Every January and July, when the haute-couture shows come around, the words “dying art” reappear. Certainly, the numbers confirm couture’s near-terminal status. In its golden age, during the late ’40s and early ’50s, some 30 couture houses produced collections. Last July, just 13 showed. With so much debt talk in the air and whole national economies teetering, it hardly seems politic to be swooning over gowns of handcut tulle covered in sequins that take months to make. Yet the irrational extravagance of dozens of petites mains toiling over beads and silk, devoting days to embroidering a single sleeve or manually curling goose feathers so they sit just so, is the very distinct excess that couture is about: It’s old-world bling. Take, for example, the dimpled pleats of an Azzedine Alaïa coat. The dropped waist, perfectly cut and tailored top jacket e and bell skirt look defiantly simple, yet each scooped-out indentation above the pleat has been carefully moulded and finished with cording. The Alaïa coat dresses demonstrate a tenet of couture: invisible craftsmanship. Valentino, too, mastered the light fantastic in Ophelia dresses of delicately glinting metallic lace and embroidery on tulle. The July couture shows also featured a few highwire debuts. Giambattista Valli aced it with glamorous Old Hollywood dresses: perfectly draped cocktail numbers in scarlets and corals and then some drama-queen Sunset Boulevard gowns that ended with a leopardprint bang.
The other show that everyone held their breath over was Bill Gaytten’s at Dior. His mashed-together Valley of the Dolls silk dresses, sherbet-coloured tieredorganza tops and thickly bunched pouf skirts were a post-mod head-on collision of crazy colours, textures and patterns that knocked your breath out—like a punch to the solar plexus. Jean Paul Gaultier’s show was a hodgepodge too, but at least he was referencing himself. His collection of floating trench dresses, Fair Isle sweaters and beribboned cone-bra bustiers was as exciting as a Greatest Hits album. Ditto Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, who shuffled together Boy George vibes and Edwardian silhouettes. Neither felt new—much less modern—which is haute couture’s other recurrent adjective (or, rather, wannabe adjective). Every designer talks about wanting to be modern and relevant, but few get their heads out of the archives. The exception is Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy: His 10 super-white gowns were nothing that Audrey Hepburn would ever have worn, but they have a purity that Hubert de Givenchy and Hepburn would have applauded. The Givenchy show made couture feel modern and assured us that rumours of its death—at least, for now—have been greatly exaggerated.
Our favourite haute-couture designers on the next page...
Text by Alannah O'Neill
THE ONE TO WATCH
GIAMBATTISTA VALLI’s couture debut was one of the most anticipated shows. He presented a collection of fanciful, sculptural and feminine cocktail frocks to a posh, celebrity-packed crowd. He later said that the belts, which were often paired with delicate chiffon gowns, were meant to suggest “the arms of a man around his woman.”
THE COMEBACK KID
After an eight-year runway hiatus, AZZEDINE ALAÏA returned to the couture runway with a collection that garnered rave reviews. At the culmination of the show, the notoriously shy designer had to be literally dragged onto the runway to receive his accolades from frontrow guests, which included Donatella Versace, Kanye West and Sofia Coppola— but not Anna Wintour, who was reportedly banned from the show.
Toronto-based socialite SYLVIA MANTELLA’s first couture piece was a vintage Pierre Balmain corset from a Paris boutique. “It wasn’t made for me,” she says. “I’ve never worn it—but it was so exquisite, and it peaked my interest in couture.” Mantella, who frequently attends the Paris shows, has an extensive and enviable collection. Her most recent acquisition is a lavish coral Giambattista Valli gown. “The dress is outstanding. They took my measurements, and I’ll be going for my second fitting soon.” While some gasp at couture’s extravagant price tag—$10,000 and up—Mantella doesn’t flinch. “Some people collect Renoirs,” she says. “My husband collects ancient fossils. I collect couture. It’s important to support the craft.”
Giovanni Bedin went back to the archives to create his collection, channelling ladies fashions from the 1850s that made the HOUSE OF WORTH a name synonymous with couture. Inspired by panniers and structured cages, each look took more than 300 hours to create. A quick history lesson: Charles Frederick Worth, who is known as the “father of haute couture,” staged the first fashion shows, pioneered the idea of fashion seasons and was one of the first male designers to create fashions for women, including dresses for the masses.
The program notes for Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli’s couture collection for the House of VALENTINO revealed the exacting detail that went into every piece. A gold herringbone mosaic suit involved 500 hours of atelier work, and it took 1,200 hours to place the pearls on a single tulle gown. Inspired by czarist Russia and old-world glamour, the designers said that it reflected their “vibrant desire for decadent abandon.”
THE COOL KID
“Purity,” said Riccardo Tisci when asked for the inspiration behind his collection for the House of GIVENCHY. “I try to find the light in darkness,” he told the press. His show, themed “Clouds, Birds of Paradise and Tears of Angels,” featured celestial-looking models walking the runway to Popol Vuh’s “The Wrath of God.” One ethereal gown featured crystal drops, which Tisci called “tears of angels,” laid into the tulle to mimic ostrich skin.
THE TASTE MAKER
For the CHANEL haute-couture show, Karl Lagerfeld transformed the Grand Palais into a replica of the landmark Parisian square, Place Vendôme. He held the show after 10:30 p.m.—a fashion first—to adequately convey the mood of the collection, placing models on a runway that glistened like wet asphalt. A statue of Napoleon resides over the real Place Vendôme, but at the Grand Palais, the Emperor’s likeness was replaced by that of Coco Chanel. “She’s a little chicer than Napoleon,” said Lagerfeld mildly.
“The collection is about androgyny,” said Lagerfeld. “I very much like the idea of two attitudes for women. Chanel was like this. She made very romantic dresses, but she also had the look she invented, which was taken from Austrian men’s clothes and English suit jackets.”