These days fewer than half of the houses unveiling their new spring collections on the Parisian haute couture catwalks are French. Italian couturiers Valentino, Armani and Versace are correspondent members with an established couture clientele.
The new kids on the block at last week’s Paris Haute Couture Week were the Chinese, while Middle East designers, led by Lebanon’s Elie Saab, are now an integral part of the schedule.
Saab and fellow Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad, who are guest members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, would have to relocate their main ateliers to Paris to qualify for full membership, but their sparklingly dressed clientele illustrates the huge international demand for their work.
Other big regional names include Georges Hobeika, also Lebanese, and Dubai’s Syrian designer, Rami Al Ali, who show their designs off-schedule.
The emphasis as always is on evening wear from Saab, Murad, Hobeika and Al Ali, especially with the Oscars only a few weeks away. Saab, who recently dressed actresses Emily Blunt, Rachel McAdams and Eva Green, and Hobeika who dressed Eva Longoria, offer plenty for the stars to choose from. Saab’s spring collection is inspired by India’s Edwardian female explorers, and featured scores of high-neck, long-sleeved silhouettes in white and grey lace with raindrop crystals and pretty tiaras.
There was a strong narrative to this collection, with tabards over silk trousers that were tucked into trekking boots, and luxurious leather binoculars and saddlebags. However, there were many red-carpet dresses in silk and organza, with one gown featuring a big white tulle princess skirt.
Al Ali thinks big skirts are making a comeback, as he explained during his presentation at the Le Meurice Hotel Paris: “Fashion is more dressed up with big skirts of the 1940s and 1950s, I think we are going back to that feminine era, with lots of volume and fabric.”
He backed this theory up with a rich blue strapless gown and sculpted 1950s-style dresses, their skirts belling out from high waistlines.
Murad similarly focused on a bell-shaped skirt, sometimes shown as a mini-crini with corsetry and embroidered flowers meandering over the trellis-like construction. The alternative was ball dresses: short at the front and swooping down into long trains at the back. There was plenty of volume in the princess skirts and lots of feminine embroidery that’s bound to attract attention on the red carpet.
A relative newcomer is Yacine Aouadi, a Marseille-raised Algerian who worked with Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy before starting his own couture collection last season. Aouadi’s 1920s theme has historic references but a modern silhouette – a buff suede tunic with a racerback is layered with silicon mesh lace and crystal embroidery.
“Handmade craftsmanship is very important to me, so my priority is haute couture,” says Aouadi when asked why he didn’t start with ready-to-wear, like most designers – an exquisite tweed coat constructed from feathers that took 1,500 hours to make is a big investment for a young couturier.
Giambattista Valli showed five spectacular tulle ball gowns, but also some enchanting little dresses with lots of dainty daisy and blossom embroideries.
Ralph & Russo similarly had a 1950s vibe for their collection, but that is the default setting for this house with big glamorous gowns in pastels with exquisite embroideries. Craftsmanship is the defining factor of haute couture these days.
Karl Lagerfeld concentrated on a few key silhouettes, mostly 1920s-inspired, and a dreamy palette of cream bamboo and mahogany, and then let loose on the super craftsmanship of Chanel’s Métiers d’Art ateliers. His Eco-Luxe collection unveiled dresses decorated with wood mosaic and wood-shaving embroideries, paillettes, feathers and fine pleating.
Valentino’s artisans are equally as gifted, producing antique gold-printed velvet tabards, Delphic white dresses and embroidered kimonos that could take 2,000 hours or more each to make.
It was a romantic and wonderfully lyrical collection from designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, who were inspired by the Venetian textile alchemist Mariano Fortuny and Byzantium this season.