Spring/summer 2023 haute couture shows take inspiration from harlequins and French dancers

A glimpse into the gilded world of fashion that offers dreamy yet complex creations

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The fashion shows that unfolded during Paris Haute Couture Week offer a brief glimpse into the life of the ultra-rich, as well as a world of handmade clothes, spun from the finest of materials, by the deftest of hands.

While haute couture can offer headline-grabbing antics — think Schiaparelli’s lion’s headdress worn by Kylie Jenner a couple of days ago — for the most part, it orbits around extreme discretion, where the identities of clients are rarely discussed and prices are never divulged.

As a result, these elaborate shows are largely symbolic, as a visual spectacle to delight the senses, and as an opportunity to showcase the extraordinary skills of each house. While many of the looks on display will find home with the fortunate few, for the rest of us, haute couture week provides a peek behind the curtain into a gilded world driven by exceptional know-how.

Fendi

The opening look for Fendi's spring 2023 haute couture show.  AFP

Kim Jones referenced a world of fragile beauty with his spring haute couture collection for Fendi, his fifth outing for the house.

Apparently inspired by an archival Fendi couture gown created by his predecessor Karl Lagerfeld, Jones doubled down on the remarkable skill of the atelier in a truly exquisite collection.

Like other couture shows this season, this too had a lilting 1930s overtone, seen here as ravishing siren dresses, cut on the bias and made from raw silk — plain, silver patterned or plisse; chiffon entirely covered in tiny, hand-applied beads; and sequins in antiqued gold. More textured paillettes arrived as stoles, slung casually over the shoulder as the ultimate faux fur.

More chiffon was left as fragile edging, framing shoulders and necklines, while lace-trimmed lingerie peeked from the tops of dresses. Shifting through shades of cream, nude, bone, beige, pale silver, faded gold, soft pink and pale blue, the collection was handled with the lightest of touches, as hammered pewter that pooled around the hem of the opening look, an ivory shawl that caught around the hips of a pale blush dress, and a porcelain fabric that draped from the shoulder like a toga.

Viktor & Rolf

A model wears a dress upside down, as part of the Viktor & Rolf show. EPA

Masters at inciting humour into the dignified world of haute couture, Dutch design duo Viktor & Rolf delivered a compact show of only 19 looks, which offered creative takes on what was, essentially, the same dress.

Riffing around the idea of a 1950s strapless, full-skirted ball gown — in gorgeous pastel shades — the duo offered the dress in various iterations including with and without handwork, drop-waisted, lace-trimmed, tiered and with sleeves.

The first arrival was entirely as expected, but then the fun began as one dress arrived pulled up under the arms, another was tipped sideways, and a third was draped diagonally across the body like a sash. One look was upside down, and another was, delightfully, done horizontally.

While the antics revealed the shape wear worn by the models, which our grandmothers would have known as girdles, they also laid bare the extraordinary craftsmanship of a house that is able, quite literally, to turn fashion on its head.

Jean Paul Gaultier

Haider Ackermann for Jean Paul Gaultier during Paris Haute Couture Week. AFP

Since Jean Paul Gaultier stepped back from the couture house that carries his name, guest designers have been invited to step in. For spring 2023, French designer Haider Ackermann was handed the reins.

Delving into the archives, Ackermann found the rigorous tailoring that underpinned even JPG's zaniest moments and, leaning into this, he presented a collection that was nothing short of extraordinary.

The show opened with an impeccably tailored suit, its jacket constructed from woven strips, followed by an equally strictly cut jumpsuit with a cream top folded like origami.

Another slender-cut suit arrived with a sheer shirt fronted with feathers in royal blue, while the famous conical bra, first shown in 1984, made an appearance as the briefest of corset tops, worn with pleated trousers in olive green.

More corsetry appeared, now deconstructed and remade into a sculpted tunic dress over skinny-cut trousers, while a flax jumpsuit was also recut to become one-shouldered. Next, Ackermann lengthened the tuxedo jacket into a supremely striking, tight-waisted dress lined in turquoise and parakeet green, then oversized it into an opera coat in creamy shantung silk, its edges left raw.

Textured, intelligent and utterly splendid, the house could do worse than to appoint Ackermann full-time.

Ronald van der Kemp

A look crafted entirely from reclaimed materials at Ronald van der Kemp

To the notion that haute couture is one of the finest things money can buy, Ronald van der Kemp added perhaps the most precious thing of all: protecting the planet.

For spring 2023, the Dutch designer offered 39 glorious looks all constructed from deadstock — essentially fashion’s leftovers.

This translated into a sumptuous cape made from strips of different silks woven together, worn over one shoulder and teamed with a rich metallic skirt; a long sinuous dress decorated with pieces of metallic leather, scattered across the shoulders; and a black and silver fitted dress, beautifully cut to spiral around the body.

Elsewhere, an oversized bomber jacket was pieced from panels of metallic leather, and coral, yellow and black satin, and worn with knee-high boots covered in fabulous stars and stripes. Another dress seemed to be pieced together from diamonds of glossy pillar box red leather. A mini dress was made from shredded denim, while a stunning tuxedo was edged with silk tulle.

Giorgio Armani Prive

A dress in the Giorgio Armani Prive Haute Couture spring/summer 2023 collection is so delicate it looks like make-up on the skin. Getty Images

Giorgio Armani Prive delivered a sublime collection on Tuesday, in muted, elegant tones that are typical of the maison. Themed around the diamond patterning of a harlequin, this was far removed from anything brash and clownish, despite the odd ruff around the neck.

