PARIS — Does high couture represent the dumbing down of fashion? It's a question one finds oneself asking after a week of being bombarded by the sight of sequins, beads and all things that glitter, during Couture Week, which wrapped here in the French capital Wednesday evening.
Many designers say that couture, unlike the relentless ready-to-wear, resort or even men’s collections, are where they can express themselves, experiment and be truly creative.
Think Jean Paul Gaultier, ditching ready-to-wear to focus on his first love, high couture, a few seasons back. The move only enhanced the fact that his cancan-style shows are almost always the highlight, and certainly the most fun, of the week.
Gaultier’s women have spunk and edge. His approach to dressing them is tongue-in-cheek, and delightfully irreverent. This season’s characters included Klimt Eastwood, Holy Wood, Wonderfull Life and La Femme Oxydantale.
Gaultier’s show was amusing. His women wore wild orange fur coats, Eskimo-inspired head dresses and what looked like a Tartan blanket turned into a coat. It was creative couture, done with humor.
But after enduring Freddie Mercury blasting through the Grand Palais for the presentation of an over-the-top wedding dress by Zuhair Murad—it closed a show that coupled perhaps half of all available sequins and crystals in the Western hemisphere, with men’s hats and thigh-high boots—I wasn’t so sure that couture represents the high point, or even a creative outlet for most designers.
If Murad had managed to be tongue-in-cheek, it might have helped.
Hailing from Lebanon, Murad (born 1971) is part of a new generation reviving Couture Week, which was considered more or less dead on its feet a few years ago, or somewhat stagnant to say the least.
His wedding dress, which was made from champagne-colored lace, and featured a four-meter train adorned in crystals and beads, was so glittering and sparkling that it made all would-be princesses dreams come true instantly, just by looking at it.
But it got my feminist blood rising fast. Does couture need to be as glittering and silly as this?
Murad named the collection ‘Boho Rapture,’ and he described in his show notes a fairytale queen with a taste for Bohemia as his muse. Fairytales are great, but isn't this just patronizing patriarchal nonsense? And why are wedding dresses still so relevant that some minor member of the design team had to spend years of their life sticking sequins onto a dress?
Moreover, how could any man or marriage possibly live up to the excitement of wearing the dress?
The answer to some of these questions might lie not in Murad’s Arabian Nights fantasy, but in the tastes of real-life Arabian princesses from whom many of these designers earn their bread and butter, even if paid in myrrh and gold.
Arabian princesses are very much the customer of the Rome-based designer Antonio Grimaldi. He said so himself, as he discussed laser cut trains and organza linings in his equally princess-like dresses presented at the Ritz. (Where else?)
But glittering dresses are also much in demand from a generation of pop idol-inspired millennials and some of the elderly bimbos tottering around Paris this week in high heels and revealing dresses--high tack or haute couture, you decide.
Haute couture, at its best or in its most traditional form, might or should represent the very opposite to tacky. It should be the apotheosis of understated French taste, and the very best of craftsmanship. It is all handmade, after all, over hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours–but it seems with certain designers to be going in the reverse direction.
Maybe younger designers have a hard time mastering this art and craft, or maybe good taste has all but disappeared?
Just as observers of high couture seem to fall into two or three camps (those with good taste, those without any, and those in-between), so too do the designers. There are those that do lots of sequins, those that create modern art, those that make beautiful clothing look effortless, and those that fall somewhere in-between.
Still, one new couture addition to have hit the mark this year is China’s Guo Pei—most famous for creating Rihanna’s astonishing yellow gown at the 2015 Met Ball. A household name in China, Pei is in her second season at couture week, and is the first designer from China to show at Couture in living memory.
This season, Pei more or less opened couture week with an extravagant costume drama presentation. Her inventive, funky and original designs surprised me. I expected gaudy silk dresses and folk costumes. She certainly gave Gaultier a run for his money in terms of creating amusingly brilliant dresses.
Versace has long marked the opening of couture week with its Sunday night show. But Pei went before Versace, and utterly upstaged the label.
Upbeat music accompanied the energizing Versace catwalk, which almost made one want to be a lithe Miami nightclub babe. The Fall 2016 collection featured Duchess satin and cashmere coats, and experimented with draping and volume to create revealing designs that turned the body into a canvas for elegant experimentations with cloth.
There was much more experimentation from Dutch designer Iris van Herpen.
Models stood like statues on podiums inside a vacant church, as a musician created a sound installation from brass bowls.
Otherworldly creatures wore feather-light dresses that created artful shapes as they moved their arms. Some designs looked inspired by seashells and the beauty and translucency of rare creatures found deep in the sea. Her unusual work combines technology with handicrafts and looks one-off.
Bucking the sequin school of thought, designs from the house of Elsa Schiaparelli might just as well be considered high design or walking art works, as they display such originality.
This season’s collection was inspired by the house’s Circus collection from 1938.
There were no clowns and not even any clowning around, but sophisticated, singular designs, combining artsy prints, original shapes and feminine but modern and silhouettes. There were plunging necklines and thigh-high slits, but none of it looked cheap.
Alexandre Vauthier, meanwhile, gave a utilitarian touch to his couture collection. He created Marie Antoinette-style dresses, and a wraparound dress that looked like a pair of Gap trousers had been cut and wound around the torso.
Chanel’s presentation began with three-quarter length trouser suits, while Valentino sent out some of the most unusual silhouettes seen on the couture catwalks this week. Some of their pieces were adorned in frilly choir boy collars. Other velvet outfits were artfully strange, eliciting stares of delight and surprise.
And not a sequin, bead or crystal in sight.