Haute couture spring / summer 2021: The best looks from Dior, Chanel, Valentino, Viktor & Rolf and Schiaparelli

From tarot cards to spring weddings, this season is about unfettered imagination

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Arab designers Zuhair Murad, Georges Hobeika and Elie Saab may have been forced to withdraw from the haute couture runway in the French capital this week, but the houses that did show proved that, even pitted against a pandemic, the power of imagination is resilient and can soar to dazzling heights.

Paris Haute Couture Week saw the first couture and womenswear collection for Fendi by Kim Jones, the emergence of what Viktor & Rolf dubbed "couture rave" and models on horseback, all of which translated to thoughtful, beautiful and ultimately uplifting collections that took the notion that fashion is about escapism to its zenith.

Here is what to know about the labels that have presented collections so far.


This dress in spun gold shows the extraordinary skill of the Dior haute couture atelier. Courtesy Dior

Perhaps hoping to glimpse a brighter future, over at Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri looked to tarot cards for her inspiration. Delivered virtually as a film by Matteo Garrone, the show was anchored around a young woman in a castle, encountering tarot card characters such as Justice, Temperance and the High Priestess.

With an almost medieval feel, the clothes came in beautifully muted shades of burnished gold satin, olive green silk and parchment-coloured organza, and worked with dense embroidery that looked like old tapestry.

Over several dresses were brocade robes that added to the regal atmosphere, embellished with roundels and rampant with animals motifs like insignia of old. Moodily lit, with drifting smoke and objects that echoed centuries-old portraits mired in hidden meanings, the exceptionally still show offered a moment of quiet amid the noise.

The founder of the house, Christian Dior (like fellow couturier Gabrielle Chanel), was deeply superstitious and believed tarot cards had the power to show the future. For this collection, Chiuri jumps between longing for the future and yearning for the past; in these difficult days, she transports viewers to anywhere but here.


Pops of embroidery at the Chanel spring / summer 2021 haute couture show. Courtesy Chanel

For spring / summer 2021, Chanel delivered its haute couture backwards. Showing in its regular haunt, the Grand Palais in Paris – now startlingly empty, save for a few A-listers – the show began with the finale, with all the looks appearing together.

This set the scene for what became a spring wedding theme, while allowing those with short attention spans to see the entire collection without having to sit through the eight-minute video. For their sake, however, hopefully they did watch on, because it was simply lovely to behold.

Light and breathlessly pretty, this collection by Virginie Viard was the stuff of bohemian bridal dreams. With a set comprising floral arches and a petal-strewn floor, Viard showed the full repertoire of the atelier's skill. She delivered masculine tailoring as shrunken, sequined silvery jackets over Oxford bags, an embroidered waistcoat mixed with a boucle skirt, and a man-size shirt worn loose over a floor-length net skirt.

There was hand-painted lace cut into a long peach skirt, a black fitted jacket and a voluminous skirt. Delicate embroidery arrived in all shades, as pretty peach and eau de Nil on black tulle, as tiny pops of cherry on a full skirted strappy dress and, best of all, as a golden cage over a flapper-style black dress.

Adding to the spring romance came an open-front dress covered in lacework daisies, and acres of ruffles in sugary pink, apricot and the palest blue. For the finale, instead of the grand parade, Viard sent out a bride – in exquisitely handworked white duchess satin – riding side-saddle on horseback, trailing a long crystal-strewn veil behind her.


Fluid style at the Valentino haute couture spring / summer 2021 show. Courtesy Valentino

For this collection, Pierpaolo Piccioli pared it right back, stripping away the eye-catching prints to instead showcase the remarkable skill of his artisans. Shown as a film, the looks arrived with a description of each piece, plus, charmingly, the names of the team that had worked on it.

Fluid, languid and the exact opposite of constrictive, these clothes flowed loosely about the body, giving the collection a timeless and ageless feel. For the first time, Piccioli introduced menswear into couture, and then bounced ideas across both genders. Sequins arrived as a light strewn hobble dress for her, and a sparkling polo neck for him. A man’s drop-shouldered great coat arrived covered in hand-twisted flowers, while hers was made from intricately folded fabric that looked like origami.

Called Code Temporal, this collection deliberated the here and now, and how we must find ways to live with the present situation. It proved how humble cloth can be transformed into something otherworldly, elevating all around it, an idea echoed in the terrifyingly high platform sandals every woman wore. As Piccioli's atelier proved, in the right hands, fabric can be made to do almost anything.

Viktor & Rolf

The Viktor & Rolf haute couture spring / summer 2021 show had an air of the home-made. Courtesy Viktor & Rolf

Having given up their ready-to-wear some years ago, Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren are now free to explore the boundaries of couture. For this outing, they came up with the concept of the "couture rave". Embracing the youthful element of raves, mixed with the handwork couture celebrates, the collection almost felt home-made. Obviously, this is home-made unlike anything we have seen, crafted from snips of antiqued lace, handfuls of sequins, layered netting and enough trimmings to outfit the cast of Bridgerton.

Yet the effect was charmingly mismatched, and all the more lovely for it. A crochet bralette top sat over a tiered satin skirt, patched with applique and lace, while another bra-top arrived over a cropped top and huge skirt, completely encrusted with silver beads, buttons and sequins. Elsewhere a cocoon dress was pieced from ruffles, bows and gewgaws in a way that felt joyous, while another look had tights scattered with applique daisies.

Of course, the house of Viktor & Rolf is dab at netting, and there were several excursions into vast skirts – in layered greens, greys and pinks – all worn with cropped tops and single opera gloves. The best look, however, was a shimmery cape, pieced from leftovers and covered in ribbons and bows, which was as summery as it was optimistic. As in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, it carried an air of song about it, an invitation to party.


Surreal touches at Schiaparelli included 'eye' glasses and a bag decorated with a nose. Courtesy Schiaparelli

Elsa Schiaparelli founded her couture house in 1927, and in these strange days, the maison’s present designer Daniel Roseberry has fittingly returned to those visual surrealism roots. Fresh from dressing Lady Gaga at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Roseberry’s spring 2021 couture brimmed with tricks and play.

The show opened with a black satin dress finished with a moulded leather torso and a bright pink bow, and came with a superhero-style six-pack that echoed an idea Schiaparelli herself explored in the 1920s. Glossy black boots came with realistic bronze toes, and a caped jacket had cascading curls perfectly replicated in golden bugle beading. A simple black sheath dress came with enormous drawstring sleeves, and even anoraks were upgraded with sleeping-bag-size hoods.

There were golden padlock bags, large clutches decorated with noses, and a pair of earrings in shocking Schiaparelli pink velvet that doubled as a dress front, pooling all the way down to the floor.

Surreal, witty, unquestionably beautiful and full of promise of better days to come, this is perhaps what we need most in these addled times.