This haute couture season, it seemed that the collections’ backdrops were as important as the clothes. Immense theatralization of the fashion show was a recurring theme, from Schiaparelli to Margiela. So it was quite refreshing to see the total white-cube space as Fendi’s venue. But did Kim Jones‘ couture line-up stand up for itself? “Luxury is the ease of a t-shirt in a very expensive dress.” Karl Lagerfeld coined this permanently true aphorism – one of the sparkling fashion quotes he dashed off in a zillion interviews. Kim Jones didn’t drop it into backstage conversation about his Fendi haute couture collection, but he might’ve, since essentially what he sent out met the Lagerfeldian standard of t-shirt-y elegance; a show of uncomplicated, minimal dressing realized in the most expensive of materials. For starter, a trio of Max-Mara-like looks, two tailored trouser suits and a long turtleneck sweater dress with a slashed skirt and sash in a Vicuna brown. Then came tailoring, and a molded bustier in paler shades of slightly pink-tinged beige: Fendi’s specialty calf leather. And then, calmly on with the abbreviated lines of the t-shirt dressing. There were slim tank dresses, made of rolled metallic bugle-beads, asymmetrical long-sleeved patchworks of Japanese silk kimono fabric commissioned by Jones from traditional makers in Kyoto, and beaded deco-style pajamas. Jones explained in a preview that the pair of outstandingly lovely shimmery silver sequinned bias cut slip dresses had been made from swatches Karl Lagerfeld had commissioned which had been archived and never used. For the finale there were a few spicier, sheer “nude” dresses. In overall, it all looked like a proper couture collection. Not sure it felt like a Fendi one, though, even with all the subtle Lagerfeld references.
“This show is an open letter to Jean Paul, an open letter of love,” Olivier Rousteing announced in the Gaultier studio before the unveiling of the antic collection that Gaultier had invited him to design as the third iteration of the project that hands the reins of his couture house to a different designer each season. When the two designers first met to discuss the project four months ago, and right after Rousteing had presented his autumn-winter Balmain collection, he confided to Jean Paul Gaultier: “You’re my inspiration. And you broke so many boundaries for me as a kid.” Dressed backstage in a matelot striped top and an asymmetric kilt, Rousteing had clearly taken the brief very seriously. “Jean Paul wrote a fashion book with many chapters,” Rousteing explained. “And the reality is that you need to understand what chapter from Jean Paul is closer to you and the emotions that you obviously are more into.” For Rousteing, this meant a series of very personal snapshots. A memory of his father with Gaultier’s iconic Le Male fragrance in its tin can casing, for instance, or Madonna dressed by Gaultier in a nipple-freeing ensemble for a 1992 amfAR gala. “If you think about that today, we cannot [go there],” Rousteing noted, and in fact his iteration featured trompe l’oeil exposed breasts. “So he was ahead of his time about freedom of expression. Today, we talk about inclusivity, we talk about diversity, we talk about breaking boundaries, we talk about no binaries, no gender. Obviously, Jean Paul was the first one to do it.” Rousteing opened his show with menswear, inspired by the tattoo collection of 1994 that he considers a celebration of diversity, and then broke into one statement womenswear piece after another, playing on the Gaultier themes of corsetry, repurposed denim, and Breton fishermen’s sweaters, among others, many of the looks teetering on platform heels inspired by those tin cans.
And Rousteing reveled in the craftsmanship of Gaultier’s ateliers. In homage, there were garments fashioned from a dressmaker’s tape measures, a heart-shaped pin cushion bodice, and gloves with thimbles for finger tips. And noting the designer’s passion for the liquid draperies of Madame Grès (and the dressmaking genius who worked for her and now for Gaultier), Rousteing worked her iconic techniques into some looks that included a sweeping corseted pink sweatshirt that ballooned into an opera coat in back and draped into a siren skirt in front. Meanwhile, what appeared to be a woven menswear pinstripe was actually an illusion created with insertions of white crepe – a process that took 600 hours. Rousteing revisited Gaultier’s feathery interpretation of matelot stripes, another iteration of the Breton sweater that morphed into a Watteau train in back. In a further celebration of the craftsmanship of the house, the running order of the show listed each premiere main and modeliste responsible for the various elements of each look next to its description. Rousteing stepped out of the studios, however, to create a brace of molded glass bodices made by the expert responsible for the stained glass windows of Notre Dame, no less. Gaultier himself had wanted the collection to be a complete surprise. When the show opened with a soundtrack mashup of Gaultier himself expressing his design ideas to various media outlets through the years, he blushed bright pink. By the end of the show he was beaming. “Zat was fantastic!” he declared, “He took my things and then did it his way – and the technique – fab, fab, fab!”
