A little bit of history repeating: something old makes something new, at Raf Simons’ Dior and Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel

Alexander Fury
Screen Shot 2014 07 08 at 17.03.46 198x300 A little bit of history repeating: something old makes something new, at Raf Simons Dior and Karl Lagerfelds Chanel

An opening look from Raf Simons' autumn/winter 2014 Dior haute couture collection

The much-vaunted and oft-debated “point” of haute couture is tied up in history. Haute couture is living history, less a retrograde throwback and more a direct link to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The latter was when “haute couture” as a term was officially incorporated by Charles Frederick Worth, couturier to Empress Eugenie and most of her court; the former was when the idea of a fashion dictator was pioneered by the first celebrity dress designer, Marie Antoinette’s “Minister of Fashion” Rose Bertin.

Those are some heavy antecedents, but they’re ones couturiers often bank on. Buying haute couture is a bit like buying a stake in a past you can never be part of. The super rich Mrs Oligarch of 2014 can never actually be Marie Antoinette, but she could wear Raf Simons’ panniered dresses in Limoges porcelain shades of Bleu de Roi and Rose Pompadour and play the part, much as the teen Queen played shepherdess in her hameau at the bottom of Versailles’ gardens. To a degree, couture is fantasy, a very, very expensive dressing up box.

The only trouble? Women don’t really want to look like they stepped out of a salon (as in Germaine de Staël rather than Vidal Sassoon). So the quandary of the couture is thus: how do you evoke the history the art form relies on, and yet make it modern enough to appeal to real women? Finding the right point between the two is difficult.

There are arguments that women don’t really want a history book on their back. But if they don’t, why buy haute couture? If you’re just after a very expensive, very exclusive, very embroidered dress, ready-to-wear does that just as well. In fact, possibly better – wider choice, easier to get hold of, less time in fittings. Opting into couture is like buying fine art, or antique furniture. The history of haute couture is its provenance. And you need to know it to truly appreciate it.

That preamble sets the scene for the two collections that bear great discussion: Raf Simons’ Dior show, and Karl Lagerfeld’s latest offering for Chanel. There’s something striking about the synchronicity between these two houses. Is someone telling tales between the ateliers of Rue Cambon and the Avenue Montaigne?

Screen Shot 2014 07 08 at 17.05.46 199x300 A little bit of history repeating: something old makes something new, at Raf Simons Dior and Karl Lagerfelds Chanel

A tailored coat, at Dior

I doubt it. The fact remains that Raf Simons and Karl Lagerfeld are plugged-in designers. They don’t operate in a vacuum, hence the fact there’s some kind of unusual synergy between their notions of contemporary women. Look at their last ready-to-wear collections – both took fashion off a pedestal, and onto the street. Okay, Lagerfeld took a detour into a supermarket, but both were grounded in the fundamentals of pragmatic daywear. Raf did trouser-suits, Karl did tracksuits. Their January couture collections were both about translating trainers into haute couture, on models’ feet and on their bodies too. Are you seeing what I’m seeing?

Raf Simons’ Dior show was about a sweep of several centuries – there were eighteenth-century court dresses and frock-coats, turn-of-the-century redingotes, boiler-suits that crossed cosmonaut garb with Rosie the Riveter, a clutch of flapper frocks and a few riffs on Dior’s eternal, immoveable Bar silhouette. It was ambitious, packed with ideas, full of clothing. It was breathlessly paced, a glorious scrambling of ideas that, in turn, sent you scrambling to decipher them.

The interesting point was that all the abundant historicism felt entirely reenergised and reactivated. Example: the leggy, racy heart of the collection was a sequence of dresses in Fragonard pastels, with bodices modelled on rococo stays and skirts trapunto-stitched like petticoats. They had a modern urgency that was striking and swept away any feel of the retro.

Screen Shot 2014 07 08 at 17.04.10 199x300 A little bit of history repeating: something old makes something new, at Raf Simons Dior and Karl Lagerfelds Chanel

A look from the Dior autumn/winter 2014 haute couture collection

Incidentally, isn’t that exactly what Dior himself did in 1947? His New Look was, in fact, anything but, drawing on nineteenth century constructions and the style of the Belle Epoque to invent something afresh. As in Dior’s first collection, the tailoring was standout. Truth be told, it could have been an entire winning collection in itself, shapes were bold and forceful in retrospect, but the overall impression subtle, and wearable. At the heart of this collection was a wool and cashmere core of reality.

Reality has always been a dirty word when it comes to the haute couture. Couture is a laboratory of dreams, opined Schiaparelli. “My dream is to save women from nature,” said Christian Dior. The presumption is that couture is a fantasia, and that reality can never have a place.

“Merde,” said Coco Chanel, metaphorically, for her whole career. Karl Lagerfeld utters that too, aesthetically. Would any other designer have the nerve or verve to somehow deflate Versailles, combine it with Le Corbusier and show it atop flat sandals for winter? In fact, could they? Lagerfeld is a consummate couturier, but even he occasionally overshadows his own talent. The key concept of this collection was actually the subtlest it has been at Chanel for a while: Lagerfeld displaced the seams, pulling them behind his clothes to create the illusion, at first glance, of a seamless gown.

“Sans couture,” is the French terminology for that – a fabulous paradox if ever there was one for Chanel, the bastion of contemporary couture, who support a clutch of craftsmen and utilise their skills to create not only hautcouture, but ready-to-wear.

09 HC AH 14 224x300 A little bit of history repeating: something old makes something new, at Raf Simons Dior and Karl Lagerfelds Chanel

A neoprene dress with embroidery, at Chanel

Chanel’s pre-fall presentation traditionally showcases their “Métiers d’Art” – the costly, labour-intensive products of specialists including the famous Lesage, but also the lesser-known likes of button maker Desrues, gold and silversmith Goossens, or pleat specialists Atelier Gérard Lognon – the latest investment, purchased last year and whose intricate origami fabric manipulation was a centrepiece of the winter 2013 Chanel couture show.

Couture is, of course, an opportunity for unbridled indulgence. Lagerfeld seizes the opportunity every time. This instance, ostrich feathers were muffled with tulle, Louis Quinze Rococo gilt work was reproduced in golden sequins, and those sculpted dresses – in a couture neoprene called “Angelskin” – were technically pushed to a zenith.

There’s a exhibition coming to the Grand Palais, the venue Chanel couture has bogarted for its couture and ready-to-wear shows for umpteen seasons. It’s titled “I, Augustus, Emperor of Rome,” and in celebration the corner architecture is scrambled with trompe l’oeil scrims and hanging fibreglass columns. It’s quite something to see. It reminded me of those dresses, both in the statuesque volumes achieved through crafty tricks of the couture ateliers, and in Lagerfeld’s visual remixing of history to create something arresting.

08 HC AH 14 225x300 A little bit of history repeating: something old makes something new, at Raf Simons Dior and Karl Lagerfelds Chanel

An embroidered evening gown trimmed in fathers, by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel

Ignoring the workmanship, however, there was a vitality to this Chanel collection. And to Dior too. Forget the price: would you like to wear this stuff? I suspect most informed women would.

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  • jah6

    I think most of these dresses are ugly and would be much too uncomfortable for me to wear.

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