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The Best of Haute Couture Week

By Alexander Fury

Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

#ChanelTower was the hashtag distributed for the fall/winter 2017 Chanel haute couture show — but it had nothing to do with towers of the ivory variety. Instead, it referenced the fact Chanel had created a 124- foot version of la Tour Eiffel as centerpiece to a collection dedicated to Paris and the Parisian woman.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

“A vision of a revived Parisian woman,” was how Karl Lagerfeld described his clothes. “It is all about cut, shapes, silhouettes. Here the line is very delineated and graphic, it’s very modern.” The ateliers went into overdrive to create Lagerfeld’s vision, with a specific focus on tailoring.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

The famous Chanel tweed jacket — created in ateliers named Jacqueline and Josette, after their respective premieres (heads) — was this season either cropped and double breasted, or elongated into a tunic.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

Every model — except the bride, who closed the show — wore an angular boater, the style made famous by Coco Chanel herself. These hats came in an array of materials — tweeds for day, satins for evening.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

“In this collection, there are feathers treated like fur,” Lagerfeld said. Tufts of feathers trimmed the shoulders of evening gowns and the hems of brief, tailored day dresses. They add graphic emphasis to silhouettes, and resemble Lagerfeld’s own chalky sketches.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

The Eiffel inspiration carried over to evening. Embroidery was designed to sparkle in mimicry of the tower’s famous light show, in midnight blue chiffons and dark tulle or satin. Chanel’s haute couture is labor-intensive, and the house now owns a selection of specialists — embroidery studios, button-maker, pleaters and plumassiers (feather-workers) — to help craft their exceptional creations.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

Unlike many haute couture operations, where the cost of thousands of hours of workmanship eats into potential profits and often result in ateliers running at a loss, Chanel actually makes money, according to its president of fashion, Bruno Pavlovksy. “If we could not afford to do such a show, then we would not do such a show,” he told me. “We are not stupid.”

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

Chanel’s show is one of the few to close with a traditional bride. Many clients order couture for their weddings — if you’re going to spend six figures on a dress, that seems the time to do it. Melania Trump, for instance, ordered her haute couture wedding gown from Christian Dior’s fall/winter 2004 collection.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

To accommodate press and clients, Chanel staged two shows on Tuesday morning. After the second, Lagerfeld was awarded the Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris medal by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris. It’s the city’s highest distinction, and recognises Lagerfeld’s talent and creativity, as well as his contributions to fashion. If that’s not worth building your own Tour Eiffel for, I don’t know what is.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Currently celebrating its 70th anniversary, the house of Dior always throws one of the biggest shows of couture week. This season, it actually had two — Maria Grazia Chiuri’s sophomore couture offering, and a retrospective exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs — which, at 32,000 square feet, is the largest Dior exhibition ever staged.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

The Petit Palais — a Rococo art museum in the Eighth Arrondissement of Paris — was the setting for Giambattista Valli’s fall/winter 2017 haute couture show. It was shown al fresco in a covered veranda curling around the building’s inner courtyard.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte are one set of Americans in Paris (the other being Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez), although, arguably, the sisters’ clothes are a more natural fit. Often hand-finished and dazzlingly labor-intensive, many have dubbed Rodarte’s pieces “couture.”

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

There is a certain affinity between Proenza Schouler and couture — namely, both are champions of labor-intensive craft. Backstage before their show at a high school in Paris’ Ninth Arrondissement, a pair of dresses stood out. They were created from hand-embroidered flowers with hammered bullion, and pieced together to leave slithers of skin showing. They were utterly at home in the context of couture.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

An evening gown is worn with fresh flat ballet pumps, underscoring a general feeling of freedom and ease. Perhaps that was reflective of Valli’s business — shortly before the show, it was announced that Artémis, the investment arm of the billionaire Pinault family, had taken a minority share in Maison Valli.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Given the continuing anniversary celebrations, Maria Grazia Chiuri was sure to be influenced by the heritage of the house of Dior. If her former collections have riffed on creations by the house’s five former artistic directors, she saw this collection as a pure homage to Monsieur Dior.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Piccolo shows Valentino’s haute couture in Paris, but he’s based in Rome, and is embedded in the richly decorative Catholicism of the city. That explains the contrasts of classic silhouettes with a Vatican-tinged richness — like this baroque dress, with clashing papal white and cardinal red.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

