My first taste of the Paris Couture was a heady one. In the five shows I attended - Dior, Givenchy, Chanel, Saint Laurent and Lacroix - I saw the past, present and future of haute couture. Instead of simply offering exquisitely crafted and fitted ensembles to the super rich women with occasion to wear them, couture's luxe landscape shifted to one of image and fantasy, garnering the kind of anticipation and media coverage usually reserved for a Todd Oldham ready-to-wear show.
This new couture, bursting its perfectly stitched seams with energy and elation, was enough to convert even the most minimal and modern into true lovers of frippery and adornment. Much of the hoopla naturally centered around the bad-boy Brits, John Galliano for Dior, and Alexander McQueen for Givenchy. They did not disappoint, as blended stunning collages of imagination and tradition. Galliano's Mata Hari theme was apt enough as I would gladly spy for any side in return for one of his day silhouettes. Namely the molded and corseted jackets over long, long hourglass skirts that rustled with privilege, or the exotic fake tiger fur jackets, shown over the same skirt shape. The gowns were this side of sublime. My favorite cascaded into a swirl of peacock feathers. I still dream about it.
Press buzzed on both sides of the channel when word leaked that McQueen's show incorporated real human bones. Distractions aside (they were fake), the show, held in the vivisection chamber of a local medical school, demonstrated that Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH, parent company of Dior and Givency, did not choose the wrong guy to front Givenchy. If the new couture is going to focus on image and advertising over clients, then McQueen won't let him down. Down a runway lined with edgy-looking ravens in huge iron cages, stalked fabulous renditions of historical dressmaking. From the Spanish Infanta to Belle Epoque beauty, there were quite a few deliciously wearable designs.
Karl Lagerfeld put the real stamp of approval on the new couture in his show for the house of Chanel. Like Galliano, he chose to show in a beautiful garden. And also, like Galliano, he changed the semantics of the medium. Perfect little jackets with small but pronounced shoulders over long, slender skirts lent an austere yet edgy feel to much of the day wear. Evening was seriously romantic, with models swathed in acres of tulle, lace, feathers and chunky beads. The surprisingly loud, punky presentation was testament to the wind of change wafting over the salons of Paris.
That wind didn't make it past the shutters at Saint Laurent, however, where refined elegance and subtle chic refused to be blown away. Instead, Mr. Saint Laurent exhilarated his audience in a entirely different way, re-working more than a few of his own classics, reminding viewers just how much fashion owes to his atelier. Clients scribbled furiously as impeccable suits, cocktail dresses, evening pajamas and furs appeared before them. A simple and seemingly effortless twist to the shoulder of a column gown of gunmetal silk satin showed us all the magic of the master.
Lacroix, whose usual aesthetic of absolute opulence and no-holds-barred lavishness seemed to be the model for many this season, didn't let his ladies down. They were in raptures as the duke of pouf turned out one extravagant concoction after another. As I sat sandwiched between Sao Schlumberger, Diane Von Furstenberg and Anne Bass, all determinedly circling passage numbers, I wished wistfully that I had the balls to wear them to! Reflecting further on the winds of change, it is poignant that Versace, who will be sadly missed by so many, was the first designer to really rock the firmament of haute couture and that Princess Diana, who wore his clothes often and well, rocked a staid royal standard of dress by injecting it with unprecedented freshness and glamour. She never looked tarty but didn't limit herself to tartan, either. I think they would have liked the new couture. Fashion certainly will never be the same without the most modern of designers and the most modern of princesses.
Closet Coutourist for Fashion Icon © 1997