Twice yearly, the fashion world waits with bated breath for the couture shows, and the outpouring of unrestricted creativity that it signifies. Entirely handmade, this universe may feel disconnected to the real world. Yet, despite the hours of work and staggeringly high prices, the ideas unleashed here go on to influence what we will all be wearing next year. Haute couture is the epicentre from where ready-to-wear creations (and the facsimiles that end up on the high street) take their cues.
At this year's autumn/winter shows, Givenchy's artistic director Clare Waight Keller dedicated her 42-look couture collection to the label's founder, the late Hubert de Givenchy. Entitled Caraman – after the house where Givenchy showed his first couture collection in 1959 – the show was a breathtaking journey through the founder's signature silhouettes, including capes, the sack dress, and the boat neck (recently seen on Meghan Markle's wedding dress). Featuring impeccable cuts, some as dramatic sweeps of fabric and others in sculptural forms to stand free of the body, there were capes festooned in shimmering feathers, and a cinch-waisted strapless dress over a metallic bodice. Even the few men's pieces were exceptional, with tailcoats extended to the floor and lined with silver.
Rami Al Ali delivered his 14th couture collection, this time choosing to focus on the patterning of art deco for inspiration. Signature dense beadwork descended the bodice of one strapless gown in metallic blocks before trailing away over azure pleating, while a halterneck gown in devore teal velvet was covered in intricately woven geometry – like New York's Chrysler Building made fluid.
Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior seemed to shun the razzamatazz of dressing for social media with her couture collection, choosing instead to focus on the beauty of understated gowns, and the importance of the women who make it, and those who actually wear it. In a space lined with the pristine white toiles (the working prototype of each look), almost 70 looks paraded past, each focused on an elegant dignity rather than look-at-me attention-seeking.
Seemingly still fascinated with the Dior silhouette of the 1950s, many of Chiuri's pieces carried the full-skirted shape that made the house famous in the first place, starting in shades of inky navy through cream, blush, grey, rose, as well as shades of nude matched to each model's skin tone. The couture details were exactly that – details – peeking through as the precise pleats that fell from wasp waists, or as a breathtaking hand-appliqued, landscape-patterned coat.
With sublime simplicity, gowns featured impeccable drop waists that fitted perfectly around hips, and cape-sleeved tuxedo suit jackets were cut from a single piece of fabric. Masterful and discreet, this collection was not about Instagram following, but about putting the supreme beauty of couture back on the pedestal where it belongs.
At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld delivered a sonnet to Paris, set on a re-creation of the banks of the River Seine (complete with art sellers) in predominately gritty greys that reflected the surrounding buildings. Chic and cuttingly urbane, Lagerfeld's collection was achingly beautiful, with dresses in tweed columns slashed to the hip (with sleeves to match), in beribboned sheer tulle or densely covered with sequins that gleamed like rain on wet pavements. Mini dresses were covered over in floor-length tulle, caught at the neck and hips, and the gowns, when they appeared, were diaphanous, teamed with beaded sweaters and finished with fingerless opera gloves.
Giambattista Valli, meanwhile, looked to a newer, younger audience for his collection, with multiple looks of bandeau tops and exposed midriffs, which instantly excludes any woman over the age of 20. Valli's fondness for exaggerated outlines appeared here as vaguely 1960s-era looks, which ranged from tweedy crop tops and feather-trimmed miniskirts to snug-fitting mini dresses with enormous leg-of-mutton sleeves. Other dresses had slashed sides, exposing jutting hip bones, while one of the strongest looks was a fiery red taffeta tracksuit top that segued into a full-blown train. More trains were part of intricately beaded baby-doll dresses, and with cream, feather-trimmed trouser suits. Valli's love of volume showed in a billowing ruffle-necked maxi dress, and a beautiful, dishevelled and layered tulle mini/maxi gown.
Iris van Herpen is the architect of couture, bound to science and physics, yet conjuring gravity-defying pieces from the sheerest of silks. This season's collection was called Syntopia and was about "slowing down the movement of fabric", which was translated as complex structures made from even more complex techniques. Liquid-coated Japanese organza entombed the body in gossamer pleats, while wool was laser-cut into helix patterns as complicated as the buildings blocks of life itself. Organza was also heat-bonded to cotton and carved into dresses, with layers left to fall in undulating folds down the body, like soundwaves. Even the head was part of the sculpture, encased in jagged pleats or caught in metallic discs.
There is a very particular insouciance about Armani Prive's collections, and this couture show was no exception. A collection in two halves, the first conversation was about shades of nude and black, with staples such as loose silken trousers and sharp-shouldered jackets with and without lapels. Details were discreet, such as a checkerboard quilting, tiny tulle frills on seams and a single molten metal sleeve on a black velvet gown. A velvet cape had trompe l'oiel arms folded over the top, while a champagne dress had make-believe bows stitched all over. The second half of the collection was much brasher, in shocking pinks and turquoise, and frothy feathers.
