Guest blogger: Paris’ Haute Couture Dazzles Despite Downturn

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Style guru Susan Tabak has been a regular in the front row of the Paris fashion shows for the past seven years. Tabak, author of the book CHIC IN PARIS: Style Secrets and Best Addresses and a popular style blog, gives her take to Reuters on last week’s shows, edited by Rebecca Prusinowski:

In the words of John Galliano, “Haute Couture is unique, elitist, escapist and the most creative form of expression that fashion indulges. It cannot fail to inspire.” And it did not last week.  The visual and technical splendor of Haute Couture remains as strong as ever.

Galliano himself showed one of the week’s most memorable collections for Dior, held in the upstairs salons of the label’s Avenue Montaigne headquarters. The silhouettes reached back to the house’s couture collections of the 1940s and 50s and were emboldened with vibrant colors, exquisite crystals and embroidery. The collection played on the notion of undress: Corsets, garters, slips, stockings and black lace lingerie were flaunted beneath transparent tulle or on top of jackets and dresses. The collection fused the exuberant creativity of Mr. Galliano with the soul of Dior, and it was captivating.

Giorgio Armani Privé brought the wow factor, too. The show opened with several pantsuits that exuded confidence, cool and chic.  Their timeless silhouettes were juxtaposed with contemporary details like large decorated zippers. The eveningwear was dazzling but never strayed from Armani’s essentially elegant appeal. The designer was at the top of his game – this is the best couture collection I’ve ever seen from him.

Christian Lacroix’s show left a lasting impression, but not for its glitz and glamour. The house is at risk of closing amid financial ruin.  With people clamoring to see what could be the couturier’s last presentation – and with an invite list that was slashed by more than half – there was pandemonium outside the show. The looks were a far cry from the wildly spectacular and fantastical presentations that have become Lacroix’s signature, but they were no less masterful. Made with stock material and leftover fabric bolts, the collection not only showcased Lacroix’s ingenuity but also his ability to create wearable pieces.

The mood was more upbeat at Givenchy and Chanel. Riccardo Tisci generated buzz with another edgy Givenchy collection.  Inspired by Morocco and perhaps the Middle East, it featured hoods, veils and heavy fabrics draped and adorned with fierce hardware details like spikes and studs. Karl Lagerfeld’s collection for Chanel looked demure by comparison. I sensed there would be a classic element to the designs when I saw the four gigantic Chanel No. 5 perfume bottles that had been set center stage. Indeed, Lagerfeld stayed true to the label’s core. The iconic Chanel suit was varied with fabric panels added to the back of skirts, coats and dresses, and the eveningwear was refined and elegant with unique hemlines and more flaps.

The theater of presentation and front row star power may be more subdued than Chanel’s, but the work of Stéphane Rolland and Elie Saab is no less compelling. Rolland geared his show toward the couture client and not the frippery of high fashion. It was quietly glamourous, with creative architecture and intriguing fabric cut-outs that balanced a palette of grays, whites and blacks.  Elie Saab created 46 distinctive shapes and styles using only white for his collection. The absence of color moved attention to the intricate detailing instead. Silk, chiffon, organza and lace were finished with fringed crystals, beading, drifts of fur, sequins, thousands of individual ostrich feathers and so forth. It’s the sort of craftsmanship that speaks of Haute Couture.

A sign of the times, there were fewer after parties and flashy fashion events than in years past. But the spirit of Haute Couture has not been diminished. Fashion’s most celebrated designers continued to produce work that will influence, and, yes, inspire, the creative industry at large.