From boat parties to virtual avatars: The five most imaginative haute couture 'shows' so far

Forced to rethink the runway format, these designers show us why they are at the very top of their game

With Covid-19 having disposed of the traditional fashion show format for the foreseeable future, designers have had to find new and innovative ways to replace it.

And as the ongoing digital Paris haute couture autumn / winter 2020 shows have proved, brands are demonstrating just how agile they really are. Here are five of the most inventive moments from the autumn / winter 2020 "shows" so far.

Iris van Herpen’s single dress

Iris Van Herpen created a single dress for haute couture autumn winter 2020. Courtesy Iris Van Herpen
Iris van Herpen created a single dress for haute couture autumn / winter 2020. Courtesy Iris van Herpen

Proving that great minds think alike, both Maison Rabih Kayrouz and Iris van Herpen condensed their pandemic collections down to a single dress apiece. While Kayrouz’s was designed in Beirut and produced in Paris (meaning that the creator has yet to see the finished piece in the flesh), van Herpen created its solitary dress in Amsterdam, home to the designer and her atelier. The resulting gown is called Transmotion.

Already an outlier when it comes to the standard thinking of what constitutes a dress, Van Herpen’s haute couture offering for autumn / winter 2020 is crafted from gossamer, light-as-air white plisse silk, caught under a hand-cut structure of black "branches".

Inspired by the work of Dutch artist M C Escher, the dress is deliberately symmetrical, meaning it has no up or down, back or front.

To model the piece, Games of Thrones actress Carice van Houten was brought aboard, becoming the latest star from the series to work with the designer, following in the footsteps of Gwendoline Christie. The irony is that van Herpen has never seen the TV show.

Balmain on a boat

Balmain took its autumn winter 2020 haute couture show onto a barge on the River Seine in Paris. Courtesy Balmain
Balmain took its autumn / winter 2020 haute couture show on to a barge on the River Seine in Paris. Courtesy Balmain

Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing threw the rule book out of the window, and presented an assorted collection atop a barge on the River Seine.

As the highest measure of handwork, haute couture is normally hidden from view, making Rousteing’s decision to put everything on display for all of Paris to see, a rare act of inclusiveness.

And if the crowds gawping from the bridges were anything to go by, that openness was appreciated. Standing on mirrored plinths, models wore dramatic gowns taken (briefly) out of the archives. From founder Pierre Balmain through to Erik Mortensen (1982-1990) and Oscar de la Renta (1993-2002), this was a trip down memory lane, creating context for the red carpet looks by Rousteing (all ready-to-wear, but in 2020, it seems, anything goes) and his couture offering of slick, precious separates in black and white.

Volume at Giambattista Valli

Joan Smalls wears Giambattista Valli autumn winter 2020 haute couture. Courtesy Giambattista Valli
Joan Smalls wears Giambattista Valli. Courtesy Giambattista Valli

If other houses were about understated, almost restrained collections, then clearly Valli didn’t get the memo. Instead, it went in the other direction, presenting a collection of 18 astonishingly romantic gowns.

Worn by Joan Smalls, even by Valli standards the dresses were big (and no one does scale like Valli), in great frothy eruptions of tulle. Vast sugary pink layers trailed to the floor, while micro-mini dresses were furnished with enormous ruffles edging shoulders and appearing as capes. As the only house to even acknowledge the face mask, Valli’s were inevitably taken to a couture extreme, as sheer moons of silk framing the face.

As a collection, it is incredibly lovely to behold, and felt like a welcome moment of respite from the difficulties of the past few months. And like the uplifting Dolce & Gabbana show held a few days before, it offered a breath of much-needed fresh air.

Ralph & Russo's avatar

For autumn winter 2020 haute couture, Ralph & Russo created an avatar, called Haulli. Courtesy Ralph & Russo
For autumn / winter 2020 haute couture, Ralph & Russo created an avatar called Hauli. Courtesy Ralph & Russo

As every brand tackled the thorny issue of how to use models while socially distancing, the Australian/British house of Ralph & Russo sidestepped the issue entirely and instead conjured a virtual avatar for its presentation. The resulting "woman" is called Hauli.

With the digital sphere offering no restrictions on imagination, the house transported Hauli and her enviable wardrobe to the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. We see her at Petra in Jordan wearing a pale blue silk double satin gown, with glass bead and crystal embroidery, while for the Taj Mahal in India she dons a light pink column gown, featuring all-over multi-coloured crystal embellished fringing. Even if travel is restricted for the majority of us, with Ralph & Russo, seemingly no such limitations apply.

Le Mythe Dior

Dior presented a film about an enchanted forest for its autumn winter 2020 haute couture collection. Courtesy Dior
Dior presented a film about an enchanted forest. Courtesy Dior

Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri opted for a fairy tale. Shot by Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone, the brand's short film transports the audience into an enchanted forest, as two bell boys carry a wooden trunk – itself a replica of the house's famous 30 Avenue Montaigne address – filled with beautiful miniature couture gowns.

Mermaids and water nymphs stop their cavorting to reach for the precious pieces, as Daphne momentarily looks away from Apollo to make her choice. Only Narcissus is unmoved, preferring to stay with his own watery reflection.

Since its release, Dior has been criticised for a lack of diversity with its all-white casting, but as the house explained, inspiration came from the 15th-century paintings of Botticelli. While the model casting is a valid complaint, nothing can distract from the shimmering beauty of the actual collection, seen at the end of the film in full-sized glory. Grazia Chiuri is totally absent from the film; the brand's highly skilled seamstresses are put front and centre.


Read more:

'A woman designing for women': all 30 looks from Chanel's latest haute couture collection

Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz presents a single dress for haute couture week

La dolce vita: a look at Dolce & Gabbana's latest couture collection


Published: July 8, 2020 08:26 PM


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