Haute Couture Gets Real. Or Does It?


PARIS — The world according to Coco began with a button, symbol of the ease of movement she brought to women. The short film that launched her brand’s latest couture show established the power of the button with its soundtrack. Kendrick Lamar isn’t going to make music for just anyone. And then the button, branded with the iconic double CC, was writ so large over the round room in which the show took place that it looked like a hovering UFO (sorry, UAP. Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon is what we’re supposed to call them now. If that’s progress, ugh!) Even more so when it began to tip slowly, ominously floorwards. But that weirdness was an oddly apposite appetiser for what followed.

The round room was thickly carpeted. The walls were draped. Everything sounded muted, far away. Margaret Qualley, so memorable as one of Tarantino’s Manson girls, appeared in a pierrot collar over white tweed jacket, sheer white skirt over pearlized white tights, heeled black sandals. She grinned a spooky grin. Couture, Tim, but not as we know it.

Chanel Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024
Chanel Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024
Chanel Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024

Dance was an inspiration for Gabrielle Chanel.  Her costumes for the Ballets Russes 1924 production of “Le Train Bleu” yield one of the most gobsmacking moments in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s current retrospective of her work. So there was a pure logic in Virginie Viard’s homage to Chanel and dance. But there was still something intensely odd about the show. Maybe it was those white dance tights and black shoes.  They jarred, fetishistically. But curiously, they also underscored the consistency in Viard’s vision. Tweed shot with filaments of colour, blush tones of pink and pistachio, a black bouclé coatdress flaring over white tulle petticoats … the Tutu Effect is already a thing for TikTokers, and it may already have reached its apogee here with a pink tulle confection studded with tiny bows.  Next level: the ethereal sugariness of a sheer lacy jumpsuit.  Towards the end of the show, when one dress’s ruched torso dissolved into a full skirt of tattered chiffon, I surrendered to Viard’s strategy. Supernal prettiness. But for who? For where?

They are questions that designers have to be asking themselves at the moment. Giorgio Armani was apparently a little nervous before his latest Privé presentation. His shows traditionally have a theme, but this time he’d broken with tradition, choosing instead to reflect on his own past in couture, but as a spontaneous grab bag rather than a coherent retrospective. How would his audience take this? He wondered. Glenn Close and Gwyneth Paltrow flanked his niece Roberta in the front row as a reminder of who that audience includes, especially when Oscar’s red carpet beckons in mere weeks. The fact Armani called the show “En jeu”, suggesting a gambler’s stake, conveyed his appreciation of risk.

And he was right. There was a win-some-lose-some gamble in such an approach, especially when he was parading a mighty 92 looks down his runway. Gwyneth occasionally took refuge in her phone. But the winners emphasised the reasons why women like her – and thousands of other less bold-faced types – cherish Armani’s ability to dress them. A silky cropped jacket with a subtle tracery of embroidery paired with immaculately tailored, tapered pants will always be an Armani go-to for special occasions. Call it pragmatic fantasy if you like. It offers a solution with a dream attached.

Armani Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024
Armani Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024
Armani Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024

And don’t get me started on his way with navy. A long time ago, Armani found his sweet spot somewhere between the blue of his beloved Med and the indigo of the night sky over the Sahara. With this latest collection, he waited till the very end to roll out his big navy guns. The effortless glamour of those final looks even managed to surmount the huge helicopter hats the models were wearing. Armani does love an odd topper. Is that the way he chooses to manifest the inner surrealist he’s often talked about?

But Armani has often tapped a surrealist vein with his couture. And he’s never actually been risk-averse either.  “En jeu” struck a lot of chords: India, Persia, Japan, as well as the richness of the natural world.  Billowing diaphanous skirts sported nebulae of handpainted colour. Other looks evoked aqueous underwater worlds. I saw geological strata at one point. And cosmic gypsies twirling in layers of scarf hems.  Delicate lace suspended from fragile spaghetti straps followed by the hard sci-fi sheen of a fabric that flowed like mercury.  And then, remembering that we’re coming off a year when Armani and Barbie took a trip together (Arbarbi?), came a skirt of sweeping pink pleats encircled by panniers of pepto-bismol plissé and a top that was the barest suggestion of gossamer. And that was when I remembered that Armani was the designer who resisted the excess of evening for years and years. En jeu? At risk or at play? I think he’s already made his choice.