How did the very Parisian couture week start? With American ready-to-wear, of course. It isn’t as unlikely or indeed as heretical as it sounds: In addition to Rodarte, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler were officially invited to show their spring/summer 2018 collection as part of the couture calendar, the first time they’ve shown in Europe.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

Despite the couture feel of much of the Mulleavys’ work to date, this wasn’t haute couture in the strict sense of the word — the clothes were Rodarte’s spring/summer 2018 ready-to-wear collection, albeit of a heightened and refined breed. The show itself was a personal best for the designers, and proved to be a highlight of the week.

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EliseToïdé
 
 

Van Herpen has been showing on the Paris haute couture schedule since 2011, but her clothes eschew the silks and embroideries that embellish other house’s runways. She uses unconventional techniques — predominantly 3D printing — to fashion sci-fi styles that look like no clothes ever created before.

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EliseToïdé
 
 

Van Herpen pushed her watery theme to the extreme: A musical group named Between Music, a five-piece band that defines itself as “Aquasonic,” performed at the show. They played custom-made instruments, and sang while submerged in tanks of water. their instruments include a hydraulophone and an electromagnetic harp, as well as a specially devised method for underwater singing. King Neptune meets the Neptunes.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Other outfits fused the two inspirations — global travel and traveling through the Dior archive. Here, a silhouette that was drawn from Christian Dior’s February 1947 debut, the “New Look” — which transformed fashion and re-established the pre-eminence of Parisian haute couture in postwar culture — is worn with an evening coat with a topographical design in hand-painted and embroidered cashmere.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

A tight-waisted coat had panels cut open in the sides to expose stretch-knit underpinnings. Perhaps part and parcel of showing in paris, Hernandez and McCollough became fascinated by midcentury fashion images glorifying the creations of designers like Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga. They referenced them in their own off-kilter, contemporary way — here, with odd proportions and purposefully raw, unfinished edges.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

Back in 2011, the Mulleavys showed a capsule collection at Pitti Immagine in Florence. (The collection, influenced by Bernini and Italian couture, later went to the Los Angeles County Museum.) But Rodarte has never staged one of their signature theatrical, atmospheric runway shows this side of the Atlantic.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Humble is a weird concept, especially in haute couture — but it’s a fitting description for some of the most striking looks from Valentino, like this gown in virginal white. “A renunciation full of grace of the denied embellishment,” as Valentino’s almost ecclesiastical show notes put it. Just what we need as an end-of-couture palate cleanser.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

The first look of the spring/summer 2018 Proenza Schouler runway show: a ruffled dress in what appeared to be jacquard, but was actually lace bonded to crepe. The dress was draped gently around a purposefully exposed stretch mesh bodice.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Lazaro Hernandez described the show theme as “a commitment to beauty.” Tropes of traditional femininity were much explored, including hourglass silhouettes and floral motifs.

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EliseToïdé
 
 

A duo of dresses at the end rejected fluidity for bubbling effervescence: Van Herpen created nests of laser-cut roses from sheet metal, and suspended them around her models as if they were plunging through the sea, surrounded by pockets of air. It was an arresting and futuristic vision — maybe prescient, given that Paris is the home not only of haute couture, but of the climate accord.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

Before the show, rehearsals were held at the venue, the Port Royale, a 16th-century cloister on the Left Bank of Paris.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

Intense photographs of foliage and dreamy Pre-Raphaelite paintings dotted the mood board. The former were somewhat expected (Valli loves a bloom), but the latter, with their sinuous drapery, were somewhat more surprising for this modern master of the fluff-n-puff tulle ballgown.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

It wouldn’t be Giambattista Valli without his trademark Titanic-sized tulle gowns; this season, they were cut high in the front to allow for movement. Here, one of the trio of closing gowns awaits its brave model. (Incidentally, these frocks are exceedingly popular as wedding dresses.)

