Life, etc

Chronicles of Chic: Haute Couture in Paris – a tale of paradoxes

By Emilie Gambade 3 February 2014

On Wednesday, New York will host its Fall/ Winter Ready-to-Wear collections. But before the usual business of fashion hits the ground of the main capitals, the Haute Couture collections returned to Paris. This season’s protagonists have shown on their catwalk enough lushness, artistry and finery to brave the cold temperatures, a gloom-and-doom economy and a très indiscreet French affair. EMILIE GAMBADE revisits Paris Haute Couture.

Labelled the capital of love and the city of lights, Paris knows how to charm, to flirt, to hold one in its arms. Ernest Hemingway spoke about the city’s seductive grip in his memoirs, A Moveable Feast: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. (…) But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

Fifty years after the memoir’s publication, Hemingway is still acutely right: Paris is a pell-mell of contrasts: dirty and beautiful, loving and bellicose, sensual and aggressive, proud and self-confident.

In this scenery, the Haute Couture fashion shows live/display their blend of arrogance and panache, of old history and modernism. Like Paris, Haute Couture is full of paradoxes: it often clashes against the demons of an omnipresent crisis or the increasing demand for fast-fashion; it also rises, against all odds, generating more revenues year-on-year; the Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley noted, “Giorgio Armani reported a rise in sales for couture of 50% in 2011 compared to 2010; Valentino’s couture sales rose 80% in the same period. Donatella Versace, who bowed out of couture eight years ago to concentrate on ready to wear, has returned to Paris.” In 2013, Dior Haute Couture sales also rose by 24%.

Talking about Dior, for Spring/ Summer 2014, Art Director Raf Simons had set the stage inside an entirely white hollow, built on the gardens of the Rodin Museum, in the 7th arrondissement. The choice was not incongruous; the collection, eerie, light, delicate in night blues, crystal whites and beiges, seemed to have been sculpted rather than sewed and stitched together. Like Rodin carving the stone, Simons pierced the fabric, sculpted a dress like a mould, casting the model’s body with a corset or a cropped top. Rodin once said: “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need;” it seems that Simons followed the master’s steps and chopped off unnecessary frills to create a collection that was modern and seriously minimalist.

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Photo: A model presents a creation by Belgian designer Raf Simons as part of his Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014 fashion collection for French fashion house Christian Dior in Paris January 20, 2014. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

At the other end of the spectrum, plonked next to the Champs Elysées, rue Friedland, at the Salons de la Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris (also known as the Hôtel Potocki), Versace showed its much-anticipated collection; Lady Gaga in the first row, dressed like Donatella’s copycat (or vice versa). It was Versace’s signature from the top of the platinum blonde model’s head to the tip of a provocative plunge-front. The collection, an ode à Grace Jones, was, once again, extremely feminine, über seductive and opulent. Everywhere crystals, fur, silk, tulle could be seen, on a shoulder, covering the head in a sophisticated hoodie; the show seemed to be mirroring the splendour of the building. Built for the count Félix-Nicolas Potocki in the late nineteen century, it is the quintessence of classical French architecture, with a bronze door created by the silversmithery Parisian house, Christofle. On the night, grandeur was de rigueur.

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Photo: Models present creations by Italian designer Donatella Versace as part of her Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014 fashion show for Atelier Versace in Paris January 19, 2014. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Not too far away, in the avenue Franklin Roosevelt, Chanel used, once again, the Grand Palais and its incredible iron, steel and glass barrel-domed roof as a frame for this season’s Haute Couture collection. The palace, which was inaugurated on 1 May 1900, has been the background for many exhibitions, from a Henri Matisse retrospective to Anish Kapoor’s Leviathan sculpture. In contrast, the collection, young, modern, futuristic and sportive-chic, models walking on flat shoes (indeed), trainers on their feet, seemed slightly misplaced; or maybe not; after all, the impressive construction has survived many dramas, from being turned into a war hospital to the glass ceiling panels falling off in 1993, its main room remaining closed until 2007; what looked like tomorrow’s Chanel sport-dream-team may as well have found its training ground in the stoical and everlasting Palais. The whole presentation was simply timeless.

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Photo: Models present creations by German designer Karl Lagerfeld for French fashion house Chanel as part of his Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014 fashion show in Paris January 21, 2014. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

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Photo: A model presents a creation by German designer Karl Lagerfeld for French fashion house Chanel as part of his Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014 fashion show in Paris January 21, 2014. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Rue Cambon, in the supercilious first quarter, the Pavillon Cambon Capucines, welcomed Ulyana Sergeenko’s Russia-inspired collection. There, between the marble pillars, models walked dressed for a trip on the Trans-Siberian railway, wandering their corseted silhouettes pass the Volga River all the way to Vladivostock. Sergeenko told Style.com, “She could be a movie star, but she’s definitely a femme fatale.” A femme fatale, indeed, a confident heroine, playful and sensual, draped in silk and taffeta, in bright reds and deep green.

