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Chronicles of Chic: Hot Haute Couture for the cold cold winter of 2013/14

Chronicles of Chic: Hot Haute Couture for the cold cold winter of 2013/14

Choosing the most salient part of the Paris Haute Couture show selection seems as fiddly as discerning a Maison Lagerfeld from a Chanel dress: the answer is in the details. What you see is the obvious, ambitious shows put on stage and dazzling models walking down the runway. But the secret lies in the invisible hours of handwork and complex construction that craft exceptional garments. EMILIE GAMBADE selects the best of the Winter 2013-2014 Haute Couture collections.

In the beginning, there were spotlights and the dazzling glow of Versace’s femme fatale. All legs out, Donatella Versace’s muse was half-panther, half-heroine of film noir. She wore her confidence at the tip of her plunging V-neck, and flaunted dresses excessively short and transparent, held by the string of iridescent beads and the delicacy of French lace. The controversial (and domineering) Naomi Campbell leading and closing the show, the Versace Winter 2013-2014 Haute Couture collection was an elegy of a woman carrying her body like an offering, served to the world on a diamond-and-mink plate.

Of course, in Europe’s fragile economy, garments that are so obviously brazen and scream expensive skins, fabrics and precious stones, seem slightly out-of-the-place. Transfer the collection to the streets of Joburg, and an even greater discomfort would occur in front of so much cleavage and visible flesh. But Haute Couture is not ready-to-wear, and beyond the usual bling-bling and profligacy, it serves as a showcase of one brand’s talents and capability. What the Atelier Versace managed to achieve is perfect artistry in its use of crystal-embossed appliqués, the handling of crocodile skins and the rendering of a glamour that may no longer exist. This was pure Versace as seen in the times of the late Gianni: a man who pictured women as always impeccably sexy and sensual, waking up lipstick-ed and hair-sprayed, pretty, glitzy phantasmagorias.

Photo: Models present creations for Belgium fashion house Maison Martin Margiela as part of its Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion show in Paris July 3, 2013 REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Signing a collection that was also strongly bearing his signature style, Jean Paul Gaultier for Gaultier Paris presented a collection complètement folle, tinged with Scary Monsters’ (and Super Creeps) soul and David Bowie’s psychedelic folk. Gaultier doesn’t do minimalism and his garments were excessive, with exaggerated volumes, blooming corolla shoulders, high-bearing pointy hats and buns, fake leopard fur and corseted dresses. The result was at the image of his designer, the “impossible kid of fashion,” fun, inimitable, and impeccably done. Did it carry an air of déjà-vu? Maybe, but fashion is constantly repeating itself anyway. Not that this evidence prevents from ballooning egos: the collection was unenthusiastically reviewed by critic Tim Blanks from, who felt that Gaultier had lost his panache and his position as heir of Couture. Gaultier replied in an open letter in rather sarcastic terms; hot couture, indeed!

Photo: A model presents a creation by French designer Jean Paul Gaultier as part of his Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion show in Paris July 3, 2013 REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Dior, as seen through the contemporary eyes of Raf Simons was, in the contrary, filled with newness. The much talked-about collection had 53 looks traveling across four continents. There was a homage to the Parisienne, her waist belted high, shoulders somewhat uncovered, A-line silhouettes and tweeds; also presented, an interpretation of the Asian minimalism and fluidity, with blown-up volumes and clean lines; finally, the athletic look of the American preppy and a modern version of the African Masai with her heavy beaded necklaces and colourful geometrical patterns.

Photo: A model presents a creation by Belgian designer Raf Simons as part of his Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion collection for French fashion house Christian Dior in Paris July 1, 2013. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Some said it was vaguely too much and overwhelming, while others applauded Simons’ creativity, shaking off his shoulders the usual take on Dior’s heritage. In an interview with Le Figaro Madame, Simons explained that he wanted “to bring Haute Couture back into reality, onto real women. It’s very suggestive, and above all about how important it is to free Dior.” His collection was undeniably modernising Dior, blowing away the dust, bringing back comfort, grace and uniqueness. Still, behind the originality, some pieces were replicas of Simons’ collection for Jill Sander in 2011.

Chanel in the hand of Karl Lagerfeld was, like Dior, distinctly turned towards the international and specifically the Far East. Lagerfeld knows he reaches a global clientele and is keen to be regarded as a multinational. Using a futuristic view of Singapore as a backdrop, he created a modern silhouette, architectural, in silver, white and black tones. Carrying high a folded bang à la Grace Jones, their eyebrows thickened, the models wore tweed suits, wide belts seating on the hips like a softer, more feminine version of armours. The fabric had been worked in diamond-shaped 3D patterns, applied on tunics, shirts and straight line dresses. The result was an incredible perspective effect, shrouding the body as if non-existing, the montage of squares like the model’s own flesh and bones. It was modern without being opaque, innovative without being abstract. There is no doubt that Lagerfeld knows how to reinvent the brand every season and, a master of story-telling, to remind the world of the sovereignty of his atelier.

Photo: A model presents a creation by Italian designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Picciolo as part of their Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion show for fashion house Valentino in Paris July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino pencilled their Haute Couture collection from the Curiosities Cabinets of the Renaissance. As a start, the show was set in the Hotel Salomon de Rotschild, famously built on the domain where the “Folie Beaujon” was once standing, an extravagant compound imagined by the libertine Nicolas Beaujon during Louis XVI’s reign. Nothing libertine in the collection though: models walked between the stuffed heads of wild animals, wearing floor-length dresses in tweed cashmere and lace, long coats and capes like the two-layer dresses of the Renaissance. The inner dresses in soft silk had here the print of a rhinoceros, there the portrait of a wild horse, their outer in guipure lace. If the collection might have looked confined, the work behind it was everything but cramped: the embroideries took up to 400 hours of handwork and a mere 3,000 meters of silver thread. It was very different from what Valentino usually presents, but superb nonetheless.

Armani for Armani Privé surfed on the Gatsby-hype with a collection roaring the twenties; the newcomer, China-born and Paris-based Laurence Xu, beautifully merged Chinese savoir-faire with Western silhouettes, while Yiqing Yin produced a lyrical collection, infused with corals and chiffons running the body and the face like wild ivy.

Photo: Dutch designer Viktor Horsting (R) is seen next to models during their Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion show in Paris July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The surprise came from the Dutch duo, Viktor and Rolf, who came back after a 13-year hiatus with an all-black collection staged live in front of the audience. Models wore flat sandals très Christian missionaries with garments that juggled between tightness and oversize. It seemed that indulgence was only allowed in the volumes. The duo directed the models on stage, arranging the back of a dress in a ballooning cape, the bottom of a skirt like a priest alb. It was theatrical, monastic, and incredibly spellbinding.

Haute Couture might not be what it once was, with only twelve houses currently showing in Paris, but what it presents remains grandiose. In a world where consumerism is at a peak, where fast-fashion rules, where garment factories often flout basic safety guidelines in the name of cheap style, Couture’s artistry and delicate savoir-faire, should be celebrated. Haute Couture’s not dead. Far from it. DM

Photo: Models present creations by French designer Franck Sorbier as part of his Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion show in Paris July 3, 2013 REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes


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