Toujours couture

The haute couture shows for spring/summer 2010 took place in Paris last week. We sent the fashion illustrator David Downton to find the best pieces from the collections.

It's been a shaky few months for couture. The shocking moment when Christian Lacroix's business was stripped down to little more than a licensing operation for perfume and lipstick looked, for a time, like one more nail in the coffin of this notoriously extravagant industry. In a recession, does anyone really need a hand-stitched, hand-embroidered, hand-beaded, made-to-measure frock? Well, clearly they do, because as one atelier collapses - that of a genius designer known for his over-the-top aesthetic and emphasis on beauty over business - new designers are still clamouring to join the Chambre Syndicale de l'Haute Couture, the regulatory body that bestows its favours on only the very best craft-based ateliers. Europe might not provide the couture customers it used to, but it attracts couture lovers from the elite of all those emerging economies that once it disdained: Russia, China, India, Eastern Europe and, of course, the Gulf.

Business aside, this season proved that economics need not crush creativity, with both the old guard and the new up-and-comers creating strong, wearable and imaginative collections. John Galliano at Dior was as theatrical as ever, with a selection of equestrian-inspired looks that included rakishly angled hats, bright red hunting jackets, Edwardian-style ruching and hobble skirts and the sort of Belle Epoque evening gowns that John Singer Sargent so glamorously portrayed.

Silvery pastels appeared at Chanel, Armani and Elie Saab, though each had a different treatment, with Chanel's girlish silhouette looking innocent and pretty in comparison with Armani's sophisticated moon-inspired collection and Saab's classically feminine evening wear. For other designers it was a season of strong, graphic motifs. Alexis Mabille ditched the florals of his past for black-and-red or yellow-panelled harlequin-effect dresses, while Givenchy, seen here, went for a gorgeous monochrome goth-meets-cabaret look of frills, feathers and lace cut through with strong tailoring.

Stéphane Rolland employed a similarly dramatic palette, but used same-colour surface texture to mark out his graphic shapes, with his trademark plexiglas appliqué organically growing over the rigid, tailored fabrics. Jean Paul Gaultier, as ever, went his own way with a Mexico-inspired showgirl-pirate combo featuring intricate beading and more feathers in a pared-back palette of black, white, oyster, brown and sage, with the final bright pink frock being worn by the French singer and actress Arielle Dombasle.

What Gaultier and the other standouts of the week know is that couture is about the spectacular, not the safe. Sure, it needs to be wearable and cost-effective enough for a company to survive and thrive, but those who still patronise these rarefied ateliers care as much about the craft as the kudos of couture.

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