Chinese Whispers at Versace, Frankenstein’s Monster at Schiaparelli. Haute couture autumn/winter 2014

Alexander Fury
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Looks from Atelier Versace autumn/winter 2014

I’m sure I’ve talked about the importance of individuality in haute couture before. It’s the raison d’être for the thing – couture clothes are complete one-offs, made to the specific measurements and requirements of incredibly wealthy and demanding women. Those demanding women come in all shapes and sizes, with different tastes.

They always have. While haute couture once set the trends – there’s an exhibition about to be launched at Paris’ Musée Galliera titled “Les Années 50, La Mode en France 1947-1957″, which lauds that golden age – it still had room for disparate voices. Balenciaga showed his unfitted suits when Dior-influenced cinched waists were at their tightest. Chanel, Schiaparelli and Vionnet had violently opposed views of dressing women, but they co-existed, and thrived.

Of course, those were the leaders: each inspired leagues of copyists at every level, the same thing we now see in ready-to-wear (and I don’t just mean on the high street). But in contemporary haute couture, the individual voice and individual appeal is what counts. You can’t just latch onto, say, what Raf Simons is doing at Dior, and try and pass off your own version. Couture is scrutinised. You need to have an original voice, and be saying something new. Or at least something to mark yourself out.

What Donatella Versace does in her Atelier line isn’t especially new. Before her autumn/winter 2014 show last night, she said she was looking at that mid-century heyday of haute couture – “Perfection for me is fifties couture,” were her words – but in reality this collection skewed forty years later, around the time of Versace’s greatest early-nineties hits. The Atelier line – the essence absolue of Versace – tends to be consistently grounded in that heritage. This time, there were shades of the bondage and rodeo couture looks of the early nineties, all glistening metal buckles, sparkling crystal and, of course, acres of exposed flesh.

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Leggy evening gowns, at Versace

The flesh was exposed unusually – no plunging navels, and while there was a lot of leg, not much was short. Instead, evening dresses opened all the way down the front, or a leg was cleaved away from a trouser, the hop-along result leaving one limb exposed from ankle to hip. Bodices were tense, trussed up and carved away aerodynamically. The fabric of simple suits was snipped and peeled back to expose a lobe of skin at the hip or shoulder. That was a little surgical – which is very couture. Look at the facelifts on any front row. Everything, Donatella said, was worn with a corset underneath. Which again, seems apt. Kind of like couture spanx.

The designer Anthony Vaccarello is working on the latest Versus collection, and there was a feel of him to this show too. But Vaccarello is himself an unabashed enthusiast for the Versace archives. So what we ended up with was Chinese whispers – recognisably, indeed unmistakably Versace, but with a new accent of the contemporary. It’s a look that has traction with Versace’s high-octane clients, celebrity and otherwise.

Finding a house’s precise accent is difficult – especially when its lain dormant for sixty years. It’s reasonable to assume that Schiaparelli had lost its voice when Marco Zanini started. And there are people that dislike, intensely, what he is doing. I think that’s great. Dissent usually means you’re producing something interesting and provocative. That’s very Schiap.

Marco Zanini makes clothes that often look a little uncomfortable, clumsy even. But that’s intentional. Its like complaining that Schiaparelli’s hammered embroidery isn’t as fine as seed-pearls. It’s not the point. It’s a different medium. What Zanini is bringing to couture is a different voice. There’s space for what he does. Intrinsically, I relate it to Christian Lacroix, because there’s a joyfulness, an element of playful pastiche. He mentioned Hollywood in his show notes – Schiaparelli dressed its stars, while Chanel’s work was deemed too subtle to make an impact on the silver screen.

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The wedding gown, at Schiaparelli

There was something a bit Mommy Dearest to Zanini’s hulking shoulders and brilliant, technicolour contrasts of, say, violet and spanked-flesh pink, or cobalt against cyclamen. There was plenty of Schiap though – her initials embroidered on a coat (more shades of Crawford) were a bit overkill, but Stephen Jones’ towering toques and turbans, and the vermicious sequin embroideries by Hurel and Lesages wriggling over tailoring, were entirely in keeping with her aesthetic. So were slithery evening dresses kicking into mermaid shapes at the bottom, but they also had a loveliness that pulled them out of their period and made them desirable today.

I can relate to what Marco Zanini is doing. I think it has a relevance and a place. Christian Lacroix once said that he felt couture needed to feel like a caricature to register. Of his time in the 1980s working at the dusty house of Jean Patou, he once stated: “Everyone had forgotten… so I had to shout for attention.” I think Zanini is doing the same.

He’s also neatly defining gimmicks for the house, which can cement and represent the name today: on cuddly fur clutches, a cast-metal locket winked, based on a Schiaparelli embroidery from 1938. That was trompe l’oeil, a Schiap trademark, which Zanini has made real again. Clever. He also did weird and wonderful things with feathers coated in glycerine to make them look like monkey-fur, another signature.

It bears mentioning that Donatella Versace painted fabric with silicone and wove silk with nylon for a glassy sheen, as well as using the smallest crystal mesh Swarovski has ever produced. There’s quite a bit of experimentation going on. Zanini – like Schiaparelli, and like Lacroix and Gaultier, has taken to calling his couture a “laboratory for ideas”.

Zanini is a bit of a mad scientist – there are, sometimes, shades of Frankenstein’s Monster at this house, stitching together disparate fragments to create something new. But at least that feels interesting, and different. It’s certainly unlike what any other couture house is showing today. And I’m sure there will be clients who want to buy into that.

Now, onto Dior.

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