Whither haute couture? Cracks show at Paris Fashion Week

Fashion by its nature is about change, but the industry itself is in a state of flux, as was apparent at the autumn/winter 2011/12 haute couture shows in Paris.

Grand Palais Paris.
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What is couture? Is it in the cut and the refinement, or the handstitching, the fairy-made lace and embroidery? That is a question that continues to perplex fashion followers. We officially know how to define it through the membership choices made by the mysterious figures that run the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the board that decides who is and who is not fit to carry the haute couture moniker. But as the ancient industry of clothing continues to evolve at the speed dictated by the modern world, these re-evaluations of tradition must continue.

Today, we see fast-changing manufacturing technologies, fluctuating spending habits and, in recent seasons, a prêt-à-porter world that is increasingly obsessed with minimalism - an aesthetic that is hard to reconcile with haute couture, the proponents of which so often feel the need to justify the prices with dense embellishment and complex construction.

The Far East is one region that offers a model for combining the two, the inherently simple, pure lines of its visual vernacular being so often enlivened by beautifully organic decoration, whether the lovely accident of a swift, calligraphic brush stroke or the intricate pattern and flow of a kimono print or weave.

It is fitting, then, that Japanese design has inspired a number of collections this haute couture week, with Giorgio Armani Privé most prominent among them. In his collection, offering couture pieces for autumn/winter 2011, Armani combined silhouettes as strong, slender and springy as a stalk of bamboo, with fluid colour and cherry-blossom branches applied in fragile shell pinks, coral, white, red and other porcelain-soft pastels that contrasted prettily with their black backdrops. Hats and headpieces by Philip Treacy, in the form of stiff bows and ikebana floral arrangements, provided energetic accents to these otherwise restrained, resolutely elegant outfits, both designers showing the aesthetic agility of masters in encapsulating another culture's essence without smudging their own design thumbprints.

Armani's current obsession with Japan has also come as part of the fashion world's wider concern with the country's rehabilitation after the earthquakes and tsunami earlier this year, with Armani himself financially supporting a Unesco scheme to provide scholarships for students affected by the disaster.

Also interested in the Far East this season was Stéphane Rolland, who cited caoshu, a particularly flowing form of Chinese calligraphy, as one of his influences, together with the portraits by David Downton, the thin elegance of the model Carmen Dell'Orefice and the hanfu, a forerunner of the kimono. Painted portions of dresses depicted the Guilin Mountains, and the predominantly monochrome collection was accented with judiciously chosen soft shades that very much evoked the inks, silks and lacquers of the East. The silhouette remained distinctively Rolland: dramatic, punctuated by splashes of sculptural ruffle and exaggeratedly curved around the body, dresses dramatically fluting their way to the floor.

At Alexis Mabille, while Asia was not explicitly cited as an influence, some of the concerns of Japanese art were very present in his sinuous lines and his attempts to capture the essence of animal life in his pieces. In fact, each dress was inspired by one of the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, with here a supremely elegant magpie in fluid white dress and deep, inky black tailcoat, there a black-and-white leopard in a red-hot, bias-cut number.

Some designers took that simplicity to an extreme - Rabih Kayrouz, for example, continuing to break away from the stereotype of Lebanon's extravagant couture to create a collection of sporty freshness - with crisp whites, A-line shapes, starchy fabrics and an uncompromisingly functional look.

Kayrouz's couture is about intellectual rigour, not scrunches of silk or swathes of chiffon. For Anne-Valérie Hash, meanwhile, it is about the simple luxuries of a soft drape, a perfect jacket, a honed pair of trousers, and the secret beauty to be found in the embrace of an exquisite, exclusive fabric.

Hash, who this year celebrates a decade as a designer, is one of the young generation of couturiers brought into the fold for their modern approach to fashion. Her apparently easy pieces, which this season were based on iconic pieces from her previous collections, are still perfect enough to have earned the devotion of François Lesage, the octogenarian head of the house of Lesage, the embroiderers who create textiles, stitching and beading for all the key couture houses, from Chanel to Dior.

