The art of crafting couture.
“I AM very nervous. I have not been this nervous in years,” confessed Donatella Versace after her first presentation for Atelier Versace since 2004.
“I had not realised how much I missed haute couture, but now I feel the time is right, the world needs glamour.”
Versace is riding high following the smash hit success of her recent collaboration with high street retailer H&M. She finally felt ready to reclaim her haute couture credentials in Paris last week. “We are a house of haute couture, but I like mass market as well.”
To prove her point Versace sent out 15 body-sculpting goddess gowns, minis, biker jackets and a romper suit in zinging lime, orange and gold for her spring collection. It was sexy and it was colourful: sequined gowns, lacy laser-cut leather and an orange paillette mini-dress showed Versace and her atelier still have a flair for making a statement.
Gold strips moulded curvy silhouettes and slashed skirts revealed long limbs; clearly, these dresses are destined for the red carpet, especially with the Oscars looming. Versace, Armani and Elie Saab are the go-to designers for actresses during the awards season, and Oscar-nominee Berenice Bejo (The Artist) looked overwhelmed by the rabid media interest in her arrival at Saab’s show.
The Lebanese designer is popular with the Hollywood crowd and his pastel beaded gowns will be winners in the statuette season, while white-lace, full-skirted party dresses are perfect for the round of pre-Oscar events.
At Armani Prive, Jessica Chastain was tight-lipped about what she would wear to the Oscars. News of her nomination for best supporting actress in The Help arrived just before the show began, prompting a barrage of air-kisses and congratulatory shrieks from Cameron Diaz and her fellow front-rowers.
Coiled snake-print ball gowns, chrysalis-shaped skirts and venom-green dresses highlighted Armani’s slithery, reptilian theme. Even the jackets were sculpted in gilded crocodile resembling serpent scales.
The effect was dramatic and unexpectedly dark for Armani. “I always like the elegance, but what I liked about this was that it had a bit of an edge,” Chastain said.
The cut and intricate embellishment in the collections from Versace and Armani brought into focus the enduring skills found in the ateliers of couture houses.
Riccardo Tisci’s atelier at Givenchy reconstructed glamorous 1930s-style, bias-cut gowns in black or brown caviar beading and painstakingly mounted sueded crocodile scales on tulle backing to create a whisper-light dress. In 10 glorious outfits, Tisci mixed tradition with modernity, fitting zips that curved around a long bias skirt and tooling leather biker jackets with a patchwork of crocodile applique.
An emphasis on workmanship ran through all the shows, from Giambattista Valli to Valentino, and even this season to the unsettled house of Christian Dior. At Dior, which has been on shaky ground since the departure of troubled genius John Galliano, Bill Gaytten attempted to X-ray craftsmanship. Details such as stitching and layers of organdie normally hidden from view were accentuated on the exterior of vintage-style dresses.
The house signatures were present, from the Dior grey and monochrome palette to the checks and houndstooth patterns created with embroidered beading. Gauzy, full-skirted dresses looked light, fresh and easy-to-wear.
John Galliano is a hard act to follow. A number of names have been in the running for Dior’s top job, most recently Raf Simons, but perhaps Gaytten, who stood by Galliano for 16 years and has a couture background, is now a frontrunner instead of a fill-in.
Giambattista Valli, who trained with Capucci and Ungaro and has been fast-tracked to full haute couturier status in his second season by French fashion’s governing body, has a sprawling atelier and showroom just off the Place de la Madeleine.
Here “les petit mains” (as the seamstresses are known) spent weeks embellishing white dresses, capes and coats with embroidered flowers, crusty laces and feathers. These flamboyant, camera-ready creations will appeal to Valli’s young clientele.
There is a similarly dewy youthfulness to the Valentino collections, where designers Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri have an ability to charm and seduce. Party dresses and ball gowns were inspired by the bucolic 18th-century paintings of Fragonard and Watteau. Antique meadow flower and toiles de jouy prints and creamy Chantilly lace hovered prettily above lace slippers and printed loafers.
Jean Paul Gaultier found more recent inspiration for his collection, which paid tribute to Amy Winehouse. While an a capella group doo-wopped the late singer’s back catalogue, models vamped on the runway beneath colourful beehives wearing exuberant clothes that were a touch tarty. The troubled Winehouse might seem a dodgy premise for a collection in the rarefied world of couture, but exquisite corsetry, vivid taffeta trench coats and black tailored suits offered the necessary layers of luxe.
At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld exhausted tailors, beaders and embroiderers with a couture collection that borrowed every shade of blue from the Pantone colour chart. Had he been watching too much Pan Am? Was he thinking of Elvis’s Blue Moon? Either way, Lagerfeld’s flirty flight attendants swished down the aisle of Chanel’s aircraft set in slim dresses with low waistbands, 60s-style boat-neck collars and neat little jackets.
It was a far cry from Peter Morrissey’s uniforms for Qantas flight crew. Jewelled, beaded and sequined cocktail dresses were pure flights of fantasy. The only thing missing was Lagerfeld wheeling duty-free bottles of Chanel No.5 down the aisle.
Perhaps that would be flying too close to the business of fashion.