For Maison Margiela, John Galliano seemed to be exploring ideas about global nomads, and the notion of – literally – carrying one's life on one's back, sending out looks that were walking jumble sales of layering. However, being couture, the pieces (if taken one at a time) were staggering. Crumpled metallic dresses were crushed under see-through silk trenches (that had ostrich feathers sandwiched between layers). Quilted jacquard coats were belted haphazardly over gossamer tulle slip dresses, and industrial foam was folded into cloche hats, held fast with string. Dresses and jackets were stripped back to component parts, over skirts of plastic squares and knotted raincoats. Faces were covered with coloured mesh and virtual reality glasses, while plastic bags became hats, and tights were worn over shoes. As befitting the selfie era, the only adornment were mobile phones, clamped to ankles. The beauty of haute couture is that pure talent is allowed to shine through, and none shone more brightly than Galliano.
It is no easy trick to take the surreal heritage of a house like Schiaparelli and translate it for modern life, but Bertrand Guyon has done just that. A cinch-waisted wrap dress had watchful eyes embroidered onto the breastbone, while a Prussian blue jumpsuit had its gleaming satin trousers swept up and over a shoulder. Elsewhere, the house pink appeared in a dress so huge, it seemed filled with air, while a cropped jacket had sleeves that ended in gloves. The beautiful strangeness continued with Stephen Jones's glorious headpieces – a golden lop-eared rabbit and dancing flamingos – before concluding in a gloved satin dress splashed with leopard print so delicate it could well have been a Rorschach test.
More surrealism appeared at Jean Paul Gaultier, in the form of column dresses topped with rectangular Perspex capes in an almost entirely monochromatic collection. Typically for Gaultier, the theme varied from club punk to performance piece, but by far the strongest looks seemed to stem from Morocco, circa 1930, with boxy suits and fringed fezes. The outline of a suit was superimposed, black on black, over a billowing kaftan, while a tuxedo jacket was recut into a cape over a skirt of balloon-hemmed creamy silk. The few men had moustaches and smoked pipes, while one even had a shisha shaped like an umbrella strapped to his back.
Anyone who has seen first-hand the splendour of Gaudi's architecture in Barcelona, will have recognised it as the inspiration behind Elie Saab's latest couture show. Here, the cracked mosaic of Parque Guell appeared on fabric, as sinuous lines that echoed the body, or as lines of spidery golden beading. Yet, the secret to Saab's work is more than its inspiration. Hailing from Beirut, Saab's skill in creating gowns drenched in feminine charisma is in his DNA, and this is merely its latest iteration. With a palette that began with champagne and antiqued silver, before giving way to spicy red, emerald, cobalt and a regal, almost iridescent purple, this procession of 63 gowns oozed silver screen glamour.
Zuhair Murad really threw down the gauntlet to his atelier with this collection, which was so heavily beaded and embroidered, it must have challenged even his highly skilled petit mains. Drawing on military finery and ecclesiastical needlework, this was astonishing handwork – even by haute couture standards. Showing he is not just a man of red-carpet gowns (although he does them so well), Murad showed his breadth here – such as with a black velvet tailcoat, cropped neatly over matching trousers, and lavish cavalry gilt frogging around neck and cuffs (neatly offset by red piping).
Elsewhere, the same idea was translated into something entirely feminine as a powder blue crystal jacket over a draped, asymmetric chiffon cocktail gown. Another look was a silken army green off-the-shoulder dress, with naval buttons, and cut high in the front to show off the undershorts. Even as a house so known for its beadwork, the level of work was simply staggering, making it hard to single out a look above all others, yet if pressed, it would have to be a sharply cut velvet jacket and shorts, in deepest blood red and weighed down with metalwork. Clasped through the waist with a velvet band, and matched with over-the-knee boots, this was embroidery made modern.
The double F motif of Fendi stands for Fun Furs, leaving it at risk of being a relic of the past in this new fur-free era – so it was interesting to see the couture show had a whole swathe of looks that were devoid of it altogether. A neck-to-knee bodysuit shimmered with pale pink sequins and was worn under a delicate tulle shift, while a glossy art deco-print skirt sat under a decadent ostrich jacket. Where the skill of the house really showed was the opening coat, made of chiffon cut to look like fur, and an austere skirt suit, covered in sequins so dense, it looked like astrakhan.
Fittingly, the couture shows ended with Valentino, who under the guidance of Pierpaolo Piccioli delivered a show so beautiful, which spoke of a life so fabulous, we can all only dream of it. A molten gold column dress, with a neck tie that trailed to the floor, was followed by a full-skirted gown in grey, gold, red and burnt sienna, and patchworked with applique bull heads and figures. Model Kaia Gerber looked otherworldly in a gown of oversized petals made in the softest pink ostrich. Skipping through colours of tangerine, emerald, cerise and cornflower blue came dresses so huge, they spilt off shoulders, sat high and off the waist, or framed the torso like rays from the sun.