John Galliano delivered one of the most brilliant couture collections of the season. Prompted by his enjoyment of communicating through various digital hybrids during the pandemic, the designer balked at the prospect of returning to the old stripped-down white runway format for his Maison Margiela Artisanal collection. To him, it’s an inadequate arena for expressing the intense, allusive narratives which have always fueled his creativity. An epiphany came when he saw a stage production of Dracula by the British theatre company Imitating the Dog, who in the words of its director, “stitch together” videos of actors in real time. “I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to embrace fashion, theater, digital – all the cultures?” The producers collaborated with him to realize Cinema Inferno, the multidisciplinary fantastically-costumed American psycho-drama of dreams and nightmares that played out on stage, screens, and livestream from the Palais de Chaillot. Galliano’s model muses – the talented cast who’ve worked with him throughout the pandemic – plus a few grand supermodels lip-synced to a script following the misfortunes of a desperate pair of young lovers on the run. “They’re Hen and Count, driving through this mythical Arizona desert. They’re shot up,” Galliano narrated. “Then, we have what we call ‘spectral cowboys’ who come to assail them. Representatives of abuse of power, whether it’s the judge, the preacher, medicine, certain toxic relationships, patriarchal societies, and on and on.” In a preview at the theater, astonishing clothes were laid out waiting to embody the bloody, romantic tale in fragile whooshes of pastel tulle, brutally-cut tailoring, and twisted takes on 1950s haute couture and prom-scene Americana. The bad men – who came bristling with guns – had sandstorm-weathered coats whose shadowy, creviced surfaces were created with micro-beading, dégradé jacquard, and flocking. “Because this,” said Galliano, “is haute couture. The highest form of dressmaking!” Unfortunately, the collection’s look-book features only 9 looks – so you are more than welcome to watch the full performance to catch a glimpse of these wearable artworks.
Of course, Galliano has known his way around the highest form of dressmaking since his time at Christian Dior – and even before. Since the days of his eponymous collection, ideas revolving around characters from the 1920s to the ’50s have populated his collections, and the deconstruction and reconstruction of period clothing. So this was in every sense, a show set in Galliano’s mental landscape. This time, though, there was an inescapably darker haunting of trauma and violence behind the stunning sequences of clothes – of nurse’s coats in the mint-greens of hospital scrubs, the watermelon pouffes of the evil mother’s gown, the diaphanous trapeze dresses and abstracted prom dresses constructed from several gowns sewn together. Why choose this time to delve into an American narrative? Superficially, it was about the movies: “Films that have had a huge impact on the man I am today. A Streetcar Named Desire, Natural Born Killers, Suddenly Last Summer.” But beneath that runs a more personal thread. It’s no coincidence that Arizona, where the performance was notionally set, is the state where Galliano underwent rehab in 2011. It’s the place where he faced his demons. Did that make these recurring nightmares swirling around sin, sex, death, and parental and societal abuse subconsciously autobiographical? Galliano nodded. At the end of the show there was a smashed ‘black mirror’ dress, a symbolic reflection of the psychological impossibility of fully escaping memory – even in ‘recovery’ – if ever there was one. “Because, as you see in the show, our protagonists keep falling into these dreams. The whole thing is based on a loop. An endless loop.” There is much more of this self-revelation to come next year when a documentary about Galliano, made by director Kevin Macdonald, will premiere. Galliano says it’s been “like going to confession.”
To be honest with you, this haute couture season didn’t really start for me until Balenciaga happened. The 51st Balenciaga haute couture collection. And the second coming from Demna. Nobody knew what to expect, the anticipation had the fashion insiders on an ecstatic high on a mid-week morning, and in the end, he didn’t dissapoint. To the sound of a love poem voiced by AI, a breed of haute couture humanoids encased in black neoprene, their faces uniformly erased in high-tech reflective face shields, stalked the Balenciaga haute couture salon. It looked like an invasion by a sinister breed marching on their spiked, chiseled space boots, ready to take over the earth once humanity has wiped itself out. This was Demna’s dystopian introduction to his latest couture collection for the house, which he shows annually. “This year I decided that I needed to put more of myself into it, and kind of find a new future, you know?” he said afterwards. “This is why the lineup started with very otherworldly, almost futuristic neoprene looks, which was my idea of interpreting gazar in 2022.” Invention, and taking time over it, is central to moving the art of couture forward. Famously, gazar was the sculptural silk which Cristobal Balenciaga invented with the fabric manufacturer Abrahams in 1958, in order to create the magnificently voluminous gowns he became known for. Demna’s equivalent – shaped into these wickedly kinky hyper-molded second-skin scuba dresses and tailored jackets – was engineered with a new kind of neoprene, made in collaboration with a sustainably-oriented Japanese manufacturer.
