Twice a year, the masters of fashion gather in Paris to present their haute couture collections. As the tip of the fashion pyramid, "high" couture is the element that gives the rest of the industry form; it is the epicentre from where ready-to-wear creations (and the trickle-down facsimiles that end up on the high street) take their cues. The final word in exceptional quality and the gatekeeper of traditional craftsmanship, haute couture is the hallowed space where designers and their ateliers can give voice to the full expanse of their creativity. Only the elite members of the strictly by-invitation-only Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode - about 30 labels around the world - have the right to call themselves haute couturiers. Mired in history and tradition, each and every couture look is given its own name.
The haute couture collections for autumn/winter 2017-18 were presented in Paris this week, and offered up the usual mix of the dramatic, the ethereal, the covetable and the downright unwearable. The newly revived Maison Schiaparelli, under Bertrand Guyon, delivered a collection almost stripped of adornment. The decoration that Guyon did use, however, was taken from the heart of the house. Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous lobster dress was reimagined into a slick, sporty all-in-one, with padded knees and adjustable straps. A far cry from the dress that so scandalised 1930s society, today's lobster is rendered in dense embroidery and sits on the chest, like a logo. The house's signature colour, shocking pink, appeared from head to toe for one look, and again as a sash to break up a jacket seemingly pieced from an artist’s sketch. Other surrealist elements included a blinking eye on a simple jacket, and painterly trompe l'oeil embroidered belts.
Atelier Versace is famed for its high-octane sexuality, but this season it took a step in a different, quieter direction. In place of the expected roll call of slashed-to-the-thigh dresses, was a metallic sequined body suit that dripped in colour from burnished gold to cream, and carved around the body in precise, arcing curves. Another dress was a gossamer-thin spider's web of chains and beads in delicate hues of grey and bone, while a nude chiffon gown had a torso caught with tiny gold beads, like a mock weave. Even the most "Versace" of the looks seemed to be woven from trails of mist, and that all-important flash of leg came courtesy of a skirt with cascading triangles of fabric.
At Christian Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri delivered an astonishing collection, marking the house’s 70th anniversary, by taking the audience on a journey through history and through the Dior archives. First out were beautiful coats, austere and floor-length, in what could have been monotonous grey, broken only by thin belts, sensible shoes and sun-shielding hats. The collection was prim and ladylike, bringing female explorers to mind; even Amelia Earhart was referenced, in the form a full-length flying suit. Coats gave way to gowns, with bodices and wraps made from the meandering lines of topographical maps, charted out in pleats, fabrics and colours. Staying true to the familiar Dior silhouette of bar jacket and full skirt, this procession of looks was a quiet masterclass in how to explore a theme.
Chinese designer Guo Pei may be best known for dressing Rihanna in that yellow "omelette dress" at the Met Gala Ball in 2015, yet this is the name behind some truly groundbreaking collections. While this season’s show lacked the ecclesiastical drama of spring/summer, it still exuded a gilded charm. A fishtail gown, plunging deeply to the waist with a garland of embroidery cascading from neck to knee, had an open décolleté perfect for showing off a diamond sautoir. Then came a gleaming metallic cloth, closer to polished black marble than humble fabric, followed by a procession of silver and gold form-fitting gowns that swept the both the floor and naysayers aside. The grandest was an iridescent emerald green affair, topped with intense embroidery that left skin exposed for a dazzling Chopard collier.
A relative newcomer to the haute couture collective, Ralph & Russo is settling into an elegant rhythm, with a clear knack for red-carpet looks. One had endless net tiers run through with hammered silver, and paired with a plunging neckline. Elsewhere, silver-edged discs covered a jacket and skirt like exotic feathers, offset with a textured beaded bodice and whirling dervish hat. Glossy fringing fell from necklines, waists and hips, or was chopped into layers that tumbled down dresses. The best look, however, was perhaps the most understated: an embellished bone satin dress overlaid with a cape that was everything an evening dress is meant to be.
Next came Chanel, the grand master of couture. With the expertise of its in-house petites mains, or seamstresses, plus the specialist ateliers it has been snapping up, Chanel can be counted on to create something remarkable. Creative director Karl Lagerfeld is often described in lofty terms (and has just been awarded the Grand Vermeil medal by Paris's mayor Anne Hidalgo), but there is good reason for this. He is an exceptionally gifted designer, with an eye for proportion that is eerily on point. For autumn/winter, he dwelled on two main silhouettes. One was tiered like the Eiffel Tower (which was painstakingly recreated inside the Grand Palais for the runway show) and the other favoured the drop waist, popular circa 1910, when Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel first entered the world of fashion. Outlines were sleek and elongated, broken only with chunky bows mid-breastbone, or sensually curved with soft rounded shoulders that ended abruptly in bell sleeves. Upper arms were encased in feathers and hems and laden with fabric petals.
Giorgio Armani knows a things or two about cutting, and, for his Armani Privé collection, he delivered a succession of looks that saw silk encasing the body like second skin. Suits were fluid, and dresses were sensuous columns of fabric that moulded around the models. Elegant and refined, the signature house palette of smoky blacks, greys and pinks had an injection of large florals, sketched across skirts, dresses and, in the only missed note, a garish bubble cape. Hand work became an extension of the fabric, gathering around bustlines and covering one magnificent dress entirely, like an artist’s feverish scribbles. For the finale, a plunging beaded neckline was complemented with an oversized satin bow that morphed into both a skirt and shawl.
And in this single look, the beauty, intricacy and sheer outrageous impracticality of haute couture were paraded for all to see. Haute couture is not meant to be rational, but that just makes it all the more magical.