Haute couture week in Paris never disappoints and several of the heavyweight houses kicked off the recent instalment with aplomb.
For clients of the highest made-to-order fashion, those women dripping with diamonds in the front row, it is the twice yearly showcase for gala and ball gowns worth tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of euros each. With those price tags, buyers can afford to be demanding.
Couture is in constant transition, as the standard set by the golden age of Hollywood faces demand for a modern outlook from an ever-shifting youthful client base. The boundaries have been pushed at the biggest houses, such as Christian Dior, Chanel and the revived house of Chanel's arch rival, the surrealist eccentric Elsa Schiaparelli.
If you don't know Swedish-Italian designer Marco Zanini, you certainly should be taking note now. After being plucked from Rochas to headline Schiaparelli by the label's owner, Diego Della Valle, Zanini has shaken up the world of haute couture. The softly spoken designer's latest autumn-winter 2015 collection is the brand's first full commercial collection - reawakening "after a 60-year sleep", as they called it.
Strong, bold 1980s shoulders led the way. Tongue-in-cheek prints of rats, squirrels, pigeons and poodles added a playful, eccentric tone to beautiful, feminine, film noir-worthy dresses. Hourglass silhouettes with the most exquisite tailored trains flitted by in stunning hues.
Yes, there was a shocking pink velveteen gown - the vibrant signature tone of the house - but also unexpected combinations such as powder-soft taupe and lilac silk that made this collection so surprising and sophisticated.
Beautifully crafted golden threads pulled together ribbons, beads, crystals and palettes for curious bling. Embroidered motifs, including a bleeding heart with arrows on a black velvet gown referenced the artistic, surrealist roots of the label and the wild world of Schiaparelli in the '30s.
From a glamorous harlequin to a rock'n'roll princess in a state of undress, Zanini evoked controlled excess and a fearless attitude. The Schiaparelli woman is not one to follow trends.
With the remarkable, quirky headdresses, not to mention the jewellery and gloves, this gorgeous flurry of cashmere (stunning coats), crocodile, mohair, liquid silks, crepe, even ostrich feather and beaver, was a feast for the eyes and senses. The use of so many elements, such as texture, shape and colour, was bold and unconventional yet clearly had the elegance of haute couture.
And in a final step of defiance, all the models wore pointy flat shoes (not a heel in sight) - a serious proposition for the changing world of haute couture.
The modern attitude of the younger couture client is less limited to the gilded birdcage lifestyles of yesteryear. In fact, the sudden popularity of flat shoes, though perhaps we'll draw the line at sensible, has been big news in fashion lately.
Karl Lagerfeld sent ripples through fashion circles last season at Chanel's haute couture presentation when all his models wore trainers (albeit expensive ones with over-the-top embellishments) with their column gowns. This season, flats reigned again at Chanel in the form of ribboned sandals.
Slimline tops (either high-collared or strapless) with squared shoulders and rounded A-line skirts (created by cages under fabric) and coats gave the collection a ladylike silhouette. The setting was billed as a 20th-century Parisian apartment, a blend of Le Corbusier and the extravagance of Versailles. The more traditional regal references reverberated with the baroque golden embroideries lining pure white, almost clerical, gowns.
Slimline cycling shorts made a repeat appearance. Hardly flattering and surely more of a runway item, they peeked from under knee-length hemlines. The modish caps and hairstyles were a modern contrast to the sophistication of some of those gowns. A sea of white, red, black and glittering gold or silver in sequins made for a strongly edited look, where innovation in fabrics - mixing chiffon, tulle, tweed, even concrete (though you couldn't tell) - made for interesting effects. A wonderfully frothy powder blue tulle gown embroidered with long lightweight feathers should be an editorial favourite.
The idea of "modern couture" is touted by Chanel and Schiaparelli, as well as Belgian designer Raf Simons at Christian Dior. His collections have generally been well received, yet at times his work can be divisive.
There are those who adore the freshness, purity and positivity Simons has brought to the French house - the luminous walls of white orchids in the Rodin Museum are symbolic of this. Others yearn for more drama and sex appeal in the evening gowns that haute couture traditionally caters to.
When the show opened with stunning Jacquard ball-gown shapes - sculpted corset waists and huge hips and hoop skirts - the regal element to this collection was clear. It was the French court of the 18th century, according to the show notes.
Delicately shaded in pale blue, pink and mint and white, with feminine yet minimal embroidery, Simons kept these gowns modern while clearly referencing the period. Soon though, as the different "chapters" played out, the modern part of the equation took hold, with models wearing belted, loose, silk jumpsuits inspired by those worn by astronauts. An odd and unexpected deviation from the 18th century indeed, but perhaps a wildly swinging historical pendulum is the central theme for the big Paris-based haute couture houses this season.
Simple, strong wool coats and bright, wide-leg trousers (think Céline or Simons' work at Jil Sander), then well-tailored pretty skirt suits, referenced the day-to-day lifestyles of couture clients. Indeed, Dior proposed a rather full wardrobe with this collection, with outfits that you can wear to the office, on the street, at a cocktail party or dinner, as well as to a Saudi wedding or diplomatic ball. And all with impeccable fabrics, crafted with the cool, calm and collected ethos of Simons.
For those who want more flash, flesh and heat in their haute couture, the obvious label to turn to is Atelier Versace. With songstress Jennifer Lopez in the front row, and last season Lady Gaga, this isn't a brand for wallflowers.
Satiny gowns with flowing long skirts were draped sensually around bodies. Corseted (of course, Donatella might add) and sculpted bodices in shiny vinyl or sequins emphasised a feminine shape, showed off shapely busts, tiny waists and long, lean legs. But the classicism of couture that Donatella references only went so far, as the Italian fashion house known for its daring, bold and, at times, in-your-face sexuality, combined this with bondage-style shiny leather straps and metal buckles that seemed to "hold" together the dresses - a fantastically edgy element to the gowns.
For this Italian powerhouse, stark juxtapositions lie at the centre of their couture collection, too.
Outfits were mostly asymmetrical, and trousers made a chic appearance under thigh-high split dresses. However, once I realised that they only covered one leg (the one was exposed by the slit) the concept lost appeal for me. Nevertheless, Atelier Versace again had that sculpted, chic, sex kitten look down pat, adding a much-needed tough girl vibe.
Even Giorgio Armani, known to veer on the conservative side, made a statement this season. It came in the boldest brilliant red, then white and black. Huge swathes of polka-dotted tulle enveloped heads and dresses rather aggressively, sometimes even distracting from the sublime, intricate sparkling workmanship of the finale gowns underneath.
Sculpted shorts suits featured lovely sleeves, but the geometric patterned shorter coats were our favourites - clearly couture but very wearable.
Finally, another talented Italian with much on his plate - Giambattista Valli. One of the top collections this season, Valli modernised his own creations, toning down huge frothy ball-room skirts in blue, yellow, green and red with fitted and tucked-in gas station "workman" shirts that are a favourite of vintage fans and rockabillies.
White tied headbands crowned the models' heads, while cool interpretations of long '40s vintage tea dresses festooned with 3-D floral appliqués made for fantastic shapes and textures. White men's shirts were tucked into classic feminine skirts and with sunglasses over eyes, the cool-as-a cucumber Valli girl shakes off some of her former stiffness to reveal a new confidence that can effortlessly rock masculine with feminine - even in couture.