Paris couture: somber, spiritual and classical
They say fashion is a reflection of our times, and at a somber moment in the world – from Australian forest fires and conflict in the Middle East, to the never ending French transport strikes – this was the most reined-in Haute Couture season in Paris in many years.
A season marked by the spirit of female empowerment, a radically reduced silhouette and, most memorably, by the farewell show of Jean-Paul Gaultier, bringing down the curtain on a half-century-long career, and also closing a huge chapter in French fashion: the Era of the Creator.
In terms of attitude, the struggle for womenʼs empowerment again took center stage in a season with multiple women couturiers. In terms of silhouette, there was a radical reduction in volume, along with an increased emphasis on classical forms, like at Christian Dior where the majority of the passages looked to have been designed for ancient Greek divinities.
"In my view goddesses are everywhere, in art and life, so why not in fashion?" commented Dior’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri.
Dior managed to combine empowerment and classicism, with a collection staged inside a giant tent in the shape of a woman’s torso. Entitled "The Female Divine," the piece was created by American feminist artist Judy Chicago.
At Chanel, couturier Virginie Viard referenced a more Catholic conception of spirituality. Viard sought inspiration from a trip to Aubazine, the austere Cistercian convent where Coco Chanel was sent aged 12 when her mother died.
The result was an ascetic yet frequently beautiful collection. Stylish check suits were cut three inches above the knee and anchored by black patent leather shoes and white schoolgirl socks, sharing the catwalk with dark gray wool pocketed dresses with scapular shoulders, or for women of real authority, black belted dresses with a long slit, like the one worn by Gigi Hadid – Chanel’s mother superior this season.
A couture week definitely not devoid of romance, though again of an empowering sort. Like at Givenchy, where Clare Waight Keller’s bold floral collection referenced the legendary English garden Sissinghurst, a northern oasis that was, in part, the fruit of the love between two women – Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf.
Waight Keller played with plenty of volume at her show, attended by the founder of this recent couture obsession – Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino. Piccioli, however, really reined in his own houseʼs dimensions this week, working fabulously hued faille into remarkable swirls that recalled Technicolor movies, 50s screen goddesses and mid-century Italian socialites.
The season also saw the arrival of the first couturier from sub-Saharan Africa in Paris, Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi, who blended western silhouette ball gowns with African materials – like woven organic cotton from Burkina Faso.
While Indian couturier Rahul Mishra became the first creator from the sub-continent to enter the official calendar, after getting the nod of approval from the notoriously strict vetting committee of the French Federation of Haute Couture and Ready-to-Wear. A recent trip to the Maldives inspired a great collection from Mishra, stunning gowns with abstract patterns of underwater foliage, beautiful corals and what this gentleman from Bombay termed, “the diaspora of fish.”
Elsewhere, we had a seductive surrealist romance at Schiaparell, while at Elie Saab out came an Imperial Mexican collection. There was sophisticated ethnographic style at Armani Privé with an Ikat-driven show, where Giorgio attracted the biggest star of the week, Reese Witherspoon.
Partly because it's awards season in the U.S., the January season rarely attracts many movie stars. Add in the transport strike and concern about Yellow Vest protesters and this was the smallest number of major actresses we have seen at couture in a decade.
On the final day, after all the major magazine editors have flown out as well, one could catch a half dozen young hopefuls. Experimental couturiers keeping alive the tradition of couture as the laboratory of fashion.
Like Yuima Nakazato from Japan, whose entire collection was made in a new material, Brewed Protein, a molecular-based fabric that is molded around the torso or body. To touch, it felt like very airy rubber, though unlike rubber, Brewed Protein breathes, so none of the models looked remotely sweaty post-show.
Inspired by manga and cosmology, Nakazato created some fantastical shapes and silhouettes in floaty accordion pleats – topped off with remarkable plumage headgear.
One hour later, Tuscan-born Sofia Crociani displayed some remarkable profiles and contours. Mixing classical motifs with jumbled-up assemblages of fabrics. Think Praxiteles meets John Chamberlain. Fulfilling the other duty of couture – to be fashion’s laboratory.
Ultimately, though, this season will be remembered for the departure of Gaultier, whose 250-look show before 1,500 cheering fans and friends inside the Théâtre du Châtelet will go down in history as the happiest ever finale of any couturier.
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