Azzedine Alaia was an anomaly in fashion, so supremely confident that when he played with fashion, he was also taking bigger risks than anyone else, absolutely defiant of the status quo. That helped create his challenging sui generis signature. Pieter Mulier is proving himself a worthy successor by creating his own challenges. This season’s was a humdinger: one yarn for every element of the whole collection. “I want you to do something a little bit more while using less,” he told the fabric company and the knitwear company who have supplied Alaia for decades. And he gave them a thread of merino wool. You’re asking yourself why someone would limit their possibilities to such a degree. But Mulier obviously has faith that restriction breeds creativity (maybe we could call it The Starving Artist Syndrome). Croc, leather, embroidery? Too easy. Subsequent developments have certainly vindicated him.

It took a year of experiment for his two suppliers to come up with all the variants that shaped the new Alaia collection. There was a trench coat and there was feather-light sheer. There was a solid parka and dresses in silken drape. Wool can apparently even turn to “suede” if you add a thread of viscose. (Is that a cheat?) Mulier made a “suede” dress that was collared, cuffed and hemmed in shearling for an effect that was defiantly, excessively luxurious, except that he was convinced that the fact everything was wool quietened it. Quiet luxury? Stop! He preferred real.  It was kind of the same with Alaia’s signature body consciousness. There were thighs galore in this collection but Mulier insisted, “We wanted to step back from the overly sexualised woman we did in the past,” so there was a lot that felt more wrapped, draped, cocooned than before (aside from a couple of looks where the wrapping was more a serpentine coil).

Alaia Spring Summer 2024
Alaia Spring Summer 2024
Alaia Spring Summer 2024

The notion that less could mean more is obviously a topical one. We don’t see it translated into desirability as often as is necessary. Mulier combined the power of his single, versatile thread with exquisite technique to stimulate desire. One of my favourite couture fillips is the millefeuille technique, which makes layers and layers of lightness to create the illusion of the pages of a book fluttering by. “Sometimes it can be heavy to create Alaia shapes,” said Mulier, “but millefeuille put air into them.” Liisa Winkler wore a pair of ivory pants in full flutter. Julia Nobis closed the show with a top and pants in the same full effect. Remember millefeuille. Looks old in dresses, new in pants.

Footnote: instead of embroidery, there were Velcro dots.  They were decorative, but also a new way to close clothes. The functionality was subtle but significant for a label as elevated as Alaia.

Which means it’s significant that functionality was a feature of Pierpaolo Piccioli’s latest couture collection for Valentino. If one more designer signs on by Friday, we’ve got a trend. “Real life” has been Piccioli’s couture playground for years now. It’s why he shows women and men on the same couture catwalk in an earnest effort to honour couture’s original aim: to create a wardrobe for life. The haute-ness of the whole Parisian situation  has become a byword for bejewelled extravagance, but in his new collection, Piccioli played a clever trick. The extravagance – the hints of taboo fur, skin, feathers – was conjured out of technological ingenuity.  One jacket looked like unravelled Slinkies. A gorgeously slouchy top was some kind of alien pasta. Who knew Twiglets could simulate feathers?

Valentino Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024
Valentino Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024
Valentino Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024
Valentino Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024

Of course, that’s all my nonsense, when all that really needs saying is that in terms of stunning colour, cut, fabrication and clear intent, Piccioli’s collection felt essential, at least if haute couture still means anything in fashion’s febrile firmament.  It had heart and soul and and fabulous coats. It also had a solidly reassuring slouch here, and a sexy wilful decadence there (and that spells desire, fashion’s raison d’etre).

Piccioli showed in Valentino’s salons on Place Vendome, the quietly murmuring heart of global luxury.  Remember the salon is traditionally haute couture’s safe haven. But there was enough about this collection that didn’t feel safe to suggest that salon must inevitably surrender to street. Bring it on.



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