Karl Lagerfeld’s eternal flame burns with only one question: “Voulez-vous?” This is because Chanel, while fiercely loyal to its Parisian heritage, has never been one to shy away from theatrics or cheeky irony. The house’s iconic tweed jacket may be a long-standing emblem of throat-clearing propriety, but when dusk fell upon Place Vendome, the traditional skirt suit was accosted by a band of model doppelgangers. Cold-shoulder cuts, slashed cuffs, and even floor-length skirt suits were paired with black lace, blindfolds, and go-go boots. And when closing, model Saskia de Brauw emerged, virginal and ethereal in a gown made from soap-white silk, the toe caps on the other models’ shoes lit up, as though in yet another saucy riddle: “How does a night on the town usually end for good little bad girls? In marriage of course.”
Everyone from Marc Jacobs to the Rodarte sisters have been hurtling full steam ahead on the Orient Express. Will this trend stay on course, or is it doomed to become a one-way ticket to a joyless uniformity of chinoiserie and cheongsams? At Giorgio Armani, the key is selectivity, not showiness—cultural exchange as opposed to crass exoticism. The 76-year-old veteran used classic two-piece combinations as the base for his collection (the ladies’ pantsuit was a favorite) and narrowed his influences to just two areas of focus: Japanese prints and the obi belt. This not only served to emphasize the subtle variations between each look (drawing inspiration from seasonal kimonos that mirrored the changing landscape), but also called into question the notion of East and West as two mutually exclusive entities. Armani adopted a similar approach with accessories, a series of abstract headgear by milliner Philip Treacy, whose universal appeal stems precisely from this ability to defy categorization. Kind of like Mr. Miyagi.
Some oft-discussed topics of the past six months include Kate Middleton’s wedding, Kate Moss’ wedding, Kim Kardashian’s ass (again), and how Riccardo Tisci could possibly top his previous collection for Givenchy couture. “4,000 hours of manpower on a single dress!” “90 meters of pleated silk!” And of course, the all-Asian cast of models that revolutionized the industry’s standards of beauty. Incredibly, he not only managed to beat that performance for fall, but did so with just a modest posse of ten looks, all of them white. The effect, however, is far from minimal; when viewed from the start of the runway, the gowns looked the very picture of understated elegance—simple, fluid shapes that conveyed a dancer’s agility, and sensuality. But each step forward exposed startling new detail: chain-mail harnesses nestled within a wreath of ostrich and goose feathers, cascading panels of pinprick-sized beads that lent the sheen and texture of powdered glass, thousands of caviar pearls painstakingly wrapped in organza. Tisci’s collection demonstrated an unwavering fidelity to customization techniques and personal interaction. These are the bare bones on which the entire business of couture was founded nearly 120 years ago, and which, thanks to Givenchy, can now be seen again.
Hopes—and stakes—were rocket-high for first-time couturier Giambattista Valli. The Italian-born designer trained with some of fashion’s biggest names before launching his eponymous label six years ago, already spawning some memorable red-carpet looks, including Mary-Kate Olsen’s feathery, raven-colored number from the 2007 Met Gala. Valli’s talent for eveningwear made for a comfortable transition into couture, and proved that he had both the technique and moxie needed to carry out one of the season’s loudest presentations. His 45-look collection featured bright brassy reds, yellows, juicy corals, and even animal prints worked into larger-than-life silhouettes, i.e. tiered bobble maxis, hoop skirts, and aptly-named parachute dresses that gave the illusion of vast, leopard-spotted plumes. The collection revived some of Valli’s best-loved ready-to-wear looks (such as the appliqued bubble frocks from spring ’07), but the challenge of subsequent seasons will be in creating a couture portfolio distinct from the aesthetics of his primary line.
Jean Paul Gaultier
With great power comes great responsibility. Jean-Paul Gaultier has devoted his to uncovering fall’s newest crop of superheroes. Mission accomplished. The eminent Frenchman sent both boys and girls weaving down the runway like caped crusaders, in a highly stylized showcase that combined the fanfare of a Lichtensteinian onomatopoeia with the romance of an old-world espionage thriller. Much of the collection was buoyed by ornate Russian influences, perhaps alluding to the country’s knack for churning out some of history’s finest, most enduring anti-heroes. Rich furs, brocade, and bejeweled headwear channeled equal parts steampunk and Anna Karenina while the menswear collection incorporated more playful touches reminiscent of 60s cartoon villains—red, bottle-green, and orange accents on loose-fitted trousers and puffy bomber coats. If only there were this much imagination in The Green Lantern.
This show marked a series of firsts for Dior: its first presentation since the scandalous ouster of John Galliano, the first by his interim successor Bill Gaytten, its first couture run without a couturier at the helm. Equally unprecedented was the nature of the press’ response, which, much like the collection itself, produced a ragged confusion of contradictory voices that jitterbugged between compassion and vitriol. “A certain brave energy and optimism,” hailed US Vogue, whereas Style.com was more cautious: “You can’t be down on a boy with a dream…[but] what happens is a misjudged effort to impress an alien thumbprint on an aesthetic that, for better or worse, is one of the fashion industry’s most clearly defined.” The Washington Post, meanwhile, wasn’t as careful with its words: “[Gaytten] cited as influences interior designer Jean-Michel Frank, architects Ettore Sottsass and Frank Gehry, graphic designer Jean Paul Gouda, watchmaker Jean Dunned and fashion designer Marc Bohan…it was as if [he was] trying to prove his cultural erudition by shoving all these disparate influences into a single show.” But perhaps WWD was most succinct: “There were Galliano Dior shapes, Galliano Dior winks, even Galliano Dior audacity. What there was not: the Galliano Dior mastery that transported so much of his work…to a land of rare beauty.”
Did you really think the tumult over Diorgate constituted the couture season’s only cliffhanger? The final show of the year procured enough surprises to make an Aaron Spelling plot look like Mother Goose. In fact, the scandal that rocked the Alaïa show nearly stole the limelight from his incredible showing on the runway, one that ensured that his eight-year couture hiatus ended with a bang. But first thing’s first. While most couture collections tend to favor unwieldy gowns and flashy accoutrements, Alaïa took a more unorthodox—that is to say, practical—approach. The collection was a study of the jacket in all its forms (capelet, swing, single-breasted, blazer, mac) in an equally broad array of finishes (fur, croc, full-length zips). Monochrome blazers and gilets were styled with modest A-line skirts to resemble pin-thin trenches, and even the eveningwear pieces sought a tidier, more casual silhouette. Perhaps the only person immune to Alaïa’s spell was Anna Wintour, who traded her front-row seat for magic of a different kind, the London premiere of the newest Harry Potter movie. The no-show of the entire American Vogue team triggered a series of retaliatory responses, from the tepid (“[She] is scary,” the designer reportedly groused) to the ominous (Naomi Campbell, who announced her decision to boycott this year’s Met Gala in a show of solidarity. We hear she’s got a great left hook.)