Flashbacks and forward thinking blended seamlessly at last week's haute couture collections in Paris. There were plenty of runaway ideas on the runways, where the most vital energy came from the old guard, who raided their closets to give trademark pieces a fresh twist or tinkered with fabrics and structure to create new effects and silhouettes. Some delivered cool elegance, cutting collections that oozed restraint. Others simply cut loose.
At the venerable French house of Christian Dior, designer John Galliano was clearly in this last category. From the 19th century Italian nobility or the exotic characters from distant lands that have graced his earlier shows, Galliano went for vagabond chic, sending out models dressed to resemble the clochards he sees on his daily run through Paris. He worked luxury fabrics such as silk taffeta and chiffon into stunning garments that echoed the wardrobe of the hobo: baggy trousers, shirts with oversized sleeves, dresses and jackets with fraying edges--plus belts from which tea strainers, empty miniature liquor bottles and other bric-a-brac dangled like charms from a bracelet.
"Somebody has to take the risk," said Didier Grumbach, head of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, couture's governing body, praising Galliano's ability to stir things up. "Even if [the show] is controversial," he said, "it was good for Paris."
For some years, the Chambre Syndicale has been trying to revitalize couture, a segment of the fashion market whose aging client base and fading image recently led observers to believe that it was in its death throes. The Chambre Syndicale has introduced a number of new design houses to the official schedule over the past three years, attempting to inject new life into an old art.
If the appearance of the hoboesque fashion that started the Dior show left a few of the well-heeled front-row clients with raised eyebrows, some of what followed rendered them positively open-mouthed. After the hoboes came models in white garments resembling straitjackets, and a ballerina with a cast on one arm. While one British tabloid condemned it as sick chic, the general verdict was one of praise. Hamish Bowles, European editor-at-large for American Vogue, said: "It was very true to John's roots. It had an anarchic, raw energy." Although the idea of showing visible linings and edges craftily engineered to look unfinished is not new, Galliano used it to great effect. "It picked up on a trend ... of leaving things unfinished," said Bowles.
Other designers played with the idea. At Givenchy, Dior's sister house within the LVMH conglomerate, Alexander McQueen sent out pieces such as a grey shirt in distressed silk tulle and a stunning black organza gown with a full skirt covered in black organza roses, whose edges were brushed to give a frayed effect. But in contrast to Dior's wild exuberance, the Givenchy presentation was a picture of somber elegance. McQueen's trademark tailoring was showcased in his meticulously crafted wool suits in Prince of Wales checks, followed by garments in the kind of fabrics that contribute to couture's high price tag: swan's feathers, satin mousseline, cashmere and silk. Although there was some exquisite embroidery, many of the pieces had nothing added. Explaining this devotion to construction over embellishment, McQueen said in a post-show interview on French television that he'd used "fabrics made out of fiberglass, glass, solid silver ... fabrics no one had seen before. There was not so much detail. The fabrics were enough."
Even in the fullest of the evening gowns, the models seemed to float, imparting a sense of weightless volume and fluidity prevalent in many of the shows. "We all got caught up in a look that had to be modern and spare," said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at American department store chain Neiman Marcus. Kaner, who has been attending the couture shows for the past 10 years, comes to keep an eye open for up-and-coming talent and to glean which trends might be filtering across from couture into ready-to-wear, and vice versa. "Now, there's more variety," she said. "There are women who want to look pretty and feminine and soft."
Softness and fluidity were catchphrases at the Chanel show. While fashionados in the audience rubbed shoulders with former Chanel model and current Chanel ambassadress Carole Bouquet, actress Kristin Scott-Thomas and designer Jeremy Scott, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld sent out updated takes on the traditional Chanel suit, such as softly structured jackets sitting close to the body, with wrapped or voluminous pleated skirts or full trousers in hues ranging from cerise to pistachio to buttercup. In a strange way, Chanel's was a very accessible collection--well, as accessible as clothes that may cost tens of thousands of dollars can be. Among the suits, cocktail dresses and evening wear were garments suitable for both older and younger clients, from the traditional lady-who-lunches to the working woman. "There was something for everyone," said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale's.
Ruttenstein described this haute couture season as being "very strong," and supported the inclusion of new names on the schedule, like designer Pascal Humbert and milliner Philip Treacy, whose hats, which were more like head art, echoed everything from blooming flowers to Mohican hairstyles. Such inclusions are not simply foisted on the established houses. They vote to approve any newcomers. "There must be new designers, new ideas," said Lagerfeld, who has designed for Chanel since 1983. "But," he smiled, "that does not means the old ones have to go."
Indeed, some of the "old ones" seemed to be positively reveling in their heritage. Valentino, who celebrates his 40th anniversary this year, started his presentation by showing on a giant screen a series of photographs of his work from years gone by. When the clothes appeared, the sophisticated tailoring that is the Valentino signature was evident in the understated Jackie O. chic of the daywear and the sleekest of cocktail dresses. The collection of Yves Saint Laurent, whose own 40th anniversary was in 1998, also featured updated versions of many of his trademarks. Pantsuits, safari wear, and a new take on le smoking--the first of which now sits in an archive in Paris devoted to his work, which will open to the public next month--all came down the runway, followed by flamboyant dresses in a gypsy theme.
For all the beauty of the garments, it was hard to escape the cynicism that surrounds haute couture. According to the Federation Française de la Couture, haute couture accounts for only 6% of turnover in French fashion, which is dominated by accessories and women's ready-to-wear. In general, haute couture is time-consuming and loss-making, and is seen by many as mere marketing. Certainly the shows have the ability to underline an image: at Versace, the glamour of the garments, and touches such as the runway's inlaid video screens, created a glitzy atmosphere that might have come straight from the world of rock music--an impression reinforced by the presence of rock stars like Liam Gallagher and members of the band All Saints.
"It's all about brand-building," sighed one magazine editor. Some critics argued that clothes such as those in the Dior couture collection were out of the price range of most women, and couldn't possibly be reinterpreted in a ready-to-wear line, so what was the point? The Dior atelier begged to differ, saying that a retranslated ready-to-wear version of the collection, including shirts and sweaters with "haphazard detail," will hit stores in July. Color trends can also make their way across the divide. This season saw a "continuation of color families," noted Kaner, like "greens, every shade of green. Green is going to be very important." A Chanel spokesperson said the collection's deep green organza dress with a pleated skirt was a popular choice amongst the house's clients, while magazine editors had requested ensembles in lime and pistachio for photo shoots.
For Kaner, couture still means the chance to be thrilled by new ideas and exquisite workmanship. "Some people view couture as a way to sell ready-to-wear," she said, "but to me, it's the craft. I hate to think of it as being just a commercial exercise to sell sneakers at a cheaper price point."
The corporate wheels, however, keep on turning. Even as Yves Saint Laurent was putting the finishing touches to his show, confirmation came that Tom Ford, currently creative director at Gucci, had also been appointed creative director over all parts of the YSL empire--which the Gucci Group acquired last year--apart from haute couture, over which Saint Laurent retains control. In a short statement, the couturier wished Ford success in "the house which bears my name." Another changing of the guard is underway.