There was no front row, no wealthy clients dressed up to the nines, no glasses of bubbly, and no live Paris fashion show – unless you count the sensational Balmain take-over of the roads around the River Seine, the models filmed against a blue sky drifting with puffy clouds, then live-streamed and sent out across the world via TikTok.
In spite of the nervous and cautious break of the COVID-19 lockdown, Paris Haute Couture was a fantastical display of the imagination. Sometimes collaborative film directors worked with fashion artists, most notably at Dior. Other designers were their own directors. Inevitably YouTube and Zoom were queen and king.
Yet I do not believe that this is the end of the fashion show as we have known it – any more than film and TV killed off the theatre. And it was the theatrical element that was mostly missing. Augmented reality may have become part of 21st-century life, but faced with digital flashes from John Galliano at Maison Margiela, who would embrace the concept that the future would be only on-line creations from the ultra-inventive designer with a past record of unforgettable shows?
One of the most witty and entertaining presentations was from Jean Paul Gaultier, who has officially stepped down as designer of his brand, passing the flame to a different creative each season. Finding himself in a hiatus, the designer parodied his shows by starting his film on the street outside his headquarters, with a glamorous figure wearing a chiffon dress from his archives – part of a new generation of Gaultier muses who are bringing the best of Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture back to life.
Showing well-known members of his staff, Gaultier added madcap effects, from pedalling a decorated bicycle to dancing on the rooftop. All fun and true to the designer’s form.
For all the digital efforts, it was often the most simple approach that did the trick, as in the film of Schiaparelli designer Daniel Roseberry, obliged by the virus to stay in New York, who was shown sketching the collection that has yet to be developed in cloth.
Meanwhile, Viktor & Rolf – who have developed so many imaginative presentations, including clothes unveiled from inside photo frames – chose to present the simplest of collections: an ironic take on shows back in the 1950s.
“We were quite paralysed this season; it was a challenge to get creative and to do something meaningful – three wardrobes, three different mind sets,” the duo explained. “We felt we needed to go back to the archetype of fashion shows in a 1950s salon – very intimate, very small. Each section symbolised a certain anxiety, confusion, and then love and serenity.”
From nightgowns symbolising staying inside to a keep-your-social-distance coat six feet wide, the show touched a contemporary chord, and also served as a way for the designers to up-cycle fabrics to help their work and the economy of their native Amsterdam.
This was a moment for all designers, whether on the official couture list or aspiring to be, to take part in the digital realities of fashion life in the 2020s. Yet, if there was one word that crystallised this season’s creative couture spirit, it was not ‘tech’ but ‘nature’.
Italian director Matteo Garrone instructs the cast of models for his film for Dior, set in the magical Gardens of Ninfa
I watched bellboys tramp through the woods carrying a trunk of doll-sized clothes for Dior. The Indian couturier Rahul Mishra made his entire collection an ode to nature, with delicate three-dimensional butterflies and flowers.
“’Just living is not enough,’ said the butterfly, ‘one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower’,” the designer quoted, taking his words from Hans Christian Anderson. The essence of his attitude was to utilise artisanal skills under the shadow of the pandemic, yet at a moment when the Delhi lockdown had produced a clear blue sky. The result was a homage to the designer’s workers, as much as the delicate beauty of nature.
Elie Saab had a drone’s eye view of nature, including migrating birds from scenic landscape to open sky – with just a tweak of fabric and stitching to compete with a scenery filled with birdsong in flight. The show itself will be presented in the Autumn/Winter 2020-21 season.
The sheer logistics of creating a collection in lockdown was not easily overcome. When even Chanel had to reduce its usual more-than 60-piece collection down to 15, it reveals how long it takes in normal times to create the complex details that are simple only at first sight.
Giambattista Valli was one of the designers who seemed to find it relatively simple to create single dramatic outfits, following a system he has used for a few seasons. The result was glamorous and glorious, with meticulous work on frothy fabrics presented oh-so-lightly.
“My starting point was what Paris is for me,” Giambattista explained, “when I was a kid, dreaming to become a couturier and come to Paris. When I was sketching this,“ he said, holding up a picture of a scarlet dress with swelling fabrics high at the hip, “I was thinking that stars are light in the dark – not in the light.”
Nothing you hear from Iris van Herpen, however thoughtful and intelligent her themes, can compare to seeing her work in motion: This season, the airy, ultra-light layers of translucent organza bounced on a dress worn by Carice van Houten. The Game of Thrones star said, “Iris’s work likes to lift you up and completes something in you – like a second skin and another dimension.” In a special kind of creativity, Iris created a vision of growth and regeneration that was the heartland of this dress, apparently grown from a single seed.
“I believe fashion has a big influencer on who we are today, and really reflects where we are heading, inspiring us to recreate ourselves and to re-see our identities and even how we perceive ourselves,” Iris said of this ‘Transmotion’ creation.
Olivier Theyskens, debuting his first couture collection for Azzaro, said that he wanted to “convey the sophistication of the clothes with a muse that is free in her gesture and attitude”. That translated as young French actresses on the Cannes film circuit invited to model the dense, but youthful, designs.
Some of the biggest names were absent. Yves Saint Laurent, perceived in France as the King of Couture during his lifetime, was not to be found in any aspect on the couture schedule. Valentino, whose emotional story lines and limpid or vivid fabrics have been wowing recent Paris seasons, has now returned to the motherland of original designer, Valentino Garavani. The couture show will be held in Italy at the end of the month.
At Maison Margiela, there was a tantalising symbol from John Galliano – not much more than a passing flash of colour and a promise of more to be revealed over the next month. Compared to his recent brilliant technique in using colour and light, there was not enough to understand the message.
But there is hope for couture, with Givenchy expected to return in January under its new Creative Director, Matthew M. Williams, for the Spring/Summer 2021 Haute Couture season, and Balenciaga expected to return to the couture fold after a long hiatus.