Haute couture may be a luxury reserved for either super-rich or super stars, but Couture Week offers a moment of pure fantasy, celebrating the design excellence and premium craftsmanship that continues to lead the fashion industry. In spite of ongoing murmurs of criticism about its relevance in the current economic climate, haute couture Spring/ Summer 2012 was a feast for the eyes. Whilst Couture may only be a reality for the gilded few, it is also the essential peak of the luxury fashion ‘pyramid model’ of accessibility.
The base of the pyramid consists of smaller, mass-produced and more affordable items: make-up and perfume, leather goods and accessories. This is followed by Ready-to-Wear, which forms the middle of the pyramid; the catwalk images that will usually define the face of a brand, but will only be consumed by a select few. At the top of the pyramid is haute couture: exclusive, custom-fitting and made-to-order pieces that will usually only be borrowed by celebrities for red carpet events or purchased by the super-rich (to whom presumably £30,000 is petty cash).
In France, the term haute couture has protected status (like champagne) and is decided by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris, who draw up an annual list of companies that may ‘avail themselves’ of the label, according to a strict list of criteria. Whilst haute couture collections don’t make a profit, the honour of being able label themselves as such is invaluable, perpetuating the mass-consumption at the bottom of the pyramid as a way to ‘buy into’ a piece of the company and its prestige.
Now onto the actual clothes, which offered a dose of sheer escapism…
At Valentino, Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri took inspiration from the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment, especially contemporary French thought and Rousseau’s “real” values. The ambiance of the collection was one of lightness and delicacy, and this breezy tranquility evoked a sense of return to the countryside of the past. Abundant delicate floral prints and faded, antique-looking taffeta and lace detailing were complemented by delicate volume created by up to five layers of lace and organza. The skilled craftsmanship is evidenced in the attention to detail of the collection, such as the smocking and embroidery. The high-necked, elegant long-sleeved dresses with either maxi or above the knee length struck a graceful silhouette that was modern in its lightness.
Red carpet favourite Elie Saab showed an array of pastel hues, rendered in his signature sparkle. Slim evening-gowns and full-skirted party dresses were the mainstay of the collection, with varying necklines from demure high-necked gowns to navel-grazing creations, the addition of sleeves or cape detailing and differing train lengths. It was a formula that worked extremely well, and the flowing lines and uncomplicated elegance of the designs is clearly part of the Hollywood attraction.
Giorgio Armani took the theme of ‘metamorphosis’ for the Armani Privé show, with particular emphasis on the snake. The natural shedding of a snake’s skin and emergence of a butterfly from its chrysalis were inspiration for the collection’s silhouettes and detailing. Skirts were folded into pod-like shapes, sequined, almost scale-like bodices on evening pieces were paired with soft silk reflecting the sheen of snakeskin and reptile-like mesh was placed over jackets and skirts. Neutral tones and metallic hues were punctuated with acid yellows and greens. The polish of the show was offset by a more understated, casual feel contributed by the styling: jackets thrown over the shoulders and bedhead hair.
Since dressing Beyoncé for the cover of her album, Maxime Simoens’ star has been on the rise. Simoens’ signature slim but structured aesthetic and use of graphic embellishment were present here, with the cinéphile’s collection inspired by Gaspard Noé’s Tokyo-set piece Enter the Void. Fashion-forward detailing and colour set the show apart, with mosaic-like tile embellishments, refreshing ‘embroidery’ with nail-head studs on black crepe and vibrant use of colour-blocking.
Ricardo Tisci has been at Givenchy for seven years, and his Couture show looked back over this period (following the suit of the menswear and pre-fall collections), emphasising the strong identity he has created at the fashion house. Taking this idea as a starting point, rather than Couture designs of previous centuries, Tisci’s collection was appropriate to the present and made Couture relevant and accessible (aesthetically at least). Models donned nose rings and giant hoops, in what was a direct statement of Tisci’s edgy appeal.
The presentation was divided into three rooms, the first of which was inspired by crocodile. The level of painstaking craftsmanship was clear here, one dress reportedly taking 350 hours to make. Tisci cites his inspiration this season as from two films of the nineteen-twenties: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) and the theme music from a more obscure Russian film, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924). In the crystal room, Art Deco embellishments dazzled, and bejeweled gowns were worn over sleeveless tops. The breath-taking black and white room saw this idea of contrasts continue, with a white silk T-shirt tucked into a black silk skirt with hip-high split. This understated elegance and controlled decadence set the collection apart from the rest.
Jean Paul Gaultier:
Jean Paul Gaultier’s Couture collection has courted controversy in recent days: inspired by the late Amy Winehouse, the show has been criticised by the singer’s family. Fashion writers have also hailed it an unlikely starting-point for a couture show, however, the celebration of such a vivid personality manifested itself in an exciting collection. The creation of such beautifully-crafted garments, such as the grey silk parka with pink sequinned lining, showed the couture-spirit in bold form. As has been demonstrated in various reports, Jean Paul Gaultier asserts that he did not set out to offend.
Winehouse’s statement ‘fifties style was a starting point for the collection, and pieces such as her signature Fred Perry polo shirts were transformed into a dress with back-buttoning detail and dazzling pencil skirt. Mr Pearl, famous London ‘Corsetier’, created the nipped-in ‘fifties sihouette. The singer’s vibrant style was also reflected in the eye-popping colour palette, classic beehive and eye make-up and dishabille styling. An unusual, bold collection inspired by an icon of our times.
Lastly, the Chanel extravaganza. Karl Lagerfeld certainly did not disappoint in terms of the theatricality of the affair; the show took place in the set of an aeroplane built inside the Grand Palais in Paris. Elegant fantasy air hostesses took to the catwalk, and Lagerfeld appeared in front of a mock pilot’s cabin at the end of the show to take his bow. The collection consisted solely of blue – 150 shades to be precise – from baby blue to sapphire to midnight.
The set promised a futuristic display, and whilst not the most innovative of recent collections, the clothes delivered this forward-thinking in terms of proportion and silhouette. The waist was even lower than a dropped waist, at around thigh-top level, which was emphasised by the models who sashayed down the aisle of the plane with hands in the low, slash pockets. The cut also demonstrated a refreshing slouchiness, and stretched-out, high boat-necks and stand-away necklines complemented the masculine style by emphasising the shoulder. Coco’s legacy was clear, as her signature boyish silhouettes and androgynous motifs were emphasised in this season’s Couture offerings.
This boyishness and slouchy attitude was offset by the detailing: complex embroidery formed some dresses and cellophane-like materials added to the futuristic feel. Hairstyles looked as though they had experienced some turbulence and styling mimicked Lagerfeld’s latest muse, the insouciant Alice Dellal. However, this was all rendered with a large dose of Chanel sophistication and classic grace. Longer lengths formed a motif of the collection and the show was suffused with couture detailing; sapphire baubles dangled as earrings, light sleeves appeared diaphanous as clouds, Chanel’s emblematic camellia caught the eye, and crystal beads glinted on hosiery.
In summary, the Chanel show represented everything haute couture is about: striking visual spectacle, forward- thinking design and wondrous craftsmanship. Haute couture Spring/ Summer 2012 had all three in abundance.
All images: Style.com