Notes from Paris, Fall/Winter 2009-2010 | Written by Long Nguyen
Suddenly, a cloudless, warm, beautiful July afternoon in Paris took on the characteristics of an impending rainstorm, replete with dark skies, sudden, cold winds, and thunderous roaring in the distance. I hurried into the Musée des Art Décoratifs to escape the downpour. It was hard to fathom that the couture show I’d come to see could possibly be Mr. Christian Lacroix’s last.
Hard to believe because Lacroix is the spirit of Paris haute couture incarnate—the ostentatious, hand-embroidered gowns, the joie de vivre in his colorful clothes, the delightful frivolity. One needn’t look hard for notable moments. Take the hand-painted chiffon dress from Spring 2005, reminiscent of the pastoral paintings depicting his native provincial Arles; or the flowing, multi-tiered lace, chiffon, and floral embroidered dress Natalia Vodianova wore in Fall 2002, which inarguably demonstrated the designer’s absolute command of craftsmanship.
When the LVMH group launched Christian Lacroix in 1987 as the first couture house in modern fashion, the luxury conglomerate banked on Mr. Lacroix’s capacity to translate couture into a business of ready-to-wear, accessories, and fragrances, none of which ever materialized. After acquiring the house in 2005, the Falic Group eliminated the budding Bazaar line of less expensive clothes, buttressing this business model of a couture-driven luxury brand. But filing for bankruptcy last May proved that a business strategy dependent on selling one-of-a-kind dresses was fatal.
Creating this season’s couture collection was a collective labor of love, uniting such renowned talent as embroiderers Lesage and Martin Hurel, the feather and floral specialist Bruno Legeron, shoe brands Roger Vivier and Bruno Frisoni, and certainly the atelier hands of fine seamstress Ms. Nadia, who has worked for Mr. Lacroix since Jean Patou. Without all these suppliers and craftsmen, couture could not continue.
The collection itself showed a high level of restraint and control, a devotion to the notion of Parisian chic, and a focus on shapes. Gone were the more theatrical costumes of past seasons. Though lacking in resources, Mr. Lacroix simply made the clothes charming, wearable, and devoid of the superfluos. Take, for instance, the midnight blue, long-sleeve, wool bell-shaped dress worn by model Hanne Odiele, or the black, one-shoulder, long wool dress with satin bow worn by Hanna Rundlof. At the end, the audience–a skeletal crew of editors and some die-hard clients–gave a standing ovation as two women unfurled a large banner that read “Lacroix Forever.”
No fashion house understands the business of couture like Chanel, whose show at the Grand Palais was centered around four, 50-foot-high replicas of the top selling No. 5 fragrance bottle, one of which transformed into a stage from which model Sasha Pivovarova emerged, opening the show in a wool, silver matte skirt suit with a train panel. The show, full of calm and romance, ended with the appearance of a married couple rising from another of the trademark fragrance bottles.
This season, Mr. Lagerfeld toyed with the graphic proportions of the clothes, introducing a tight and slimmer silhouette for suits and coats with model Amanda Sanchez’s brown tweed single-breasted coat and skirts. Another example was the flowing dress worn by Dorothea Barth Jorgensen, a black silk-draped dress with fur collar. Each look had an attached, elongated panel in the back to emphasize the visual proportions. The black and white embroidered dress worn by Milana Keller illustrated Lagerfeld’s understanding of how couture must translate the heritage of craftsmanship into a special outfit that a client can actually own and wear. The time for pure showmanship and fanfare has passed.
Sexy is an adjective rarely used to describe any couture collections, but John Galliano’s show for Dior certainly qualifies. The collection is inspired by a series of black and white documentary photographs of backstage scenes taken at Mr. Dior’s shows of nearly fifty years. Within the photographs, models are captured in various states of preparedness–applying makeup in bras, half-dressed and retouching their hair, or relaxing in their jackets and girdles. Mr. Galliano vividly brought these photographs to life, staging the show inside the maison’s grey salons, and continuing to imbue collection after collection with tales and souvenirs of foreign lands, demonstrating Dior’s real strength: its heritage.
Mr. Galliano instilled the house’s classic New Look with new palettes of dazzling bright fuchsia, sunlit orange, and neon yellow, and by using flesh tone girdles, underskirts and bras to emphasize the multiple manifestations of the new A-line jackets, many with folded and fading lapels. It’s easy to imagine these tailored jackets translating into ready-to-wear. As each girl descended the small staircase between the floors and posed at each opportune moment along the way, the collection became what a couture show ought to be: intimate and poignant.
A fashion designer’s work is a long and continuous journey from one collection to the next, but Alexis Mabille has already begun to develop a signature look in just his fourth full season. The former bowtie designer’s collection (whose shoes, handbags, and belts are now decorated with bows) is casual, romantic, and distinctly French, proposing a fashion approach that walks the line between couture and ready-to-wear.
Mr. Mabille is a designer who knows what a new generation of customers want to wear and he caters specifically to them. His collection featured fabrics common in couture, like guipure lace or organdy chiffon, but cut into silhouettes in such a way that the models—such as Bojana Reljic in an ice blue organza and lace-trimmed short-sleeve blouse with matching flare skirt, or Kelli Lumi in a cotton double panel blouse and lace pants—looked as if they floated effortlessly from bed into their beautiful outfits. With some minor editing, the young designer’s vision will no doubt continue to grow strong and flourish.
Jean Paul Gaultier closed the Paris fall couture season with an homage to Hollywood big screen legends and heroines. The master designer equipped the runway, located at his rue Saint Martin headquarters, with sets of lights that simulated an actual movie shoot in progress. The show brought couture back into the realm of dream and fantasy, and, for a moment, the audience was transported far away from those economic realities that have trumped creative fashion. Gaultier’s clothes brought a magic that utterly confirms his command of couture techniques.
As images of Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, Mae West, Veronika Lake, and Louise Brooke were projected onto the back wall, their model counterparts stalked the elevated catwalk, each wearing outfits with a designated cinema theme: Lara Stone as Brigitte Bardot in a double-breasted leather trench, an outfit the show program dubbed “Le mépris”; Emina Cunmulaj as Catherine Deneuve wearing a velvet, sleeveless, embroidered corset and crepe skirt with satin appliqué; or Michelle Buswell as Marylin Monroe in a sparkling, silver crystal scoop neck dress.
If movies provide a brief escape from reality, then couture fashion can still inspire crowds to reverie, even now, when displays of flamboyance may seem inappropriate. No one doubts there’s a dark cloud moving quickly over couture-land, but just like in the movies where superheroes come to our rescue, this couture season, Jean Paul Gaultier saved the day.