In the second half of the show, where faces were revealed, Demna’s friends, muses, and brand ambassadors walked. Kim Kardashian in a deep-plunge corset and draped skirt. Demna’s musician husband BFRND in opera gloves and a couture tank-top. Nicole Kidman in a silver gown. Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid in draped pops of colour. Eliza Douglas in the most perfect hourglass coat. Renata Litvinova in an all-black feather-mad cocktail dress. Naomi Campbell was the ultimate Balenciaga Maleficent. But back to his motivation for a minute. Last season, Demna caused a sensation by dealing with the stark, tailored elegance of the Balenciaga couture aesthetic. Now, he was putting himself first – owning an haute couture version of the streetwear that he has been responsible for elevating to designer fashion status. Hoodies, sweatshirts, worn-out denim, and parkas – some made of upcycled originals, others shot with aluminium to create crinkled couture-like volumes – followed the dystopian Balenciaga neoprene tribe. The commercial conundrum he faces is finding a way to connect couture with the following that is his main, democratically-based youth constituency – represented by all the outside spectators whose cheers poured in through the salon windows as the sidewalk turned into a celebrity-spotting event.
To square that circle, a new Balenciaga couture shop had opened on the Avenue Georges V, where certain limited edition items, like the upcycled pieces, Balenciaga souvenir porcelain figurines, and the ‘Speaker’ bag toted in the show can be bought. “There are items that will be ready to buy already. After the last show, people started to ask me, ‘how do we buy it?’ People, especially from the younger generation of maybe up-and-coming couture customers, don’t know, and we want to establish the dialogue. Create some kind of an entry to the salon.” But in a sense, Demna was also meeting Cristobal coming back. The arc of the show, he said, “was going from future into the past.” Thus the hyper-extravagance and drama of the vast crinolines and slinky, draped, train-trailing of his celebrity-walked finale. It’s still a debate whether the bride who couldn’t walk through the doors and struggled a lot to move in her heavily embellished dress was an art performance or an actual runway casualty. I’m fine with both versions of the story.
If it was more personal this season, there was a touching reason behind it. Explaining the AI-voiced poem at the opening of the show, Demna said they were the words of a love poem he’d written to his husband. “Because je t’aime is the most beautiful word in the language to me. I realized that couture, what I do, is the only thing I love doing and I want to be doing. And somehow this was a love letter to the person I love most in my life, and to the work, the art that I do. Both.”
This Chanel haute couture certainly won’t appear in fashion history books, but it did please the eye. For Virginie Viard, her collections reflect the pragmatic needs and desires of the house’s clients and her own eclectic but never fantastical sources of inspiration. Not for Viard the sweeping statements of her mentor Karl Lagerfeld, who might impose a powerful new silhouette on practically every look in a collection, but instead a sense of gentle evolution and a myriad of references and inspiration sparks that might range (as in this collection) from a blinding memory of Inès de Fressange dressed by Lagerfeld in a jacket of bright grass green and shocking pink (for a 1988 Chanel couture show, when Viard first joined the house), to a shot of Fred Astaire in cinematic action, the tails of his white tie evening coat caught flaring out in mid-dance move, to a 19th century shot of a real-life Annie Oakley, to archive Chanel references from slouchy 1920s day suits to slithery 1930s gowns to prim 1960s tailoring, to Lagerfeld’s vividly impressionistic sketches from the 2000s. None of these references, however, are used by Viard literally, but instead serve as starting points for outfits that evolve with the input of the textile designers and makers who weave those extraordinary painterly tweeds, and the dressmakers who understand how to make perfect pleats that “move beautifully,” as guest Sigourney Weaver enthused, “and are just so elegant.” That Astaire flare, for instance, might translate into the kick at the hem of a calf length skirt, the Oakley image into a dirndl skirt with practical pockets that encourage a certain assertive body language, the ’30s house archive references into slinky evening dresses deftly cut to fall straight to the floor when standing still, but that break into swirling movement below the knee when the wearer walks. To set the scene, Viard reached out again to the artist Xavier Veilhan who created a Constructivist set for the spring couture collection. This time, Veilhan built a series of structures that formed a symbolic landscape (arches, bullseye targets, mobiles, cubes of bubblegum pink recycled plastics) in the sandy outdoor stadium of the equestrian L’Étrier de Paris center in the Bois de Boulogne. Guests walked through or around these structures before moving indoors to more sand and a set of kinetic color blocks in black, white, sand yellow, and gray. This gently suggested something of the art deco flavor to the drop-waisted dresses and linear shapes that appeared in some looks in the collection. The symphonic soundtrack, created by Viard’s friend Sébastien Tellier, was set to a video projected on a giant screen as a backdrop to the parade of girls, an impressionistic clip that featured an varied cast including Charlotte Casiraghi and Pharrell Williams. That eclecticism continued with the clothes, showcasing amazing textiles – lace painted in resin; a shower of embroidered leaves on a white tulle trapeze dress, shadowing a print of the same motif underneath; an all-over deco print on a bell-skirted coat dress that on closer inspection turned out have been entirely beaded in sequins by Lesage; or tufts of ostrich plumes painstakingly applied to black chiffon and glimpsed through the openings in a streamlined trench coat of textured black tweed.