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Never thought of Piccioli as a man of the cloth? His collection wasn’t about dressing women as nuns, but rather about a certain solemnity and ceremony. There were lots of capes, lots of pure panels of cloth and a stark, almost clerical simplicity to pieces — like this high-collared shirt.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

The hair, by Odile Gilbert, bears special mention: Models were lavishly bedecked with ribbons and festooned with gypsophila. In the end, each model looked like a couture piece in her own right.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Lace was a key fabric — and one the designers have rarely used before. It was fused with fabrics, inspired eyelet-punched perforations on viscose knits and was even presented straight-up and pretty. Here, it was embroidered all over with fine cording to give a weight and a three-dimensional texture, shown in a rich orange.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Haute couture is the most revered of all fashion forms — Karl Lagerfeld himself once described the 1950s ateliers of Balenciaga and Dior as “chapels.” Couture is a sort of pilgrimage — traveling to Paris, to see miracles in fabric. That was the inspiration for Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino collection: haute couture as “a sacred notion.”

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

A typical Rodarte mix of low-slung biker trousers and ethereal tulle combined to create a look that was equal parts American cool and European refinement. Robert Altman’s 1977 classic “3 Women” was a stated source of inspiration.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Chiuri also included references to global travel. This was sparked by a quote from Dior himself: “A complete collection should address all types of women in all countries.” The collection referenced maps and outfits were named after bold female explorers such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

The Dior runway show, however, was staged on the grounds of the Hôtel National des Invalides — which, on Wednesday, would be sequestered for the state funeral of the former French politician Simone Veil. The décor for the show was created in collaboration with the artist Pietro Ruffo, who devised a menagerie of wooden animals and suspended a celestial map above the circular, greenery-studded runway.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

Nevertheless, the designers showed ready-to-wear — and their decision to hold the show in Paris was motivated by business. They took the decision to consolidate their four annual collections (two runway, two precollections presented via look book) into two shows. They opted to present their collection two months early, to enable them to deliver clothes to buyers earlier. It’s a new challenge to a time-honoured fashion schedule that is increasingly being questioned by designers.

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Molly SJ Lowe
 
 

Valli’s Pre-Raphaelite references resulted in the collection’s best looks: a sequence of easy draped dresses, many appearing magically suspended in thin air about the body. Valli offered them in a succulent floral palette of geranium red, tea-rose pink and peony.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

“I did a lot of daywear,” Chiuri said before the show. Indeed, this collection was an homage to Christian Dior’s love of grey suiting, English wools and the phenomenal skills of Dior’s atelier tailleur — or tailoring workrooms.

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EliseToïdé
 
 

Taking inspiration from water — which sounds simple, but proved anything but — Van Herpen created pieces that had a fresh fluidity and a new grace and poise. Here, organza is printed with Op Art lines and then pleated to mimic waves and ripples.

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EliseToïdé
 
 

The otherworldly creations of Iris Van Herpen have been around for a decade now, defying traditional boundaries of what clothing can mean — and redefining what haute couture means in the 21st century. Heard of last year’s “Manus et Machina” exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art? It could have been invented as a showcase for Van Herpen.

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Eli Schmidt
 
 

A sequence of ball gowns were also presented, a number of which were executed in Dior grey. Many outfits also contained direct references to Dior archival pieces — for instance, the dress on the far left, in dégradé layers of black to red tulle, is inspired by the “Diablotine” dress from Christian Dior’s final collection for fall/winter 1957.

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With a clutch of ready-to-wear and cruise presentations nibbling into the schedule, it would be easy to think the fall/winter 2017 haute couture shows, which concluded last week in Paris, were facing a troubling fate. (After all, it’s often-prophesised that couture is on its last legs as an art form.) Yet what emerged from the shows was a re-energised feeling that makes a compelling case for couture’s continuation well into the 21st century.

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