born, French-trained talent, Yiqing Yin, made her couture debut, and her sensuous draped jersey dresses in lustrous shades of metal and intriguing organic-inspired looks in gauzy fabrics and fur suggest she is a name to watch.
As for demand, excluding those from the oil-rich countries, it is the new influx of clients from the BRICS nations that is giving the couturiers reason for hope.
There were pretty day dresses at Christian Dior in organdie and in polka dots and petal appliques at Giambattista Valli, and tailoring appeared in the pinstriped suits of Gaultier, the slim tweed dresses and jackets at Chanel and the sculpted jackets of Armani Prive. However, modern haute couture is all about eveningwear - even the king of the easy jacket created something so taut and shiny whether in gilded croc or a mesh-like fabric resembling serpent scales that it could be only for nightwear.
Armani's spring collection, called Metamorphosis, had a slithery reptilian theme, from coiled snake prints on ball skirts to venomous green dresses and sulphurous yellow tailoring, while skirts were designed to look like a chrysalis from which a butterfly emerges. It was a strangely dark theme for Armani to pick and actress Jessica Chastain, sitting in the front row, nailed it: 'I always like the elegance, but what I liked about this was that it had a bit of an edge.'
Nevertheless, she was tight-lipped about what she would choose for the Academy Awards. News of her nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Help came through just as the show was about to start, and there were whoops of joy from fellow front-rower Cameron Diaz.
Armani, Elie Saab and Versace are three go-to designers for actresses during the awards season. Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman looked sensational in Versace at the Golden Globes, and nominee Berenice Bejo, from top Globes winner The Artist, looked thoroughly overwhelmed by the interest in her when she arrived at Elie Saab. Saab is popular with the Hollywood crowd, and his sparkly pastel beaded gowns are often seen on the red carpet, while his pretty white lace full-skirted party dresses are perfect for the round of pre-Oscar parties.
Stephane Rolland's dramatic evening gowns would certainly make a statement on the red carpet with their bold colours and sculpted metal detailing, but few would want to replicate Yasmin Le Bon's guest appearance in a red dress with giant train and lacquered metal panels that in total weighed 50kg. The fluid gowns might be a safer option.
Movies intriguingly underpinned the ideas at Givenchy and Dior this season. Riccardo Tisci was inspired by Givenchy and Fritz Lang's seminal 1920s expressionist film Metropolis for his 10 extraordinarily crafted dresses and jackets, whereas Hitchcock heroines were definitely Bill Gaytten's muses at Dior. Tisci reconstructed a glamorous bias-cut '30s gown in black or brown caviar beading, or sueded croc scales remounted on a light tulle backing. Bias-fitted zips, a vest under a racer-top bias gown and tooled crocodile biker jackets that were really patchworks of applique modernised the '30s theme, and reveal no limit to Tisci's fantasy and his atelier's skills.
Easier to imagine in real life were the gauzy '50s dresses designed by Gaytten that looked light and fresh while acknowledging the brand's '50s heritage. The signatures were there, such as the checks and dogtooth patterns created with embroidered beading. Gaytten explained that he wanted to X-ray the craftsmanship of the couture ateliers. Mapping a jacket with top-stitching like tailor tacks and highlighting the cutting technique through the sheer layers of organdie was his way of doing this. The resulting collection had the easy glamour you could imagine a fledgling film star like Ni Ni (who debuted in Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War) making her first trip to Paris would appreciate. 'I love it all,' she said after the show, delicately declining to identify which she loved most.
Meanwhile, the fashion world seems to have exhausted every possibility of replacement for John Galliano (Raf Simons was a recent rumour), so it may be Gaytten, the man who stood beside him for 16 years and has a couture background, would actually be the best choice for the house.
While Dior looks for a new captain, Karl Lagerfeld was on the wings of his own flight into luxury for Chanel in a mock-up airplane. Had he been watching too much Pan Am? Was it an audition to redesign the Air France uniform? (Wouldn't they love that?) The audience, seated in aircraft seats with male trolley dollies serving drinks and the sky flying by, were treated to Karl's flight attendants swishing down the aisle in every shade of blue - 150 shades to be precise.
His slim dresses with low waistbands, '60s-style boat-neck collars and neat little jackets were far more luxurious than you will ever find serving you coffee and the pointy sandals way too high for a 10-hour flight. Nevertheless there were plenty of jewelled, beaded and sequinned cocktail dresses that were pure flights of fantasy. If only flying today could be so glamorous.
Big three rock the Paris runways
Jean Paul Gaultier
A doo-wop group singing Amy Winehouse's back catalogue, models wearing her distinctive eye make-up and colourful beehives. It's little wonder that Beth Ditto, who was sitting in the front row, wanted to join in. Gaultier, who will be 60 this year, expressed his amazement there had been no magazine tributes to Winehouse. She seems an unusual inspiration for haute couture, but this stellar show featured clothes that were exuberant and tarty in the way of pencil skirts and corsetry. Cone-shaped bosoms recalled early collaborations with Madonna. But the tailored suits planted the collection firmly in the realms of haute couture and the territory of front-row guest Catherine Deneuve.
'I had not realised how much I missed doing haute couture shows,' said Donatella Versace after her first presentation for Versace Atelier since 2004. 'I've not been this nervous for years, but now is the right time. The world needs glamour.' Versace is now reclaiming her haute couture credentials with 15 goddess gowns, body-con mini-dresses and romper suits in dazzling gold, lime and orange. Gold 'metal' strips accentuated a curvy silhouette, and slashed skirts revealed long limbs. These dresses are clearly destined for the red carpet. The atelier (which remained open) has lost none of its skills. The laser-cut leather jacket and dresses, the slithery sequinned gowns and the crystal and plastic paillette embroidered hourglass dresses were exquisitely executed.
It is almost impossible to omit Valentino from a list of favourites. That's because designers Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri have an extraordinary ability to charm and seduce. Their vision for the label plays on innocence and charm, the looks are sweet and subtle and none more so than in this collection with its enchanting bucolic theme. Although the toiles de Jouy, meadow flower and watercolour taffeta prints, and detailing recalled the Fragonard and Watteau paintings of the 18th-century court of Versailles, the results were subtle and modern. The dresses, light and gauzy, sprinkled with exquisite lace, smocking and tiny beading, looked fresh and easy especially when worn with simple lace slippers and printed silk loafers.