Haute Couture Week round-up: experimentation at Valentino and nostalgia at Zuhair Murad

While things are not yet back to normal on Paris runways, a sense of optimism abounds

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“It’s always good to be back, but it’s not the same,” says Beiruti couturier Rami Kadi. “It’s not like Paris was before the pandemic – it’s very quiet. A lot of clients are not here.”

Rabih Kayrouz echoes his compatriot’s thoughts. “Customers are not back physically; we are still doing lots of appointments remotely online, even for the journalists. Actually,” he admits. “I like this kind of presentation, with a film of the collection online and showroom appointments, rather than a catwalk show.”

It is Haute Couture Week in Paris, and fashion shows are anything but back to normal, with strict Covid-19 protocols for each presentation and seating capacity ruthlessly slashed. The Valentino show, presented at its Paris headquarters, only seated 65 people, whereas normally you would expect 300 or more.

Some designers cautiously cancelled shows, such as Giorgio Armani and Azzaro, but Zuhair Murad decided at the last minute to stage an exclusive presentation, despite Omicron raging through the city, as a bit of a morale booster. His venue was the gilded ballroom of The Westin Paris hotel, which back in the day was the location of Yves Saint Laurent’s famous haute couture collections.

Murad’s collection of finely corseted and beaded gowns on glamazon models in pirate hats captured a bit of that bygone couture romance. His vintage navigation chart prints and constellation embroideries on siren gowns and treasure-chest of jewels dripping over jackets offered escapism from our current reality.

At the Musee Rodin, surrounded by vivid tapestries of Hindu goddesses, hand-embroidered by the Chanakya School of Craft in Mumbai, Maria Grazia Chiuri talked of her collection for Christian Dior. Of it being an investment in human connection, of handcrafted construction, and a recognition of the people in the ateliers that work with her to create the collections.

For summer, crystallised in black, white and Dior grey, the look was quiet and controlled, with long sleek capes, pleated dresses and trouser suits. However, it was the painstaking detail in the craftsmanship and construction – halter dresses made from one piece of mesh or jacquard held together by embroidery and jumpsuits completely constructed from embroidery – that stood out. The evanescent patterns that subtly blended into the colour of the dresses, giving them a calm gleam, were examples of this finesse.

As Chiuri explained in the programme notes: “Embroidered patterns become the central element and are transformed by a vision that makes the atelier a collaborative mode of expression, where haute couture is a form of constant experimentation and questioning.”

In the wider context of experimenting and questioning, we are seeing the start of a resetting of some of couture’s values. For instance, Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Anatomy of Couture moved away from the stereotypical tall, skinny model body shape of the fashion catwalk to show his Valentino collection on a range of beautiful models of different ages and sizes, exploring how a body’s physique evolves with age.

It was a democratising move, resulting in sensuous looks such as fuller-figured models in off-the-shoulder long and midi dresses or an elegant ivory dolman sleeve top paired with a curvy metallic sequin fishtail skirt. In keeping with current trends, there were plenty of micro skirts as well, worn with beautifully decorated coats and black hosiery.

Piccioli’s thoughtful move reflects society’s shift towards body empowerment, so it is interesting to juxtapose his views with that of Thierry Mugler, who died the day before haute couture week began. Mugler once described fashion as “3D art on a human being”.

In the late 1970s and ‘80s he, along with Claude Montana, defined power dressing, reconfiguring the body with big-shouldered 1940s silhouettes of an exaggerated scale – body armour for the new female executive. He also produced body-moulding corsets, worn by the siren supermodels for his catwalk spectaculars and provocatively recorded in Helmut Newton’s glamorously slick black-and-white photographs of the era.

More recently, Mugler created the flesh-coloured latex concoction dripping in crystals for Kim Kardashian to wear to the Met Gala in 2019 and tour pieces for Beyonce. His ideas were avant-garde and revolutionised haute couture at the time, as can be seen in the current exhibition Thierry Mugler: Couturissime at Paris’s Musee des Arts Decoratifs, on until April 24.

Schiaparelli opened this week’s Paris collections and the combination of Mugler’s death a day earlier, and the return of Daniel Roseberry’s collections to the catwalk after Covid, proved an emotional experience for many. There was a sense of loss for those departed, but also a celebration of survival and renewal.

Roseberry’s memorable collection, graphically portrayed in black, white and gold (a monochromatic colour palette is a trend this season) embraced similar extreme silhouettes, with exaggerated collars and shoulders for jackets and dresses. Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist heritage was never far away: present in details such as gold palm trees sprouting from the shoulder of a jacket, playful chest-of-drawer handbags, and gold body-part and planetary jewellery.

Couture heritage with reference to Balenciaga and Balmain’s design architecture of the late 1950s and early ‘60s influenced the strong shapes of the luxurious brocades in Maison Rabih Kayrouz’s collection. Juxtaposing the structured pieces were trouser suits with easy fluid silhouettes and long billowing evening gowns in brown, ivory and an uplifting orange.

Eveningwear is the linchpin of haute couture and designers such as Alexandre Vauthier, Olivier Theyskens at Azzaro and Alexis Mabille devote themselves to the craft of making desirable party wear. Stand out looks at Alexis Mabille were a crystal diamond mesh dress with a spine of small bows (a Mabille signature) stacked from chin to toe, and a dramatic black cape with a giant bow collar over a catsuit.

Partygoers would be spoilt for choice at Alexandre Vauthier. With Covid-19 restrictions ending and a pent-up desire to release some energy on the dance floor, Vauthier’s ruffled minidresses are made for the role. It should be remembered that Vauthier’s early career was spent working with Mugler and so there were metallic fabrics, power dressing’s exaggerated jackets over miniskirts and bias-cut dresses (for extra drapery), oozing an overall air of decadence.

Feathery minidresses are a bit of a trend, also appearing in Kadi’s collection. Another experimenter, with an eye on technology, Kadi’s collection was “co-designed” with his computer. He programmed in the shapes, colours, patterns and textures he likes, creating an algorithm by which the computer designed multicoloured swag-beaded mini dresses, intricately beaded jackets over metallic mesh skirts and lots of feathery tulle gowns. Of course, Kadi had the final say on the designs but clearly, he is pushing boundaries.

The use of technology was a reminder of what we have been through in the past two years, with communication reduced to a computer screen. This was how Theyskens learnt to work with Azzaro, over Zoom, when he joined the house just before the pandemic.

Founded in the 1970s by Loris Azzaro, the maison is famed for its shiny eveningwear and Theysken's simple retro-vintage lurex tunic-pant combinations, minidresses, draped jersey, spangled evening gowns and louche pantsuits are an expression of the house’s DNA.

What was particularly pleasing is that Azzaro’s alluring partywear theme, like many of the collections, give a sense of optimism that normal life will eventually resume, even if it hasn’t quite yet.

Updated: October 14, 2022, 7:04 AM