Another of this new generation is Iris Van Herpen, a Belgian designer who this season joined the couture roster for the first time - but her pieces could not be more different from those of Hash or Kayrouz. Van Herpen has worked at Alexander McQueen, an influence that showed through in her sci-fi-futuristic creations of laser-cut origami textures, plastics, snaking tube bodices and manipulated fabrics. These were Lady Gaga-worthy - probably coming to a music video near you.

Giambattista Valli, also showing for the first time at the couture week, just six years after launching his first ready-to-wear collection, offered a far more traditional approach for the discipline - traditional for its showstopping shapes, vivid colours and dense ruffles as much for its referencing of the late 1950s, the era known as couture's Golden Age.

There was another newcomer this season - but he was already an old hand at fashion.

"You don't understand - this is an Alaïa! It's like a totally important designer," squeaked the character Cher of her skintight red dress, in 1995's Clueless, when ordered by a mugger to get on the ground. And while the mugger looked confused, the Tunisian designer's fans and friends in Paris and around the world would have been right behind her. He may no longer be known as the king of cling ("sultan of the skater skirt" might be closer to the mark), but his followers are as zealous as ever, loving his flattering, curve-laden combination of tiny, cinched waists, emphasised by full tiered skirts and his trademark wide belts, and wide, sloping shoulders - an almost Victorian silhouette, but so very modern in its execution.

This long-awaited comeback is a consequence of his acceptance into the formidable ranks of the Chambre Syndicale as a "correspondent member" - in other words, a non-French couturier who is acknowledged to follow the strict rules established by the organisation, including such requirements as having an atelier in Paris that employs at least 15 people full-time (other correspondent members include Giorgio Armani and Elie Saab).

It's an unusually conventional accolade for Alaïa to aspire to - he's known for walking his own path in the industry and is vocal in his disdain for the fashion rat race. But then he's also known for extraordinary craftsmanship, bespoke frocks and his passion for creativity, making couture a perfect fit - as perfect as the tight leather coats, form-fitting bodices and pencil suits that made up his show.

It fell to the other old hands - Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel, Elie Saab, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli of Valentino - to offer the couture pillars of the week. Dramatic, wintry peplum suits at Chanel, together with some ravishing eveningwear, offered everything that we would expect of old-school dressmaking, pepped up with cute tweed hats perched, Madonna-style, on the back of the head. Saab, meanwhile, presented a classic round-up of shimmering red-carpet fabulousness, in icy shades befitting the winter season; glittery columns of beaded and embroidered tulle. Valentino's slightly more directional take on the couture discipline was perfect: demure and covetable, with high necks, narrow shoulders and devoré velvets - Mrs Danvers meets Ginger Rogers.

Jean Paul Gaultier proved once more his ability to combine genuine beauty and glamour with a subversive edge and an inventive bent. His collection, inspired by ballet (post-Black Swan) featured so many fantastically wearable and flattering looks that even pieces such as the half-Crombie-half-cape, in soft camel, appeared perfectly reasonable propositions. Tiny waists, strong shoulders and flaring skirts in heavy, luxe fabrics were highly desirable.

Christian Dior's collection may have provided a glimpse of John Galliano's possible rehabilitation into fashion, because the crowd's response to the studio director Bill Gaytten, who is holding the reigns until a new creative director is appointed, was unforgiving. They still wanted Galliano, and his right-hand man of 23 years simply wasn't a pleasing substitute. But while his collection lacked a certain refinement and cohesion of vision, there remained some genuinely lovely frocks, in a sweet palette, and the headpieces, particularly the new moon that curved round a model's face, were whimsical and witty.

Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, meanwhile, offered probably the most pure vision of what haute couture means. Each of the elfin-light pieces, in pure, pale colours, bore the hallmarks of round-the-clock work to make them as near to art as is possible in clothing. In celestially light tulle that had been minutely beaded, feathered, appliquéd, hand-cut and embroidered (in real gold thread), these pieces represented the heights of Tisci's fantastical imagination, the zenith of the atelier's dedication to its craft, and the no-compromise approach to clothing (let's not call it fashion here) demanded by a few collectors (and let's not call them shoppers). It may not be accessible; it may not be democratic. But it is wonderful. And it is, unarguably, haute couture.