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Technical mastery and flashes of magic seen at Couture Week in Paris

In the fiercely disciplined and technically dazzling world of high fashion, skillmanship was much in view in Paris last week, but few shows had real soul. These ones did.

Technical mastery and flashes of magic seen at Couture Week in Paris

(Photo: Reuters/Regis Duvignau)

Positioned at the most exclusive end of the business, couture clothes have only a few hundred clients and the one-of-a-kind, bespoke pieces cost many thousands of pounds. But while the week represents fashion at its most aspirational, the shows are instrumental in driving sales – of fragrance for the most part. Couture must therefore inform the mood that then percolates through the brand – it’s the purest expression of a creative point of view.

And that point of view has shifted. Virginie Viard, who was appointed creative director at Chanel following the death of Karl Lagerfeld in February, now finds herself among a triumvirate of women leading three of the most influential labels in the industry (including Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior and Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy). Her role cannot be underestimated: In June, Chanel announced 2018 revenues of more than US$11bn (S$14.97bn). In this time of creative transition, she must now be a safe pair of hands.

Viard was first appointed to Chanel in 1997. For more than two decades, she was Lagerfeld’s most trusted lieutenant, but her first couture collection for the house announced a pivot away from her predecessor’s vision. The collection was spare and pared back. The silhouette was cleaner, and the accessories were kept to a minimum – a single pearl earring rather than the strings of gewgaws that might have been before.

Staged at the Grand Palais in a multi-tiered library set that recalled the reading room at the British Museum, Viard’s models walked among the literary works – French classics, faux covers – in patent flats and spectacles, with their hair tied in prim ponytails. The looks were trimmed of fat: Long-line tweed coat dresses with an ivory silk lining; bourgeois skirt suits and wide-legged trousers in the same Thirties style worn by the house’s founder Gabrielle Chanel.

In channelling the spirit of the house’s fabled “Coco”, Viard introduced a new rigour at Chanel. The clothes looked more chic, though perhaps not as fun, or as fabulous, as the typical Chanel client may favour. Viard was merely tweaking the mood at a house whose codes are as tightly bound as its logo’s entwined “C”s, but it promised much for the future.

No student of subtlety, Maria Grazia Chiuri’s message at Dior has as often as not been broadcast all over a T-shirt. Her very first show for the house, SS17, took its cue from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2014 essay We Should All Be Feminists, and her endeavours to empower the narrative at Dior were rewarded this week when the Rome-born designer was presented with the Legion d’Honneur. As a sign of acceptance in the autocratic world of French fashion it made for a lovely moment. Chiuri hasn’t always seduced the press with her wearable, comfortable clothing, despite the fact it sells by the truck load (she has been the most commercially successful womenswear designer at Dior in decades), and this acknowledgment, of her talent and political activism was a timely pat on the back.

Her autumn/winter couture show announced another slogan – “are clothes modern?” – and the collection was designed to be a dialogue with the essayist Bernard Rudofsky who first asked the question in 1944 for a show about contemporary apparel at MOMA. He thought fashion too ephemeral to be significant. Chiuri thinks otherwise. Her collection was a series of designs to “house” the body (quite literally in fact: One look was a gold-coloured recreation of the Dior headquarters on Avenue Montaigne) and a reaffirmation of the couturier’s skills. Almost all the looks were black – a personal choice for the designer who wears it near exclusively herself – and the set was decorated with images of women who looked a bit like the corpse of Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer.

The dialogue was commendable, if a little confusing. And the clothes were exquisitely produced. But for a show about modernity, I found the New Look silhouettes, beret hats with net veils, and endless mono palette a little dated. By far the most modish garments were the “toga” gowns that opened and closed the show. The clothes of antiquity have long fired Chiuri’s imagination (as they did Christian Dior himself) and here they looked modern and new.

There were more architectural influences at Givenchy, where Clare Waight Keller had imagined her muse within the faded grandeur of an aristocratic house, replete with exotic birds – her models had their hair whipped into cockatoo ruffs. The clothes were designed with a domestic space in mind – a jacquard carpet dress, lampshade crinolines, a sherbet pink ballgown that might have started life as a wall-hanging. It sounds eccentric, and at moments it was (I have no desire to wear a dress that looks like it might have once been a curtain) but Waight Keller keeps a steady hand on the tiller, and this collection was coolly controlled despite its flights of fancy.

Monochrome colours, strict silhouettes, the season had a schoolmarmish sobriety about it. The first 20 looks at Armani Prive were also lean and clean – long black velvet coat dresses, some with white shawl collars, suggested a Puritan rigour. The following 20, in shades of baby pink and pistachio, made the case for the sugar-plum fairy. Nonetheless, even the most saccharine looks here were painstakingly put together. But so much control can leave one cold. After bold shows of blacks and greys and artisanal technique, I craved colour, flamboyance – and chaos.

At Maison Margiela, John Galliano trusted his instincts to deliver a bravura collection of men’s and women’s clothes designed via “the heart not the head”. It’s an intuitive thinking process he learnt while doing equine therapy in Arizona, part of his rehabilitation from drug addiction, and now uses creatively to stunning effect. His “nomadic” trouser dresses, cut from oversized zoot suit pants and then reconstructed to create gowns with a Watteau neckline were technically brilliant. Better still his collection, with its “gesture of couture”, bullet-hole laces, “filtrage” effect photoprints and wartime sailor collars, had real drama without being too scripted.

For pure joyously, saturated, technicolour pleasure however, it was once again Pierpaolo Piccioli’s moment. In recent seasons, the creative director of Valentino has ascended into some sort of super firmament of fashion, creating clothes so dazzling and delicious that his catwalks (and especially his couture collections) have taken on a kind of magic. “You want colour,” he asked as he brushed past a huge silk faille gown in a lime so acidic it would near take your eye out . . . “Here it is.”

And here it was. Piccioli’s moodboard featured Berber hats, Irving Penn portraits, Renaissance paintings, Guy Bourdin’s beauty pictures and Diana Vreeland’s maxim that the “eye has to travel”. His only constraint was that no look should look like another, and that no look be inspired by a single thing. “I wanted total freedom,” he said of the collection that juxtaposed the most perfect of column dresses in cashmere with vast lace confections embroidered in a leopard-print of sequins, or lemon yellow dresses fashioned with a body of flowers and a skirt tiered with tufts of raw wool. Looks were vast and opulent, monastically minimal and nowhere in between. “I’m not really a fan of the half gesture,” he said.

Neither does he care to talk about technique. But he is passionate about the staff of the atelier with whom he works and was quick to celebrate their efforts: one of the petites mains explained how she had worked out the impossible geometry of a pink square dress using 4,000 pieces of fabric, a pen and paper. The work had taken three-and-half months. At the show’s end, Piccioli took his applause alongside the staff. There was an ovation. And weeping.

For all the mastery on show this week, this nourished the soul. Piccioli’s genius is in illuminating the wonder of the workroom while creating clothes packed with personality and emotion. His work resonates, whether it’s on the runway, the red carpet, or on our social media feeds. And at couture in particular, he shows beautiful clothes that just make people feel happy.

Does it matter that we’ll never afford them? “I don’t go to a museum and expect to buy a Picasso,” shrugged Piccioli. He should put that on a T-shirt.

By Jo Ellison © 2019 The Financial Times

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