Instead, it was a pattern that recurred through the woven fabric of cropped jackets, as a ghostly pattern on a chiffon top and jacket, and beautifully, as the asymmetric bodice of a bias cut pink dress.

It arrived as metallic leathers cut and patchworked into jackets, as embellished crystal beadwork, and even as a fragile net over-layer made entirely from beads. In smoky mauve, pale moss green, light blue and faded gold set against blocks of teal, emerald and black, in Armani's skilled hands, the collection was masterful and assured.

Dior

Impeccable tailoring at the Christian Dior Haute Couture spring/summer 2023 show, where gold cloth has been cut into a loosely shaped skirted suit. Getty Images

At Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri continues her quiet revolution of the house. For spring/summer, she took inspiration from the risque American dancer Josephine Baker, who captivated Paris during the 1920s to '40s and was the first black woman to star in a film.

While models sported Baker’s signature kiss curls, slicked on to foreheads, the clothes were far from literal. There were a handful of 1920s flapper-like dresses, but now simplified and updated, while the collection as a whole was somehow loosened with volume removed.

Skirts, jackets and dresses were cut to skim rather than tightly enclose, and impeccable tailoring, such as in skirt suits and tuxedo coats, sat perfectly yet comfortably around the body. Even the famous Bar jacket was deconstructed, the heavy boning now removed.

As possibly one of the most compelling collections by Chiuri to date, it showed her at her understated, sombre best.

Giambattista Valli

A Giambattista Valli gown in cloud-like forms for spring/summer 2023 haute couture is dreamy and romantic. Getty Images

When it comes to crafting gorgeous gowns, no one does it quite like Giambattista Valli. A magician at teasing yards of taffeta into soft, cloud-like forms, he makes dresses for a dreamy, romantic, alternate universe.

As a designer who knows most of his gowns will end up on the red carpets of award season, he cleverly cites the lights of Los Angeles, specifically Beverly Hills, as the inspiration for the ice cream shades that ran through the collection.

Candy floss pink, marigold yellow, coral, pistachio, orange and periwinkle blue swept past in silk taffeta and chiffon. As expected from Valli, there was sumptuous volume seen as huge sleeves and floor-sweeping trains. Clever updates such as a mermaid skirt teamed with a cropped top, a dropped-waist ball gown skirt and glittering bodysuits worn with draped capes that crisscrossed the torso were also spotted.

More skilful drapery gave glimpses of the body, while a fabulous molten gold dress arrived knotted down the front, and under a glittery cape.

Maison Rabih Kayrouz

An oversized parka as cape by Maison Rabih Kayrouz. EPA

A master of creating clothes that hide the complexity of their construction, the latest offering by Kayrouz was suitably understated.

Drop-shouldered, double-breasted coats were pinched into the waist, but seemed to be entirely without buttons, while roll-neck sweater dresses were cosy and artfully laidback. Elsewhere, a lightweight parker was exaggerated in size to become a billowing cape, while a trouser suit in caramel was cut with rounded sleeves and bootcut legs.

However, the stars of the show were undoubtedly the wrapped, almost sculptural piece that spiralled around the body. A long-sleeved top appeared to be moulded directly on to the torso for example, while a sleeveless puff-ball dress seemed to be held in place by the twisted fabric alone.

Elsewhere, a taffeta skirt in azure blue, was skilfully twisted around the hips, but kept casual with the addition of a hooded top. Even a crystal-covered corset top was teamed with straight-cut trousers.

Chanel

For the Chanel Haute Couture spring/summer 2023 show, tweed was given an almost playful reimagining. Getty Images

Another designer working to a long-term strategy is Virginie Viard, who is gently steering Chanel away from the Karl Lagerfeld years towards something softer and more wearable. For spring/summer 2023 haute couture, Viard invited artist Xavier Veilhan to recreate the animal figurines in Coco Chanel’s apartment into giant figures for the runway.

Through these came a parade of light, almost playful clothes such as tweedy jackets with rounded mini skirts, A-line dresses that stopped above the knee and all manner of waist-defining jackets.

There were more bowties worn as chokers — clearly a thing for spring/summer — and light, floaty dresses in lace and silk, sometimes teamed with floor-length, lightweight tweed coats. Feminine, lovely, and somehow weightless, both in construction and attitude, this is Viard at her very best.

Schiaparelli

Headlines aside, the Schiaparelli Haute Couture spring/summer 2023 collection was astonishing in its technical prowess. AP

Designer Daniel Roseberry grabbed headlines with the fake animal heads in his latest show for Schiaparelli. As intended, the lion’s headdress worn by Kylie Jenner, the wolf’s head coat as seen on Naomi Campbell and the leopard’s head on Shalom Harlow caused a furore, despite being made from foam and faux fur.

Uncannily realistic — this is Schiaparelli after all — the heads are the latest chapter in a long history of shock tactics since the house opened in 1927. However, the headlines overshadowed the sheer beauty of the rest of the collection, which was filled with wonderfully exaggerated silhouettes that showed the level of work the atelier is capable of.

What looked like shrunken cream lace work was moulded into a rigid corseted top, while more corset tops were continued up to the chin, including one from metalwork peacock feather, one from black mirrors and one made from what might well have been Lebanese cedar marquetry.

A quilted house coat in cream satin had collars so oversized to sit around the ears while tuxedos were transformed into rich velvet bodysuits, open to the navel, while more suits arrived with huge shoulders and tiny, nipped waists.

This story was originally published on January 25

Updated: January 30, 2023, 12:53 PM