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Photo: Models present creations by Italian designer Giorgio Armani as part of his Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014 fashion collection for Giorgio Armani Prive in Paris January 21, 2014. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Armani chose the monumental Palais de Tokyo to present his Haute Couture collection, Armani Privé. Located in the bourgeois 16th arrondissement (think opulent-looking Haussmann buildings, quiet streets), the Art Deco building sits next to the Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower as a companion. A temple for modern art and design, the museum often offers thought-provoking exhibitions, an exploration of cultures and history through art. Thus, Giorgio Armani’s range, inspired by Asia (kimono sleeves, silks and wide-leg georgette pants were like a thread throughout the collection), travels and ethnic references (arabesque patterns, turbans wrapping the head and long shawls falling off the shoulders) had a noble backdrop. It was ‘une élégante’, a chic traveller who, in the words of Armani is “always seeking to experience something new and who love to get to know the cultures, customs and traditions of other countries.”

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Photo: Models present creations by Lebanese designer Elie Saab as part of his Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014 fashion collection in Paris, January 22, 2014. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

At the neighbouring Théâtre de Chaillot, it was Elie Saab who staged his impressive collection of evening gowns: floor-length dresses in silk mousseline, Chantilly lace and gauze, perfect for the red carpet. The theatre was built at the Belle Epoque by the brothers Jean and Edouard Niermans, sons of a Dutch-born French architect; ironically, Saab was mainly inspired by another Dutch-born artist, Victorian painter Alma-Tadema, for his collection. He pulled silhouettes like phantoms of the Roman Empire, diaphanous figures, their waist tightened by a thin belt, the throat protected by a silk scarf, hanging in the back. It was delicate, feminine, a lesson of pure classicism.

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Photo: Models present creations by Italian designer Giambattista Valli as part of his Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014 fashion show in Paris January 20, 2014. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Classicism’s bad boy, Giambattista Valli, went to the selective Lycée Henri IV, rue de Clovis in Paris’ Latin Quarter (fifth arrondissement), to show his collection; and what an elegy to a free-spirited, playful, cheeky yet exceedingly bourgeoise youth! The college that fostered Guy de Maupassant, Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone Weil, hosted a show quenched with an unbearable lightness of being. Here, a mini skirt with a reversed pleat, going upward in the front in a maxi bow, discovering what could be the jeune fille underdress; there, a cropped top, showing off the waist; and everywhere, the skin, young, desirable, half concealed, half provocative, showing off under the crease of organza or the delicacy of the tulle.

Paris shines and disappoints, shocks and throws off balance; the many faces of the city reflect, in a way than no other city can, the peculiarities of the collections and their striking dichotomy; at times excessive, brazen or memorable, the ranges shown on the catwalks can be fluffy, delicate, almost restrained, a whisper of embroideries, a whiff of ruffles. The constant flux between the city’s most intense aspects and its most picturesque features mirrors the metamorphosis of the cloth, from the difficult and particular work of the ateliers to the lightness of an evening gown, from a piece of fabric to the distinct tailoring of a tuxedo, feathers floating inside.

But don’t be fooled; Haute Couture shows also parallel Paris in their duplicity: afar the symbol of romanticism and passionate encounters, the city is grey, polluted and populated, the pace too fast, the competition too rough and time too precious. The city is stuck in its own history, modern yet old fashioned, glowing but tinted of dust; Parisians’ dual relationship with Paris is one of love and hate, in Serge Gainsbourg’s words “je t’aime moi non plus” (I love you me neither), where leaving the city’s grey streets is always a dream but never really an option.

And so is Haute Couture, its mermaid dresses firmly rooted in the impossible demands of its industry: to sell, it forces fashion houses to produce every year collections that are supposed to highlight – and often do so – the Métiers d’Art, and a peculiar savoir-faire; it is the voice for everything grandiose and beautiful, when beauty rhymes with hours of work and dedication, hand-made cross-stitches and craft. But it also needs, undeniably, to generate revenues and bring profits.

New York Times reporter, Cathy Horyn, wrote about this season’s shows, “But given all the buzz it creates, I’m sure that couture is really good for business. (…) Couture is history. Couture is extremely particular. (…) Couture is fragile, rare, free-spirited, ornery — and when it’s gone, it’s gone.” One can hope that despite the challenges, Haute Couture will be more than fashion heritage and that Paris will never be a faded picture of its own history, a long gone time where lovers held hands over the city’s canals, and Marcel Proust and Jean Cocteau met at Maxim’s. DM

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