Couture’s future looks bright: Versace, Dior, Schiaparelli, in Paris

Alexander Fury
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An embroidered jumpsuit at Raf Simons' couture show for Dior

In less than 24 hours, we’ve had four very, very different interpretations of twenty-first century haute couture. How to reconcile the whimsy of Marco Zanini’s Schiaparelli debut with the hyper-modern aerated layers of Raf Simons’ go-faster Dior? How could you compare the cinched-in, souped-up sexuality of Donatella Versace’s Atelier ode to Grace Jones with Giambattista Valli’s embroidered, gazar-wrapped chocolate-box frocks?

Couture is about contrasts. There’s aren’t that many customers out there left, so canny couture houses are appealing to niches with deep, deep pockets.

They’re also reinforcing their own brand identities, and reaffirming what they stand for in the global marketplace. Couture used to be about hand-crafting clothes for a dedicated cadre of women. Get with it. This is 2014. Couture today is is a massive advertising exercise. the loss of hand-crafting these clothes is offset against the column inches they garner, the shoots they feature in, and the celebrities they frock.

The Raf Simons velvet-banded winter 2013 gown sported by Jennifer Lawrence may have been the subject of countless Internet memes and parodies, but it’s reinforcing the name Dior in the public consciousness for the umpteenth time. Hence, the house wins.

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A woven metal skirt and tattoo-inspired top from Atelier Versace, spring/summer 2014

What does Versace stand for? It stands for strength, for confident, authoritative dressing. Hence the fact Donatella Versace can say she is thinking about the fragility of the Versace woman and send out a cloak-and-dagger hooded homage to Grace Jones’ hooded Slave To The Rhythm incarnation, tattoo patterns picked out in micro-sequins or cabochon crystals across taut tailoring and silk-jersey draped dresses. There was a medieval air to some pieces, reminiscent of Gianni Versace’s chain mail evening gowns from the early 1980s. I guess Xena Warrior Princess, with her armour, off is delicate, right?

Raf Simons’ Dior was fragile too. He was thinking about femininity, of the feminine craft of the couture ateliers. That reminded me of a show he did at Jil Sander, where lab-coated “beauticians” shared the catwalk with blushing brides in white poplin.

That was a prim show, faces veiled, skirts hovering around the calf. Today’s was far more dynamic, and energising, and modern. The latter was the striking point: every dress felt like a high-performance trainer, a complex web of aerated fabrics, contrasting textures, go-faster banding wrapping the body. The dresses felt streamlined, as did half-a-dozen jumpsuits, their surfaces punctured into rippling plains of eyelets, cut fabric winking in teardrop shapes. Sometimes they allowed glimpses of flesh beneath, sometimes glistening embroideries nestling between the fabric. One was plain navy, unadorned, austere.

They felt like the most modern thing I’ve seen in years, never mind at the couture.

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A Raf Simons Dior couture dress, worn with embroidered trainers

Despite that modernity, there was some lovely, lovely stuff here. Some of the prettiest dresses Simons has ever created, for any house. However, there was no compromise of his exceptionally clear mandate for the future of Dior. This felt like something pushing us forward. It felt different, and exciting, and for all its complexity it was easy to understand what Raf Simons was getting at. Namely, that a woman can be decorated without weight, and without becoming an immobile, ostentatious object. It was an athletic couture.

In fact scratch that. For all the couture technique, this show was great fashion. It wasn’t weighed down with ideas of the past, of of what it should or must be. It got on with the job.

It felt liberating, for us, and presumably for Simons too.

There was something liberating and irrepressibly joyous about Marco Zanini’s collection for the revived Schiaparelli house too, the label’s first fully-fledged catwalk show since 1954. Or, in fact, ever – a catwalk show in 1954 was a decidedly different affair to one of today.

Despite our modern demands of digital and the baying press, the point of the show is still the same: the clothes. On the whole they were fine. This collection’s boundless enthusiasm helped paper over some of the dodgier moments, such as the wacky ricochet from theme to theme; the slightly wonky fit on a couple of pieces; or the fact Zanini’s conceit of turning jackets inside-out to reveal feather-encrusted linings didn’t quite gel (they just looked like, well, fancy inside-out jackets). However, the embroideries and fabrics were suitably sumptuous and Zanini has a sure hand with print, a Schiap trademark. He’s also done his time in the archives.

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A brocade suit with duchesse-satin sleeves, by Schiaparelli

It was also gratifying, as a Zanini fan, to see that some of the mumsy, mimsy feel of his Rochas woman has come across to the house Elsa built. His Rochas was always a touch eccentric, which is practicality institutional chez Schiap. There was a spearmint brocade suit with hulking duchesse sleeves embroidered with crabs which summarised the fusion of Schiaparelli and Zanini (yes, the man has his own aesthetic) perfectly.

A few highlighted similarities between certain outfits and the work of others, notably Galliano, Lacroix and Gaultier (the latter sat front-row at Zanini’s show). For me, that indicated Zanini is bang on the money. All those names, and many others, have been heavily influenced by the Schiaparelli legacy. Their echoes are her echoes.

This wasn’t so much a collection as a statement of promise. It shows that Zanini has got to grips with one of the most formidable legacies in fashion history, and has allowed the house to take it’s first tottering catwalk steps after sixty static years. The exciting part will be to see where those steps take Zanini next.

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  • Joubaíer Joubert

    I hated Schiaparelli and I can’t believe you didn’t scold Marco for that disaster too much of a copycat

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