Just a few hours to go before the French haute couture shows kick off, and Parisians wanting a taste of the visual delicacies to come can peer at a string of giant black and white photos at the end of the Rue Faubourg St-Honoré, one of the most popular shopping areas in Paris. These preview the futuristic collection of the rising star Anne Valerie Hash, who will show her haute couture collection at the Galerie Valois, close to the Louvre museum.
The striking photos illustrate Hash's complicated patterns and masterfully draped fabric, and they have already served their purpose. It's only day one of fashion week and they are already the talking point. It's no surprise that Hash, a home-grown French designer, is being recognised so publicly. Or that she has been chosen to close the calendar of shows on Thursday, ensuring the four-day event finishes on a high.
Hash graduated from the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture school in 1995 and won the National Association for the Development of the Arts of Fashion's prestigious award for a promising young fashion designer in 2003. Her debut show in 2001 featured garments that were essentially trousers laid flat and restructured into something unrecognisable. This set a new benchmark for conceptual fashion in a luxury market that is more famous for its meticulous attention to detail and full-on, old-fashioned feminine glamour - something we say yesterday at Dior and Armani Privé.
Another French designer, Alexis Mabille, starts the spring/summer 2009 shows just a year after making his debut. His show Monday featured a rather radical departure for haute couture: menswear. And with most of the menswear industry still in town after the autumn/winter 2009 ready-to-wear menswear shows ended last night, why not? The Chambre Syndicale, the French clothing industry body that runs both the ready-to-wear and haute couture shows in Paris is determined not to let any opportunity slip by.
These are hard times, and who knows what is around the corner. Many American buyers stayed away from the menswear shows on account of the global downturn despite the fact that the rising British star Gareth Pugh took the late spot last night with his highly anticipated new menswear line. Paris is swarming with limos and bodyguards. Haute couture clients began arriving on Friday. Some have already been picking out pieces for their wardrobe. During a sneak preview at the Paris showrooms of the Lebanese designer Georges Chakra (who shows today) he told me he has already taken several orders from customers who couldn't wait to see the show.
Chakra, who dresses several Middle Eastern royal families and launches his first ready-to-wear line during New York fashion week, has experimented with a see-through malleable plastic for his haute couture line, which he presents today. He is backing a new silhouette, which is utterly feminine: slim shoulders, corseted torso, tiny waist and full skirt. The rarefied world of made-to-measure clothes is not simply about the perfect fit or cut, however. Chakra perfectly exemplifies the haute couture designer's extraordinary attention to detail and pushing of boundaries. It's often on closer inspection of a dress that seemed merely "magnificent" on a catwalk that you realise the effort and workmanship behind it.
Window gazing is catching on in Paris (why not, when so few are actually shopping?). As well as Hash's pictures, further up the street in Rue Saint-Honoré, the fashion boutique Colette is predictably fashion-forward with its window display. It features the bizarre moulded latex "car crash couture" dresses that Hussein Chalayan showed in his spring/summer 2009 pret-a-porter show. They appear to be suspended in motion, rather like the movie The Matrix, with icicle-like spikes shooting out the back.
Close up, Chalayan's work is conceptual but that's all it is. In comparison, Hash and Chakra fuse conceptual art with fashion and make it wearable and beautiful.